The way we see ourselves has changed dramatically over the years in this country. This is, in large part, because of our prolonged exposure to media in all its forms. We have held a continuous discussion on this very topic in my Communications & Rhetoric class for weeks now, and we still haven’t even scratched the surface. From a young age, we are shown exactly what “attractive” should look like, and while we are given examples for both sexes, these messages are predominantly geared towards young girls. While some girls may have the ability to simply ignore them, many others take these ideas to heart and are substantially affected by them. That’s where the theory of the looking glass self comes in.
The looking glass self theory states that the view of ourselves comes from the examination of personal qualities and impressions of how others identify us. How we see ourselves does not come from whom we really are, but rather from how we believe others see us. So if we grow up taking these messages from the media seriously, it can be extremely detrimental to our self-image, considering most of us don’t look like the people in magazines and on television. The concept of the looking glass self helps us understand not only our own thinking, but also how we form our identity based on how others see us. As long as we are interacting with others, we are susceptible to changing our own self-image, a process that will continue throughout our lives.
Images in the media today give us an unrealistic and even dangerous standard of feminine beauty that can have a powerful impact on the way women view themselves. From the viewpoint of the mass media, slimness is overemphasized and expected for women to be considered “attractive”. The media is filled with images of females who satisfy these unrealistic standards, making it seem as if it is normal for women to live up to them. Helga Dittmar, a social psychologist, had this to say regarding the popularity of unrealistic media images: “Ultra-thin models are so prominent that exposure to them becomes unavoidable and ‘chronic’, constantly reinforcing a discrepancy for most women and girls between their actual size and the ideal body”. Basically, many media outlets are indirectly (or directly, in some cases) telling young women what they should look like. By doing this, they emphasize the differences between these young women’s bodies and the “ideal” body, which, according to the looking glass theory, would be sort of like telling them directly that they don’t look good enough.
These messages are so influential and common in our culture that they affect girls long before they are exposed to fashion or beauty ads or magazines: “Three-year-olds already prefer game pieces that portray thin people over those representing heavier ones, while by age seven girls are able to distinguish something they would like to change about their appearance”. These attitudes only get more powerful as girls get older. In one survey, nearly half of nine to twelve-year-old girls said they wanted to be thinner and had either been on a diet or were aware of the idea of dieting.
Studies have frequently shown that constant attention to thin models encourages body image anxieties and disordered eating in many females. Almost all forms of media contain improbable images, and the negative effects of these depictions have been proven in various studies. Deborah Schooler, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Gallaudet University, found that women who reported more exposure to television programming during their youth were prone to experience higher levels of body image problems than females who said they didn’t watch as much television. Certain types of programming seem to provoke higher levels of disappointment in their bodies as well. Marika Tiggemann, a professor of psychology at Flinders University, found that women who viewed music videos that showed thin models experienced higher levels of negative mood and were noticed having more body image problems. Music videos seem to send a message that women should live up to the sociocultural ideal; women pictured are almost always explicit symbols of what our culture considers “attractive”.
Once these ideas and messages for the ideal body type are ingrained into the minds of young adults, many take it upon themselves to harass peers who aren’t as “attractive” as they realize they are (All of this according to a standard set by media). As people around us pass judgment on who they believe we are as humans, this is when our self-concept develops. Self-concept is basically who we think we are and how we feel about ourselves as a whole. These judgments by others can have powerful effects on how people see themselves.
The mass media’s description of women depicts a standard of attractiveness that is unachievable for most women in society. Models presented in all forms of standard media are often under what is known to be healthy body weight, which sends an influential message that women must develop unhealthy (or ultra-healthy) habits to be considered beautiful by social standards. The destructive effects of overly thin media pictures of women have been well recognized. Studies have shown that females who adopt the idea that being thin is more beautiful are at higher risk to develop eating disorders. Though it is clear that media affects the way women see themselves, it is undecided how this specifically happens. The social comparison theory can be used to observe how media pictures of women come to disturb the way women feel about their bodies and appearance. These viewpoints also give some justification for why some women are able to ignore the negative outcomes of media, while others are noticeably impacted.
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