Throughout American history, there have been various body standards that women are expected to conform to. Whether it be wide hips, or a slender waist, there has always been a “perfect body” that is portrayed in the media. Since the 1920s, the media has defined beauty as tall and slender, and since then, women have taken extreme measures in order to obtain these accepted features (“New Woman: Who was the ‘New Woman?”). The current issues regarding body image stem from the access that citizens now have to media, which has taken extreme tolls on the mental and physical health of many women. While many organizations have been created to combat the issues pertaining to body image, little action has been taken against the source of this problem: the negative messages that are displayed in the media.
This topic is extremely relevant to my own life, seeing that I am growing up in a time where media plays a huge role in my daily activities. It is hard not to get caught up in thinking about the flaws that riddle my body when pictures of models and actors with seemingly perfect features are displayed for the world to see. I have to be extremely cautious that I don’t get caught thinking about these insignificant things when there are much more important, meaningful, and relevant things to involve myself with.
While issues regarding body image have always been present in society, with the introduction of flappers in the 1920s, body standards in the United States underwent a dramatic change. The voluptuous body type of the Gibson Girl was replaced by the slender figure of the Flappers (“New Woman: Who was the ‘New Woman?”). As the “ideal had become one without curves … fashionable women [strove] to eliminate them from their figures by compressing the busts and hips, in order to achieve the ‘more streamlined’ look” (“New Woman…). This sudden change from one extreme to another was detrimental to the physical and mental health of women in the United States, which manifested itself in an increase in eating disorders (Fowler).
Society’s view on body image continued to become even more extreme in the 1960s, when the standard for models became even skinnier. Models such as Lesley Hornby (Twiggy) and Jean Shrimpton (Shrimp) became increasingly popular and set the beauty standard. People with perfectly healthy bodies started to undergo unnatural processes in order to look like these women that were being advertised constantly, trying to obtain what was being portrayed in the media (Hochman).
The obsession to be skinny didn’t stop in this era, in fact, models in the fashion industry have remained thin since the 1960s (Fowler). Chris Aisas, a spokesman from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Assorted Disorders stated that “an estimated seven million women and one million men nationally [were suffering] from eating disorders” (Hochman). The increase of eating disorders in the United States was mirroring another aspect in American lives that had been developing over the past few decades: the prevalence of media (“Easier access to media by children increases risk for influence on numerous health issues”).
A major change that citizens in the United States experienced over the course of the 1900s was their access to media. As it became easier to access a wider variety of content, it also became easier to view pictures of models with unobtainable body types. A study in Fiji of teenage girls “found that the prevalence of eating disorders increased dramatically after the introduction of American TV programs” (“Easier access to media by children increases risk for influence on numerous health issues”). Another study conducted in 1987 asked people with and without eating disorders: “Do you believe that the [advertisements] you see and hear create strong images of the desirability of being thin, thereby inducing you to keep weight down?” The study found that “ninety one percent of those with eating disorders answered ‘yes’ to this question” and “fifty four percent percent of those without eating disorders responded in the affirmative” (Peterson). Both of these studies are reminders of the impact that certain messages can have over people, and how the media is one of the top contributors to adolescents’ view of self-image (Peterson).
While body image issues had impacted the lives of Americans for many years beforehand, more attention started being devoted to this important issue in the later years of the 20th century. An increase in the amount of articles being written about eating disorders led to more action being taken on the medical level, however, advertisements continued to portray unhealthy standards, and being skinny remained the ideal (Hochman). What is seen in advertisements and the prevalence of eating disorders are directly correlated, and with more attention to the relationship between the two, steps can be taken towards a healthier mindset toward body image in the United States (Peterson).
Since the 1920s, the media has been full of women that display a tall and slender body type, and this trend has continued into the 21st century. The mindset that in order to be beautiful, one must be skinny is dangerous, and even more so when images of women displaying unhealthy body types are idolized in the media (Lin and Yeh). A poll recently conducted by People Weekly surveyed “1000 women over the telephone to find that 90 percent of the respondents were not completely satisfied with their bodies, and 80 percent felt ‘images of women on TV and in movies, fashion magazines, and advertising make them feel insecure about their looks’” (Albertson).
The current issues regarding body image stem from the access that citizens now have to media, allowing them to easily view these unrealistic standards. Michigan State University issued a news release focused on eating disorders and media, discussing how “In the [United States], thinness is portrayed as a symbol of health and beauty in advertisements, entertainment, and social media” which results in “many people [feeling] pressure to lose weight and be thin, … some [engaging] in unhealthy eating habits to do so” (Expert clears misconceptions of eating disorders). Tessa Jowell, the minister for women, expressed a similar mindset, saying that “young women are tired of feeling second rate because they cannot match the thin ideal that they see so often in the media.” Jowell thinks that “for many, poor body image can lead to low levels of self esteem [and] for some it is far more dangerous, leading to eating disorders and other forms of self abuse” (Morant). These two testimonials are few of many that condemn the tactics that the media uses in order to sell various items or attract a certain audience, which often lead viewers to develop eating disorders (Morant).
The prevalence of eating disorders in the United States has sparked an increase of programs and people devoted to putting an end to this issue. The National Eating Disorders Association is one of the most prominent organizations that has been developed to combat eating disorders. It helps to bring awareness to the seriousness of eating disorders, and helps people who struggle with eating disorders to find their ways back to healthier lifestyles. Another organization is The Emily Program, which provides housing and care for males and females of all ages who are battling against anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or compulsive overeating (“Fighting My Eating Disorder”).
While the organizations that have been developed in response to eating disorders have had many positive impacts, the source of this issue, media, has yet to be addressed in such a powerful way. Advertisements continue to feature women with unrealistic body standards and the people who create these ads fail to see how much damage they are causing. With the influence that media has over citizens in the United States, it is important that the people with power in the media field realize the impact that something seemingly small could have over countless people (WHAT A NEW STUDY…).
While it may seem like the only way to make a difference regarding the issue of eating disorders and body image is on a larger level, there are many things that individuals can do to help make a change. Seeing that there are countless organizations that promote unhealthy body types, individuals can decide to stop supporting those companies and start supporting those that are inclusive of all body types and encourage healthy mindsets towards body image. One can also bring awareness of this issue to their school or work and encourage the start of a discussion regarding body image in the United States.
These solutions are realistic and effective because they don’t require someone to do anything that is extremely drastic or anything that will alter the way they live their lives. The changes that I recommended are quite small, but with the support of many, could have an immense impact on the issue of body image in the United States.
There are also many steps that can be taken on the national level to address the issue of body image. Due to the amount of eating disorders in the modeling industry, legislation regulating the allowed body mass index of models could be implemented in order to prevent modeling agencies from promoting unhealthy body types. Also, television stations could prevent advertisements that feature models who are extremely underweight from being aired.
The solutions on the national level are also quite realistic. While the changes they would bring to the way that media and modeling are conducted would be dramatic, they would help the United States population incredibly. The sole purpose of these recommendations are to ensure both the mental and physical health of countless people, and there is no argument that can minimize the importance of these two things. The main goal of the solutions I created are not to tear down entire industries, but to create reasonable guidelines and a standard that these different media outlets need abide to. Seeing as media from the United States has an immense impact on other countries, these solutions would not only encourage a healthier mindset in the United States, but in the entire world.
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