It takes real-life strategies to recognize harmful ideals about beauty and health and then reject them! Start with this list of totally doable strategies to redefine beauty and health in ways that promote real fitness, confidence, happiness and love for yourself and others. For strategies specifically for boys and men who want to support the girls and women in their lives, see this list. Though these strategies are presented with a focus on females, many — if not all — of them can be adapted and used successfully to improve body image for boys and men as well.
Stop Negative Self-Talk: Too many girls and women have a constant script of mean thoughts about themselves running through their minds. That kind of negativity is not motivational or inspirational. In fact, it tends to show up on the outside. Recent studies show us that girls who don’t like their bodies become more sedentary over time and pay less attention to having a healthy diet. And that makes sense. If you think you’re gross and worthless, why would you take care of yourself?
Think Nice Thoughts Instead: On the flipside of the last study, research has found that girls who feel good about themselves, regardless of their weight, are more likely to be physically active and eat healthy. They are less likely to gain unnecessary weight and they make healthy lifestyle choices way into the future. Remember that what we THINK about our bodies has a strong connection to how we TREAT our bodies.
Unreal Ideals: Remember it is reasonable to assume no image we ever see of a woman in media has gone un-manipulated. As early as 1991, a media industry insider referred to the digital alteration of women as a “retouching epidemic.” And today magazine editors refer to airbrushing as an industry standard. Plus, vertical film stretching to make women appear taller and thinner is a common technique, as are filtered lenses on cameras and soft lighting, which do away with wrinkles, pores, and other so-called “blemishes.” The next time you start comparing yourself to a woman in a magazine, remember that even she doesn’t fit the ideal she’s made to represent!
Go on a Media Fast: Choose a day, a week, a month, or longer to steer clear of as much media as you can. That way, you can see how your life is different without all those messages and images, and when you return to viewing and reading popular media, you will be more sensitive to the messages that hurt you and those that are unrealistic. One group of male college students in Utah went on a “media fast” for three months, and at the end of that time, the men claimed they found the real women in their lives more attractive while they were on the fast, and continued to find them more beautiful once the fast was over.
Fight for Fitness: You can choose anything you want to work toward, whether that is running a mile in a set time, doing a certain number of push-ups or sit-ups, etc. When you set a fitness goal and work toward it, you will find you spend less time thinking about the way your body LOOKS and more time focusing on what it can DO. Reminding ourselves and encouraging others to engage in physical activity as a means for improving physical and mental health, rather than a strategy for achieving unattainable beauty ideals, is vital.
The Power of Kindness: Choose to compliment the girls and women in your life for character traits, actions or talents you admire about them. The compliments that stick with you for a lifetime are those that acknowledge your valuable qualities, like a good attitude, selflessness, talents, honesty and so much more that has nothing to do with a cute outfit or pretty hair.
RUN from Normalized Pornography: Depicting sexual images and dialogue is now a normal part of media all hours of the day, and it is presented as “safe” in advertisements, catalogs, TV shows, movies, men’s and women’s magazines, books, video games, websites, billboards, etc. Research is very clear that pornography changes the way men and women view each other, it gets in the way of us forming loving and healthy relationships, it skews our perceptions of attractiveness, our sense of self-worth, and our sense of others’ worth. Do not just walk away – RUN from it!
Object to Objectification: Girls and women exposed to sexually objectifying messages (which are inescapable in today’s media landscape), prove to experience body hatred, learn to primarily view and value themselves for their outward appearance and actually endorsed objectifying images in the future. And a particularly scary fact is that research proves these harmful messages leave females preoccupied with their physical appearance, which then hurts their performance in school (including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills) and athletic activities. Yikes.
Be an Advocate: If our suggestion to turn away from media that degrades or otherwise hurts you is just not enough for you, consider your fierce influence as an advocate for women. When you come across a company’s advertising that fuels female insecurity or a magazine that objectifies women even as it claims to empower them, speak up! Blogging your disapproval is a great start, and so is posting links to news stories that reveal harmful ideals on social networking sites. Join us on Facebook for regular links to share and continue this conversation! If you’d like to go a step further, write to and/or call your local cable company, network TV station, newspaper and any other media outlet perpetuating harmful messages.
Redefining Healthy: Getting back to reality involves figuring out what “health” really means – and it’s not what media shows us. For-profit media like fitness magazines or TV shows would have us believe health and fitness are all about what we look like, and any doctor can tell us that simply isn’t true. Talk to a doctor, nutritionist or other health specialist to figure out what healthy really means for you individually. Work with them to set healthy goals for yourself that aren’t based off profit-driven beauty ideals.
