We know media plays a large role in shaping society, but how often do we think of media as influencing our every day language, stereotypes we subscribe to, or our self-image and self-talk? As daily viewers of highly objectifying media are we aware of how much our attitude and our influence on others reflects the media we view? Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s film Miss Representation emphasized for me the role of media in the war on women’s image, a war in which I think we are often only subconscious participants.
The film’s graphic images of women in video games and advertisements, the stories of unreasonable criticism of a woman’s appearance when seeking a high profile position, the heart-wrenching statistics of increases in eating disorders and decreases in pursuit of education described in full view a battlefield I have known and lived in. My friends, acquaintances, or others close to me at work or school all had their places within this media-fueled conflict. Their eating disorders, their fad addictions, their habits of criticizing or comparing their body image to others around them, to photos in magazines, or to images on a screen or billboard all make up part of the trauma.
Then there’s me. I’m in the battle too. I realized that media has influenced my own insecurities, past and present, from preoccupations with my size or appearance, to harsh criticisms of others, whether spoken or thought. The question is, if media is creating this everyday warzone, which side are we contributing to and what are messages we could send to contend with the overwhelming force of mainstream media?
First off, where do we stand in the conflict? Do our words or comments about ourselves or others perpetuate false notions of a woman’s ideal body image? As I watched the film I considered how my own self-esteem has developed and struggled. I remembered words or comments of people around me that stuck with me and caused me to criticize or condemn my own appearance. People’s criticisms or comments whether about others or themselves have heightened my concern about my own body and appearance, and I bet I’m not alone in that experience.
In the battle of the ideal female image, we need reminders of what defines a woman apart from her physical characteristics. What if there was a force that resisted messages of the media with equal and opposite force? What would that look like? The answer is: the opposite of what most media shows us about women today. If women had a view of something that would lift them up, build their self esteem, and encourage their potential, it would show them that they have lovely and powerful bodies that come in many different sizes, and that a body is capable and priceless irrespective of its size or the amount of weight it is carrying. Women would see that the external aspects of their body, the weight, the shape, the muscular content, the shade of the skin, tan or not, the decoration or designs stenciled or tattooed on it, the style or price of the clothing covering it, the piercings, the size of individual features, the blemishes or shadows, wrinkles and lines all are secondary aspects of what is truly a wonderful gift and creation: a woman’s body. To combat the image of women in media we need influences just as powerful and ubiquitous that tell women that their body is an incredible gift, with complex and powerful functions, that we are blessed with its senses, its experiences, the achievements of the mind, the will and strength of emotion, and all these celebratory, incredible potentials, completely independent of the physical exterior.
We cannot forget or subconsciously marginalize by our thoughts or comments, the incredible power and potential within women. The view we have of women in the media diminishes a woman to her external value, ignoring all other powerful and glorious aspects. Data from the womanstats database shows that this is a problem not only in the US, but in other developed countries. “A social debate has arisen in the Netherlands about the portrayal of girls and women as sex objects, and about unrealistic beauty ideals and the increasing commercialisation and sexualisation of the female body in the media.” In Norway there are also concerns about “the omnipresence of media-driven hyper-sexualised and commodified representations of girls and women.” In response, we must deconstruct and replace media’s degrading messages about a woman’s appearance. Media will have less power if we encourage dialogue about the underlying messages we see and question the hidden agendas. Understanding what we are consuming and how it affects us can help us keep from perpetuating the unreasonable, damaging criticism of women’s appearance in our society. We must resist the negative influence of the media.
Working with womanstats I thought I would learn a lot about the situation of women in the world and get an idea of how I can help. I didn’t expect to learn about my personal struggle as a woman and become better prepared to question norms and advocate for change in my own society. I’ve also learned that there are similarities in the struggles all women face. Women in far-away countries of the world suffer terrible experiences and injustices, from female genital mutilation, to honor killings and inhumane marriage, rape and divorce practices and the stifling of education. The location and the manner of such suffering is foreign to most people in the U. S. and other developed countries, but in the battle for equal treatment and appreciation of women the roots of the conflict are the same. It is a war on perpetuated stereotypes, norms, harmful attitudes, and lethal cultural standards and it is a war we participate in directly from day to day.