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The Media's Effect



1) Body Image and the Media


International and domestic research on the media’s impact on body image reveals a strong correlation between what messages are sent and what messages are received by individuals/society. As exemplified by the American ‘Miss Representation’ documentary/campaign, western media plays a prominent role in shaping popular culture by perpetuating and communicating specific ideas and beliefs such as what constitutes the ‘perfect body’. [1] This is confirmed by various youth surveys with many young people reporting that they feel the pressure to have the ‘ideal body size’ or ‘beauty’ as a result of certain images being displayed on various mediums such as billboards advertisements and fashion magazines. [1]


Yet, as the Western Australian Government body image teaching campaign reminds, many of these media presented visuals of body ‘perfection’ are often misleading due to many images being digitally airbrushed (ie: photoshopped), in order to hide/remove perceived body ‘flaws’.[2] It also argues that as people come in all different shapes and sizes, media promotions of an ‘ideal figure’ type is unrealistic, unfair and potentially harmful. Nonetheless, as current advertising trends and patterns show, mass media continues with this distorted and false representation of the body leading to many in the population, especially young girls, to develop a poor body image, low self-esteem and even serious mental health issues, such as depression or eating disorders. [2]


2) Youth and the Media


The following information on the influence of media relayed messages to young people is provided by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, the Urban Child Institute and ‘Miss Representation’ respectively: [1], [3], [4]


  • Established media patterns during the early years of a child’s development, has long-term implications for cognitive development.

  • Infant exposure to television has been linked to delayed language development, attention disorders, and negative effects on social engagement and development.

  • Television remains the most influential media form both in Australia and America.

  • Youth/students/teenagers interpret the messages they hear and see from all mediums: television, films, magazines, advertisement, videos games, music as well as new digital forms such as Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram

  • American teens absorb on average more than 10 hours of media a day.

  • The messages they receive from them teaches them how to view themselves and others, particularly, what it means to be a woman or man. For example, sports commercials send the message that men should be powerful and often violent, while music videos send the message that women should be beautiful and sexy.

  • Overwhelming message received by females is that their value and power lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality, while the value of males lies in their intellect and position of power.

  • Such messages limit children’s ideas of what is possible in the world ie: particularly the idea that women hold positions of power such as being world leaders etc.

  • What children/teenagers learn from mainstream media can have damaging effects on their self worth and the way they treat each other. For instance, about 25% of girls will experience teen dating violence, while about 65% of American women and girls have an eating disorder.

  • The United States is ranked 90th in the world in terms of the number of women in national government.


3) Sexualization/Sexploitation of the Female Gender by the Media


Research also reveals that as long as all mass media outlets continue to sexually objectify girls/women and promote gender roles, that it will assist with ongoing sexism, racism, gender inequality and violence against them because: [1], [2], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11]


  • Doing gender determines how one thinks, talks, dresses and acts in everyday life.

  • Media representation of girls/women has a direct bearing on how they are viewed and treated in society.

  • Sexualization of children increases their risk of harm from sexual predators.

  • The media predominately promotes images of women as young, white, heterosexual and skinny.

  • All media including television, music videos, music lyrics, movies, magazines, sports media, video games, billboard advertising and internet, contain evidence of the sexualization of girls.

  • Those responsible include corporations, filmmakers, advertisers, marketers, as well, as media that exploit the bodies of women and girls to sell products and services because in contemporary western society there is an obsession with the female body.

  • The mass media, as an agent of culture has reinforced an ideal image that girls are to strive for and attain ie: placing more emphasis on good looks rather than on good work.

  • Fashion and film are two main influences on societal expectations that women display their bodies sexually, forcing them into a life committed to diet and beauty.

  • Reality TV portrays women as catty, manipulative, vindictive and on display for male judgement and objectification ie: used as a decorative object and depicted as body parts rather than a human being.

  • The hypersexualization and objectification of female characters leads to unrealistic body ideals in very young children often reinforcing negative body images and perceptions during their growing years.