Forget Yourself: Sometimes the best way to improve our self-esteem is to forget about ourselves for a while. Get out and volunteer to help someone who needs a friend or who needs a hand with jobs around the house. Service fills us with love and light that radiate from within.
Get back to Reality: Since we’ll see more images of women in one week of media viewing than we’ll probably ever see face to face, it’s important to give ourselves a reality check! When we look eye to eye with the women we know and love, we can remind ourselves what real women and real beauty look like. This real definition of beauty is so much more than just looks! It is your best friend’s basketball skills, your sister’s hard work on her English paper, the lines on your mom’s face from years of beautiful smiles and laughter, etc. For a start, check out our project “Facts and Figures: 10 Girls Tell the Truth About Weight.”
Tell the Truth: Point out the difference between media representations of women’s bodies and real-life women’s bodies while watching TV or flipping through a magazine with friends or family. Saying these things aloud will help you train your mind and the minds of those you love to recognize what is real and what is far from the truth. Remember, honesty is always the best policy!
Take Media Into Your Own Hands: Post links or start discussions on blogs and social networking sites to continuously spark conversation about dangerous ideals (like the thin ideal, surgical enhancement, white ideals, etc.) and to bring to light those who profit from our belief in those ideals. And when thinking about your future college studies and/or career, consider going into journalism, advertising, or media production so YOU can produce messages that uplift rather than tear down. We’re currently working on that with a campaign to raise money for positive body image billboards across the country, which have already appeared all across Utah and in Pennsylvania!
Be Critical of Media, Not Yourself or Others: While the U.S. is the No. 1 producer and exporter of media, we are also the only industrialized country in the world without some form of media literacy in public school curriculum. We need to feel an obligation to put media under closer inspection for the influence it has in our lives. Next time you are flipping through a magazine or watching a movie, train yourself to ask important questions about what you see. If you don’t like the answers you find, remember you can turn away from the messages that hurt you and those you love!
- Do you feel better or worse about yourself when viewing or hearing this media? Do you believe the females in your life would feel better or worse about themselves after viewing or hearing this media?
- Who is advertising in these pages or on this screen? (Look for ads and commercials and you’ll see who is paying the bills for your favorite media messages)
- Who owns the TV show, movie, magazine, video game or website you are viewing? (Research the company and its owners and you’ll find out who the powerful decision makers are behind the scenes of your media of choice)
- Is the media you read and view promoting real health or impossible ideals meant to make you spend money and time? Who are those messages promoting impossible ideals usually speaking to?
- How are women and girls presented here? Are they valued for their talents and personality? Do they look like the females in your life?
Refiguring Health: If you are a health practitioner, doctor, educator or medical student, a lofty but necessary goal can be developing and helping to implement accurate and reliable measures of healthy weight, whether that means developing new algorithms that can better predict individual body fat or steering clear of the inaccurate Body Mass Index in favor of other financially feasible measures like waist circumference measurement or skinfold thickness tests. For more about how we’re working to redefine what it means to be “healthy” in more achievable and fitness-promoting ways, see our two-part series “Healthy Redefined.”
The Power of Media Makers: Media decision-makers like editors, producers, writers, directors and web developers can and should disrupt the steady stream of idealized bodies with positive representations of more normative shapes and sizes, with positive dialogue or editorials regarding those images that does not focus solely on appearance.
Health Activism in Play: Anyone willing and able can work to visibly resist messages that repackage women’s health in power-laden “beauty” terms in any way possible, whether through volunteering to speak out against harmful ideals for any audience who will listen, attracting media attention toward dangerous messages like advertisements or TV shows that may perpetuate harmful messages about bodies, or speaking to local leaders and politicians about inappropriate or dangerous messages in media programming and local advertising.
Check Your Vision: Be conscious of the vast amount of media we consume each day, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. In fact, the average American spends about 4.5 hours every day watching TV or movies and another 3.5 hours on the Internet, on top of being exposed to about 3,600 advertisements from every angle. As you go through your day, pay attention to what you see and what messages go against what you know be true about yourself and others you love.
Be a Positive Example: Research and real-life experience make it clear that when women and girls speak negatively about their bodies and their appearance, they negatively impact those around them. That goes for women talking about themselves in hateful ways in front of their children and family members, girls that degrade themselves in front of their friends, or any other time a woman or girl says awful things about herself in front of anyone near. Start today with a goal that you will never again say something negative about your appearance aloud, and soon the negative self-talk that floats through your mind will become less and less prevalent, too.