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TV Boosts Self-Esteem!…If you’re white and male.



Brand new research shows TV has a direct negative influence on girls’ and black boys’ self-esteem and a positive effect on white boys’. While we applaud media that promotes positive self-image for any group, we’re not so pumped (and not so shocked) about the far-reaching disadvantage this finding has for pretty much everyone who isn’t white and male. Let’s get to the bottom of this! 

Get this: The average person spends 4 to 6 hours a day watching television and movies. Do the math and that means by the time we reach age 70, we will have watched 7 to 10 years of TV and movies! Our research and the work we cite tells us the messages we get from those sources powerfully shape our reality. Our feelings about our bodies, beauty, worth, and potential are formed as our media choices YELL what we should believe about ourselves. Those voices tell us women are to be valued for their sexual appeal and thinness, they should spend their lives striving for those ideals, and they cannot be loved and desired without reaching those goals (which are unattainable). That is why the media literacy messages we share are so vital. Awesome scholars stand beside us as we claim our ability to think critically about inescapable media messages is essential to our health and well-being. The scary thing is the U.S. is the only industrialized country without media literacy in public schooling curriculum. While we teach our kids how to read classic literature, we have yet to help them understand and deconstruct messages that shape their entire lives. That’s why Beauty Redefined is hard at work spreading this knowledge!

The latest research by one of our favorite scholars, Kristen Harrison, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, echoes what we shout from the rooftops: TV is teaching girls they are only to be looked at, and it’s hurting all of us. TV teaches us that female power, happiness, and value lie in what they look like – how they appear – not how they feel, what they think, what they can do and what good they can contribute to a world that needs them. And, among a list of harms, that message is killing the self-esteem and happiness of girls and women the whole world over.

When the billions of images of females we see in media represent only one way of being female – a hypersexualized, objectified, to-be-looked-at vision – no wonder female self-esteem plummets to all-time lows! Today, body hatred and resorting to extremes is the norm for females of all ages – toddlers to the elderly. Cosmetic surgery is up 500% in the last decade with females getting 92% of those elective procedures and hospitalizations for little girls with eating disorders is up 100 percent in that same 10 yearsIf we interrogate the constant, unrelenting messages media sends to us, we can see why these extremes might seem so normal and welcome.

In the largest study of its kind, the Institute on Gender in Media found the more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in her life. And the more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become. Girls grow up with models, barbies, and hypersexualized actresses and pop stars as their primary view of what it means to be a girl. Harrison’s latest publication with her colleague, Martins, tells us even more: They surveyed about 400 black and white tweens in the Midwest over one year. They focused on how much time the kids were spending watching TV and how it impacted their self-esteem. What they found after they’d controlled for age, body image, and self-esteem was that television exposure was responsible for a decrease in self-esteem in both white and black girls and black boys. 

No wonder this is the case, when television and movies offer a one-dimensional image of what it means to be female (and black) so much of the time.  Did you know that in G-rated movies, for every one female character, there are three male characters? If it is a group scene, it changes to five to one, male to female.  Of the female characters that exist in children’s movies, the majority are highly stereotyped and hypersexualized. Startlingly, the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.  The only aspiration for female characters in nearly every instance is finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance. Their No. 1 goal is becoming royalty. And, no duh(!), the vast majority of female characters in animated movies have an “ideal” body type that cannot exist in real life. 

Today, girls who watch TV and movies grow up believing they have very few options available to them: find someone to love them, steer clear of school and jobs in math, science, and engineering (according to research that shows women make up a tiny percentage of those career paths), and focus the majority of their attention and energy on keeping their weight down and their sex appeal up.

A huge body of scholarship has analyzed images of female bodies in popular media across time and the stark truth is that a highly sexualized and thin ideal dominates the females we see in media (APA, 2010, Eggermont et al., 2005, Gentles & Harrison, 2006; Hendriks, 2002; Pompper & Koenig, 2004).  That sexualized and intensely thin ideal has become so extreme in the last decade – and so normal because of so little diversity in the images – that Beauty Redefined is determined to shout our true media literacy messages from every rooftop we can.