  • Ongoing sexist portrayals of women in pop culture, with sexist language against women being used and normalised ie: bitches, whores etc.

  • Increasing male ridicule of females with boys and men posting disparaging pictures of girls/women.

  • Women more than men are often portrayed in a sexual manner ie: dressed in revealing clothes and with bodily postures or facial impression that imply sexual readiness.

  • Sex in media is used because “sex sells”.

  • Through media/advertising boys get the message that they should be violent, in control, unemotional and that women should be treated like objects and second-class citizens.

  • Social messages that contribute to the sexualization of girls also come from merchandise such as clothes and dolls ie: G-Strings for you girls and Barbie/Bratz dolls dressed in sexualised clothing such as miniskirts and fishnet stockings.

  • There is sexualization through girl’s interpersonal relationships with their parents ie: the parents buying them products/clothes that designed to make them look physically appealing/sexy or allowing them to undergo plastic surgery such as breast enlargement to help the girl achieve a particular image of beauty.

  • Peer influence ie: girls policing each other to ensure conformity related to standards of thinness and sexiness, and boys by sexually harassing the girls.

  • Self-sexualization where the girls themselves learn to treat their bodies as objects to be looked at and desired.

  • Around 20% of news articles about women are stories about violence against them and their victimhood status.


4) Australian Statistics on the Harmful Effects of Sexualising Girls


The Australian Salvation Army has compiled the following: [9, pg5]


  • 1 in 4 teenage girls want to have plastic surgery.

  • Only 16% of girls are happy with their body and weight.

  • 90% of girls say they have been on a diet.

  • 70-80% of school age girls choose ‘ideal figures’ they want to have, and which is consistently thinner than their own.

  • Self-harm is the highest cause of hospital admissions for the 13-19 age bracket. 

  • 1 in 100 adolescent girls are anorexic.

  • 1 in 5 are bulimic.

  • Body dissatisfaction has been related to declining self-esteem among girls, depression, negative mood and mood disturbances.


5) Young Girls and Their Bodies


An American rehabilitation website, with the title ‘Dying to be Barbie’, provides the following statistics to highlight the dysfunctional relationship between a girl’s body and food: [12]


  • 4 out of 5 girls, aged 10, say they are afraid of being fat

  • 42% of girls aged 6-10, wished they were thinner

  • Half of girls aged 9 or 10 say they feel better about themselves when they are dieting

  • By the time they reach high school, 1 in 10 students will have an eating disorder

  • Of all people with eating disorders, 90% are women between the ages of 12 and 25

  • The acronym I.D.E.A. used by online suffers of eating disorders, stands for “I Don’t Eat Anymore”


As the facility further found, female patients often use fashion and beauty magazines to compare their own bodies to the models in the publications, and that many times they would point out to staff the specific body parts they most admire and would like to have. [12]


6) Effect of Media on Mental Health


i) Eating Disorders


Eating disorders are defined as “any of several psychological disorders characterised by serious disturbances of eating behaviours that are harmful to a person’s health.” [1, pg16]


According to available literature, the two main types of eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa (refusal to eat fearing weight gain) and ‘Bulimia Nervosa’ (over eating and then immediately regurgitating). It is claimed that these disorders occur because sufferers have a distorted and negative view of their bodies, and not as some people may believe because of a desire to be beautiful.[2] While both genders and any age group can suffer from these disorders, statistics continue to show that it is mostly girls who are negatively affected. For example, in the 2012 Mission Australia youth survey, 20.4% of girls reported being extremely concerned about body image compared to only 7.3% of boys. [13, pg18]


ii) Self-Harm/Abuse


Self-injury is defined as “the act of purposely harming oneself through cutting, burning, or other physical abuse.” [1, pg16]


American studies reveal a dominant cause and effect relationship between self-esteem and abuse, with estimates that 13% to 25% of American youth have some history of self- harm, such as cutting, and that it is more common in girls. [1, pg 46]


iii) Depression


Depression is defined as “a mental health condition characterised by a continued state of low mood and low energy.” [1, pg16]


According to ‘Miss Representation’, rates of depression between boys and girls are the same until puberty, when twice as many females are diagnosed. The explanation being that as girl’s bodies begin to change many become depressed at their new shape and size, reaffirming the strong focus/obsession with having the ‘right’ physical look. [1]


7) Australian Advertising Standards Board (AASB)


Domestically, the Australian Advertising Standards Board is responsible for monitoring media advertising which exploit the female body, but there are limitations to what they can do because: [11, 14]


  • They have adopted a ‘self-regulation’ model.

