Is your daughter's perception of beauty distorted by the media?

  • Age: 10-16 yrs
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Is your daughter's perception of beauty distorted by the media?

Images of women in the media are manipulated so dramatically these days that it can feel like 'beauty' is less and less attainable. Help your daughter resist media influence and see the real picture with our helpful action checklist.

Are you worried that your daughter's expectations for her own appearance are unrealistic? It's hardly surprising. Research published by Psychology Today, Ads Everywhere: The Race to Grab Your Brain, estimates that today's teens are bombarded by 5,000 advertising messages a day. These can come not only via television and magazines but also via websites, blogs, social media, music videos and movies, even via their mobile phones. The way women and girls are portrayed in these messages, both literally (through words) and visually (in pictures), has a big impact on the way they view themselves and who they aspire to be.

The connection between images of women in the media and low self-esteem in girls

Constant reinforcement of the so-called 'perfect' woman in the media directly impacts girls' body confidence. Body Image research found that looking at magazines for just 60 minutes lowers the self-esteem of more than 80% of girls.

In addition, research published by Girlguiding, 2012 Girls' Attitudes Explored... Role Models found 66% of girls thought media portrayals of women are a reason why girls go on diets and almost half of young women in a poll by UK think tank Credos, Pretty as a Picture, agreed with the statement 'seeing adverts using thin models makes me feel more conscious of the way I look and makes me want to diet/lose weight'.

How image manipulation shifts our perception of beauty

It is probably not a surprise that the majority of photographic images of women we see in media are the result of not only clever make-up and lighting at the photo shoots, but also careful digital computer manipulation, known as 'airbrushing', before being published. The photos we see are so processed that even the women in the images don't look like that in real life. When you team the airbrushed images with headlines critical of 'real' women who don’t match this unrealistic, enhanced image, it's not difficult to see why girls are aspiring to achieve the fantasy airbrushed look.

Claire, mum of 14-year-old Aoife, says, "My daughter is constantly reading teen mags and the girls they use always look so flawless. How am I supposed to reassure her about her own looks when she has that to compare herself to?"

Left to make up our own mind, we want to look like ourselves

In its Pretty as a Picture research, UK think tank Credos recently asked young women to compare four different images of the same model, digitally modified to change her shape. The majority (76%) actually preferred either the natural or lightly retouched images over the heavily airbrushed ones.

By realising that media images are frequently manipulated, and rarely representative of reality, your daughter can start to 'see through' the media and protect her body confidence when reading, watching and playing with media. She can begin to realise that it’s not worth comparing the way she looks to the unrealistic, fake images she often sees in the media.

Use our action checklist to structure some fun activities with your daughter and start a conversation about her perception of her own beauty.

To protect privacy we’ve changed the names of the people whose stories we tell on these pages. But the stories they tell are absolutely genuine.

Action checklist:
Help your daughter see beyond manipulated images of beauty

Look at media with a critical eye: give your daughter the opportunity to scratch beneath the surface of the media she consumes. Model the critical eye that you want your girl to have and get her to actively come up with reasons why it isn’t worth the time or energy to compare herself.

A healthy of dose of good humour can put you back in control: look at her favourite TV programmes and magazines together and talk about any images that seem particularly unrealistic or that narrowly define beauty as one type or standard of appearance. You might even have a giggle about the ones that look really fake and have messages that are overly critical of the way a woman looks.

Remember that airbrushing isn’t just about covering spots: it’s good to remind yourself, as well as her, that it isn’t just spots and blemishes that are airbrushed. Legs are lengthened, breasts are inflated, heads are swapped on to different bodies and cheekbones enhanced – often so much is changed that you wouldn’t recognise the original model in real life.

Understand the process of image manipulation: find out how much your daughter understands about digital manipulation by asking her who else might have been involved in creating these ‘looks’, from stylists and make-up artists to photographers. Has she seen Evolution ?

Use positive examples when you find them: find positive media sources to share with your daughter that focus on the strength and abilities of women, not just their appearance. Can you suggest any?

Try the Credos body image experiment: show her the four images of the same model from the Credos Pretty as a Picture report (scroll to page 12 and 13) and ask her what she likes and dislikes about each – what words would she use to describe each image?

What next: action steps to help:

  • Share this activity with your daughter – it will help her explore different ideas about beauty and how she feels about herself and the way she looks in a fun and interactive way.
  • Keep talking to your daughter about this topic. You can’t wrap your daughter in cotton wool and stop her enjoying TV, magazines and blogs. But you can make a decision to revisit this topic from time to time and remind her about the things you’ve talked about.
  • Encourage your daughter to raise the topic with her friends or as the subject of a project at school.
  • Is your daughter confident enough to write to the editor of her favourite magazine or website to ask them about how they manipulate images of women in their pages?
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