Because of how the media portrays women, our daughters need all the help they can get to feel good about themselves. Fortunately, recent research shows media literacy can protect girls from developing body dissatisfaction.
Girls are under insane amounts of pressure to look a certain way. Much of that pressure comes from the way the media portrays women. Women in the media (TV, movies, video games, etc.) are thinner than the average woman. For example, the average video game female is 5 feet 4 inches tall, has a 29-inch bust, a 22-inch waist, and 31-inch hips. These highly unrealistic portrayals are so culturally-pervasive that young women (and adult women for that matter) are motivated to try to obtain these proportions, despite how unrealistic and unattainable they may be.
One recent study, however, showed that increased levels of media literacy can protect against the media’s influence on girls’ body satisfaction. In the study, 246 early adolescent girls (average age was 13 years old) saw one of several magazine ads depicting thin-ideal images of young women. Participants were asked questions about the body shapes in the ads, their own body shapes, and about comparisons between the two. In addition, girls answered questions about how often they think critically about the media (such as how often they think about the things advertisers to do get their attention). Results showed that girls did not report greater body dissatisfaction when they thought critically about the media, even if being thin was important to them, and if they were already in the habit of comparing themselves to others who they consider to be more attractive.
In other words, being media literate can help protect girls from feeling bad about their bodies, even if they place high value on their physical appearance. Now, when we make this claim, we need to make a distinction. Media literacy was measured as critical thinking about media in general, not necessarily about the media’s portrayal of women. That means that teaching girls to question the motives of advertisers, whatever the product, can help develop these critical thinking skills. This also means that if parents want to have a role in helping their daughters in this way, they also need to be media literate, for how can we teach our daughters to think critically about the media if we can’t do that ourselves.
The benefits of teaching our kids to think critically about the media keep adding up. The more media literate our children are, the better they’ll be able to enjoy good and avoid bad effects caused by media messages. I’m increasingly convinced that a media literate child has a better chance of being well-adjusted and happier because they are freer to decide for themselves who they are, and who they want to become.