  • Their code of ethics is voluntary.

  • There is a lack of pre-vetting.

  • There is little consultation with child development experts.

  • They lack true power to remove advertisements.

  • There are no meaningful sanctions/penalties to force advertisers to change behaviour.

  • It is open to abuse and allows for commercial advantage to the detriment of women/girls.

  • Pornographic videos/images of women are available for viewing online 24/7.


8) Gender in Media (Film & Television): The Myths and Facts


International investigation into popular culture and gender representation in film and television, as documented by the Geena Davis institute, lists the following findings: [7]


  • In top-grossing G rated family movies, girl characters are out numbered by boys three to one, and which is the same ratio that has existed since the end of World War II.

  • Male characters have dominated nearly three-quarters of speaking parts in children’s entertainment.

  • 83% of film and TV narrators are male.

  • In some group scenes only 17% of the characters are female.

  • Most female characters in family films serve as “eye-candy.”

  • The media often portrays women/girls in disparaging (derogatory) ways 

  • Female characters continue to show disproportionately more skin than male characters, and feature extremely tiny waists and other exaggerated body characteristics.

  • Only 7% of directors, 13% of writers and 20% of producers are female.

  • This under-representation means less female stories and voices (ie: ongoing gender imbalance).

  • There is also a causal relationship between positive female portrayals and female content creators involved in production ie: when just one woman writer works on a film, there is a 10.4% difference in screen time for female characters.

  • Men outnumber women in key production roles by nearly 5:1.

  • Gender stereotyping continues to be a problem in entertainment and children are the most vulnerable recipients of depictions that send the message that girls are less valuable and capable than boys.

  • Female characters who are fortunate to gain speaking riles tend too be highly stereotyped.

  • From 2006 to 2009 not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in the law, or in politics.

  • 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real-world statistics of women comprising 50% of the workforce.

  • For nearly 60 years, gender inequality on screen has remained mostly unchanged and unchecked


9) Lack of Women in Powerful Positions within Media Companies


‘Miss Representation’ also claims that due to current social gender norms, and the tendency of mass media to continually measure a woman’s worth by her appearance alone, women are socially, economically and politically limited. [1] This is supported by the American Women’s Media Centre who claim that the “media influence is one of the most powerful economic cultural forces today” [15, pg 1], and provide the following evidence, based on 2011 statistics, of the under representation of women in key American media positions:



  • Women comprised only 40.5% of newsroom employees


  • Women represented 40% of the news force and 28.4 % of television news directors

  • Women are the minority in 10 out of 18 positions ie: sports reporters and sports anchors

  • They represent nearly half of the assistant news directors and assignment editors


  • Women comprised 29.2% of the total radio news workforce ie: 18.1% of radio news directors and 18.3% of radio general managers

  • Women comprised 22% of the local radio news force 

  • Women made up only 13% of solo radio talk show hosts and 3 co-hosted shows with men

News Stories

  • Studies show that women are less likely to be the subject of new stories

  • Globally, only 24% of news stories are about women

Women in Film and Television

  • Women comprised 18% of people working behind the scenes positions (ie: determining content of film and television entertainment) on the top 250 grossing films

  • Women worked mostly in the romantic comedy, romantic drama and documentary

  • In 2010-11 women represented 25% of professional positions in television behind the scenes roles 

Female Characters in Film and Television

  • In 2010-11 women comprised for 41% of fictional television characters

  • Female television characters were mostly young, white, and without an identified employment status

  • TV Shows with at least 1 woman writer or creator had a higher percentage of female characters

  • Women in films represented only a third of speaking characters in 2007 (29.9%), in 2008 (32.8%) and in 2009 (32.8%).

