Thesis: Media Images Are Not Harmful to Body and Self-Esteem of Young Adults

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Media Images Are Not Harmful to body and self-Esteem of young adults.

You are (not) what you eat:

Media consumption and its uncertain effects upon teen body image

Why don't you have an eating disorder? Why don't you have a negative body image? These may sound like strange, counter-intuitive questions. Shouldn't you ask: why do you have an eating disorder, given this is a presumably abnormal mental state? or, why do you have a negative body image, presuming that having a positive body image is 'normal'? However, if you were to accept the conventional wisdom about the causal effect between exposure to negative images in the media and body image, then by definition you should have an eating disorder or at very least a negative body image, unless you are one of those few, unlikely people whose body type conforms to the media ideal.

Of course, many men and women struggle with the devastating conditions of anorexia, bulimia, and poor body image. But to accept the idea that the media 'causes' negative body images in an easy, discernable, and traceable fashion is to ignore the complex social, psychological, and personal factors that give rise to negative body images. It is important to recognize that the media does not 'cause' a negative body image, even if it may disseminate unrealistic ideals in some venues and forums. Personal psychology, biology, and home environment play a profound influence in terms of an individual's likelihood to develop a poor body image. As one professor of psychology commented: "If it was simply impressionable young girls and women wanting to look like a supermodel, then we would have hundreds of thousands of anorexics...The number of young women and men who develop anorexia is relatively small, mercifully - and what we are really looking at is a condition that is already predisposed in some" (Girls get anorexia 'because their brains are wired differently,' 2007, the Daily Mail.). The media may indeed glorify anorexia or an anorexic body type, but this glorification is not analogous with causation.

Experimental, laboratory research has been mixed upon the topic of whether eating disorders and negative body images are primarily caused by exposure to negative media influence. One of the difficulties in conducting such research is what is defined as a subclinical eating disorder, or even more diffusely, negative body image, varies from study to study. The structure of research questionnaires used to assess self-esteem, body image, and disordered eating and self-perception and determinates of what constitutes 'media influence' itself vary from study to study, making it difficult to compare researcher's divergent findings. Some studies suggest the media has a considerable influence on developing adolescent's self-esteem, others do not, but the sizes of these studies, their controls, validity, and reliability because of their different structures make it impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about the degree to which the media influence adolescent body image and psychology in general. One recent study exposed different groups of women to images of thin, overweight, average weight, and neutral images and found that the "there was little difference between the experimental and the control groups in the other two comparison stimuli categories (particularly when analyzed by hypothesis), it appears that viewing thin images has an effect that is similar to viewing images of homes and gardens -- none" (Holmstrom, 2004, p.5).

Of course, it has become nearly dogma that media exposure relates to poor body image, and a frequently cited statistic is that "age thirteen, 53% of American girls are unhappy with their bodies. This grows to 78% by the time girls reach seventeen," and that "teens who watched soaps and TV shows that emphasized the ideal body typed reported higher sense of body dissatisfaction. This was also true for girls who watched music videos' (Media's effect on girls: Body image and gender identity," 2008, National Institute on Media and the Family). But asserting this claim may not mean that viewing soap operas and consuming unrealistic media images causes such dissatisfaction, rather more insecure individuals may seek out more negative, ultra-thin images, and the sources of their unhappiness with their physical body may be found in originating causes other than media exposure. In fact, a recent study that attempted to study the effects of length of exposure upon body image came to the surprising finding that women who consumed more media over the course of a week, despite the high prevalence of images of unrealistic ideals that these women could not 'live up to' in the media they consumed, actually had higher self-esteem. The conclusion, the study cautioned, should not be that the media improves an individual's body image but rather that an easy causal relationship cannot be established between media consumption and low self-esteem and poor body image. Overall, this provocative study found that: "the effect size estimate for the relationship between media use and body image is very small. However, the correlation between length of exposure and body image for women who report watching more media suggests that for this subset of women, there may be a more sizable, positive effect. This correlation is counter to the popular belief about the effect of media on body image" (Holmstrom, 2004, p.5).

While one week is admittedly not a long period of time, it does suggest that the 'cultivation' hypothesis does not always hold hard and fast, namely that because one is exposed to negative images, this automatically cultivates low self-esteem and fosters a low body image and sense of self. The dialogue between individual and 'the media' as an entity is just that, a dialogue, and an individual's biological, social and psychological history are engaged as he or she consumes the media. No individual is simply a passive recipient of culture. Women who exhibit full-blown anorexia, a psychological condition with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness presumed in some quarters to be caused by the unrealistically thin body type prevalent in society today exhibit profoundly different brain activity to non-anorexic individuals, much like other individuals with an inherited susceptibility to other mental disorders show distinct brain activity patterns that deviate from the norm. Psychiatrists at the University of Pittsburgh studied the brain activity of a group of former anorexics with that of a group of normal volunteers, and "found that the two groups' brains performed differently during a series of tests of emotional responses. Compared to the healthy volunteers, former anorexics gained no pleasure from winning rewards" (Girls get anorexia 'because their brains are wired differently,' 2007, the Daily Mail.). This could explain why starvation is 'easier' for anorexics than for other individuals, or suggest that starvation is a way to cope with the inability to experience pleasure and subsequent depression and anxiety. At very least the study's findings suggest that anorexics, a small proportion of the population, may be more susceptible to media images of thinness because of underlying depression and anxiety, but that the media exposure is not the root cause of their ailment.

Even beyond eating disorders, the media's influence upon teens may be less of a factor than the message teens receive at home, positive or negative, about their self-esteem. For example, teens are presumed to use sexuality to cope with the physical and social insecurities of adolescence, and to be profoundly influenced by highly sexualized images disseminated in the media, yet one study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found "parents continue to underestimate the influence they have over their children's decisions about sex...the majority of teens say parents most influence their sexual decisions, parents believe that teens' friends are most influential" (Witmer 2008). The survey also revealed that most teens (88%) "said that it would be easier for them to postpone sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy if they were able to have more… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Media Images Are Not Harmful to Body and Self-Esteem of Young Adults.  (2008, October 26).  Retrieved July 19, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/media-images-harmful-body-self-esteem/377947

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"Media Images Are Not Harmful to Body and Self-Esteem of Young Adults."  26 October 2008.  Web.  19 July 2019. <https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/media-images-harmful-body-self-esteem/377947>.

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"Media Images Are Not Harmful to Body and Self-Esteem of Young Adults."  Essaytown.com.  October 26, 2008.  Accessed July 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/media-images-harmful-body-self-esteem/377947.