OBOS Home Page
Home  I  About Us  I  Programs  I   Publications  I  Blog  I  Donate Now
Health Resource Center

Body Image

The Media Lies

Researchers have found that ongoing exposure to certain ideas can shape and distort our perceptions of reality. How many naked bodies do most of us view on a regular basis in real life--not counting what we see in the media? Very few. But if women or men consume a steady diet of fashion magazines or pornography, they encounter more naked or semi-naked female bodies than they would otherwise--female bodies that just happen to be airbrushed and plastic-surgery-enhanced. It’s not surprising that in our media-driven culture, our views of what women should look like are warped.19 Real women with pubic hair and breasts that aren’t perfect round orbs begin to seem unnatural compared to the altered images we see in the media.

It’s hard to imagine a world where idealized female imagery is not plastered everywhere, but our current situation is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the mass media existed, our ideas of beauty were limited to our own communities. Until the advent of photography in 1839, people were not exposed to real-life images of faces and bodies. Most people did not even own mirrors.20

Most of the women we see in the media are young and white. Hollywood movies rarely feature women over forty, and the older women we do see represented in the media, from movie stars to news anchors and even politicians, look much younger, thanks to plastic surgery. As a result, those of us who choose to age naturally, without the aid of plastic surgery, are sometimes seen as "letting ourselves go."

The image of "perfection" we see in the media excludes women with disabilities. This almost total lack of representation means that the lives of disabled women remain a mystery to many able-bodied people. Disabled women are often portrayed as helpless victims who need protection, or as heroines who have beaten the odds. Because women with bodies that are disabled, fat, or old are seen as deviating from what is "normal" and desirable, we are often presented as stereotypes, rather than as real people. The crotchety old woman, the loudmouthed fat woman, and the disabled woman with a heart of gold are widespread clichés in the media. Rarely is our beauty recognized or acknowledged, and we are almost never portrayed as sexual beings. 

Living with a physical disability, I have learned from the dominant messages in society that I am not like other women. In fact, for the most part, I’m actually not considered a woman at all.

The small percentage of women of color represented in the media usually conforms closely to the white beauty ideal. As one woman wrote,

As a teenager, I was obsessed with achieving the “white girl” look: slim hips, perky breasts, flat stomach. I hated that I didn’t look like white models in my magazines.

Commercial media must create a fantasy world that we hope, in some way, can become ours. Consequently, magazines, television, movies, and advertisements rarely feature women of color as their stars or on their covers: In a society that is still racist, magazine editors and Hollywood executives know that white women do not, in general, fantasize about looking Latina, black, or Asian.

Although advertising, the most powerful arm of the mass media, is all around us, many of us believe we are immune from its effects. This mistaken belief is one of the reasons it is so effective. The average American sees three thousand ads per day.21 Almost all commercial media aimed at women are supported by advertising revenue from the fashion, beauty, diet, and food industries, and their survival depends on their ability to please their sponsors. Magazine editors, in a fierce competition for readers, know that to make a sale, they need only play on our doubts or create new ones, making us think we have "problems" that don’t really exist ("What’s He Really Thinking When He Sees You Naked?"). Every part of the female body is picked apart and scrutinized, with most articles telling us outright which products we should buy to fix--or at least camouflage--our numerous "flaws."
I believe that every woman is utterly and completely beautiful. That said, when I find myself faced with produced images of beauty in magazines or billboards, I still can’t help but wish I looked like them.

In trying to understand the media’s objectification of women and how it makes us feel, it can help to think of the camera lens as a white male eye. Have you noticed that the covers of women’s and men’s magazines are almost always female? The female stars of mainstream movies and TV shows not only look sexy but often behave in the kind of subservient, helpless way that many men find appealing. The camera eye is usually focused on women who look and act in a way that pleases men; men look (active), and women receive their gaze (passive). The media’s gaze is essentially a male gaze.22 We are so accustomed to seeing things through the dominant male perspective that we might not even notice the dynamics at play.

The media eye, in its many different forms, objectifies all of us. The result? Many of us begin to objectify ourselves. When you’re in an intimate moment with your partner, do you imagine what you look like from the outside rather than focus on the sensations that you feel inside? When you walk down the sidewalk, are you thinking about how you appear--about how big your butt looks--instead of thinking about the beauty or stimuli around you? Self-objectification can lead to feeling self-conscious and humiliated, and it can make us believe that our bodies exist only for the pleasure of others.23 

While making love with my partner I worried that he would see a hair here, or a flabby spot there, and be turned off. I noticed that he was never self-conscious about a skin blemish or when he gained a few pounds. So I started copying him and concentrated more on the sexual pleasure I felt. I began enjoying sex a lot more, and he noticed. He said it made him more excited, and the result? A great new circle of passion and sex.

Excerpted from the 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, © 2005, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.  

19. Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, 51.
20. Peiss, Hope in a Jar, 45-47.
21. Jean Kilbourne, Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 27, 58.
22. Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Houndsmills, Basingstroke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1989), 19.
23. Kathrine D. Gapinski, Kelly D. Brownell, Marianne LaFrance, Body Objectification and "Fat Talk": Effects on Emotion, Motivation, and Cognitive Performance, Sex Roles 48, nos. 9/10 (May 2003): 377-78.


< Return to Body Image Overview






Home I Resource Center I Support Us! I Press Room I Site Credits I Feedback I Contact I Privacy I Site Map