  • Women characters in film were hyper-sexualised, more likely than males to wear sexy/revealing clothing, more likely to be depicted partially nude and to be described as attractive.

  • Women in both television and film are not typically portrayed in leadership roles and are less likely than males to achieve their goals


In short, even though half the population is female, in the world of media men overwhelmingly determine news content and perspective. In the world of film and television, women continue to be stereotyped based on gender and physical appearance rather than on their intellect or talent. As argued by the Centre, this ongoing media influence not only results in a gender imbalance in the workplace, but also reveals a societal acceptance of women being excluded from leadership roles and top media positions. [15]


10) Glossary of Terms


The ‘Miss Representation’ teaching curriculum provides the following key terms and meanings: [1, pg16, pg31]


Communication:        The exchange of thoughts, messages or information.

Representation:         The images, texts or symbols used to communicate reality.  

Media:                        Instruments used to communicate information, including television, magazines, books, movies, music and the Internet.

Advertising:               A form of communication used to persuade and audience (viewers, readers or listeners) to take some action with respect to products, ideas or services.

Social Construction:  A school of thought pertaining to the ways social phenomena are created, institutionalised, and made into traditions by humans.

Ideal:                          A standard that is considered perfection.

Gender:                      The roles created by society for women/girls and men/boys and passed down from socialization structures such as family, peers, religion, education, work and the media.

Sex:                             Refers to the inherited biological difference between men and women.      

Stereotype:                 A generalization usually exaggerated or oversimplified and often offensive, that is used to describe or distinguish a group.

Object:                        A thing, person, or matter ti which thought or action is directed.

Objectification:          The process of symbolically turning a human into an object.

Misogyny:                  A hatred or dislike of women.

Self Esteem:               The way individuals think and feel about themselves.

Role Model:               A person who serves as an example, whose behaviour is followed by others.








[1] Miss Representation Org (2011) Miss Representation Curriculum: You can’t be what you can’t see. A Documentary Film by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Accessed 27 August 2014. Available from:


[2] Government of Western Australia (2011) Media and Body Image.  Department of Health & Education. Accessed 28 August 2014.

Available from:


[3] Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2009) Young Children and the Media: A Discussion Paper. Accessed 28 August 2014. Available from:


[4] Urban Child Institute (2011) Infants, Toddlers and Television. Accessed 27 August 2014. Available from:


[5] Skrzydlewska, J.K. (2013) Draft Report On The Sexualization of Girls 92012/2047 (INI). European Parliament Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. Accessed 4 September 2014.

Available from:


[6] Australian Psychology Society (APS) (2008) Submission - Sexualization of Children in the Contemporary Media. Accessed 30 August 2014.

Available from:


[7] Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (2014) Gender in Media: The Myths and Facts. Accessed 28 August 2014. Available from:


[8] American Psychological Association (2007) Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Accessed 27 August 2014. Available from:


[9] The Australian Salvation Army (n.d) Sexualization of Children: What You Need to Know. Accessed 30 August 2014. Available from:


[10] The Australian Institute (2006) Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualization of Children in Australia. Accessed 30 August 2014. Available from:


[11] Reist M.T. (2012) ‘Sex sells, but we’re selling out our children’. Accessed 4 September, 2014. Available from: http://melindatankardreist.come/2012/04/sex-sells-but-were-selling-out-our-children


[12] Rehabs (2012) Dying to be Barbie: Eating Disorders in Pursuit of the Impossible. An Epidemic of Body Hatred. Accessed 29 August 2014. Available from:


[13] Mission Australia (2012) Mission Australia Youth Survey 2012. Accessed 30 August 2014. Available from:


[14] Women’s Health West (2010) Australian Association of National Advertisers: Review of Code of Ethics. Accessed 4 September, 2014. Available from:


[15] Women’s Media Centre (2012) The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2012. Accessed 4 September 2014. Available from:


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