We stand beside amazing women like Kristen Harrison, who I (Lexie) interviewed five years ago because I loved (and still love) her research, to first reveal the harm of profit-driven media’s lies, and then to teach a better way. We teach and speak and write about things as they really are – not what profit-driven industries would have us believe they are.  You are capable of much more than being looked at. Do you believe it yet? When you do, your life and your happiness and health will reflect that truth. You will respect your body as something of great worth, so you won’t resort to extremes to appear a certain way. You will stay active and eat healthy because you care about your body and the good you can do in the world when you are healthy. You won’t need to emphasize those curves every hour of the day with push-up bras, cosmetic surgery, spanx, expensive hair and skin procedures, etc., because you are capable of more than being looked at and a lot more happy and comfortable when you’re not always bound and tucked. If beauty hurts, we’re doing it wrong! You will unite with other women and girls to value femininity for so much more than that cute new outfit, recent weight loss, hairstyle, etc.

We minimize each other to our bodies every time we keep the focus on our looks instead of moving on to every other amazing quality we’ve got going on. Next time you see a friend, dig a little deeper than complimenting her on her appearance. It’ll take work to learn to value ourselves and each other for more than a vision of ourselves, but we must take up this fight if we are going to teach any other man or women or little girl or boy what to value in femininity. And seriously, when was the last time you heard  a guy minimize another guy to his body? “Love your  new outfit!” “Your haircut looks so good!” They didn’t learn to “be looked at” from birth, so they don’t have to stick to valuing each other for their parts. How much deeper and more meaningful would our relationships be if we moved on to talking about stuff besides our appearances?

By recognizing, acknowledging and understanding that media is directly harming anyone who isn’t a white male — and is also harming all males through the damage being done to females and people of all races — we’re already past what might be the biggest hurdle in this fight. Recognizing those harms gives us the power to push back, reject those messages and redefine what it means to be beautiful, healthy, happy, successful and valued in this world that defines those qualities in a very limited way. It’s time to talk back to TV, movies, magazines, music, and advertising that lie to us about our value, our worth, and our power. We are capable of more than being looked at. And when we recognize the sheer number of media messages that ask us to forget that truth, that’s the first step to media literacy. Let’s recognize the harmful lies, unite with those we love to turn away, produce and share media messages that tell the truth, and get on to living that doesn’t keep us imprisoned in our bodies, only seeking to perfect them.

Are you ready to fight back? How will you embody Beauty Redefined today? By turning off the TV? By complimenting a friend, daughter, sister, student or stranger for more than her appearance? By sharing this post with your Facebook friends? Check out a whole list of our fighting strategies here. And for a regular reminder that there is more to be than eye candy and that you are capable of  much more than being looked at, you can support the cause by ordering our sticky notescomplete with those and other uplifting messages!

I, Lindsay Kite, am Beauty Redefined! Are you?

Join us (and LOTS of other beautiful ladies) in owning our beauty! Send us a photo of you holding the statement “I am Beauty Redefined” to and we’ll add it to the growing stack on our Facebook photo album. See what else we’ll do with the amazing photos here.

  1. Renee

    My niece absolutely LOVES all things pink and princess-y (which is NOT encouraged by her parents; seriously, we’re not sure where it came from), and she got a Barbie-type Sleeping Beauty doll for her birthday. When she showed the doll to me, I made a point to tell her, “Honey, this represents an unrealistic body image; your body will never look like this. We will always love you just the way you are, no matter what your body looks like.” She’s only three, so I don’t think she really understood, but better to start young, eh? ;o)

  2. Naomi Hanvey
    Naomi Hanvey06-02-2012

    Makes you miss the days of Full House, doesn’t it?

  3. reenayhey

    I have been thinking about this sort of thing ever since I took a class in Sociology. I’m so glad I found this. Ever since we started discussing it in class I can’t bare to watch television anymore. I didn’t much anyway, but now I really see how bad it is.
    There’s a video we watched in class called “Killing Us Softly” about women in advertising and how disgusting it is. How everything is sexualized and how they take women’s body parts and use them for other things, such as beer, or other such ads targeted at men. She also talks about how the only black women in advertising either hold many white characteristics or are shown in an animalistic type of way. It’s just awful. Threw out ALL my makeup after that.

    Anyways, I really appreciate this article.
    : )

  4. Andrea

    I just found this website on an old CJane post. I pinned it after reading just one article. I am so excited that there are women out there working to change the ridiculous and distorted views we all have of beauty! Everything I have read so far has got me saying, “Yep, uhuh, yes, I know!, That’s what I’m always saying! That’s what I thought, but didn’t think anyone else did (besides my sisters)!” This post is no exception. I found out years ago that I felt SO much better about myself if I didn’t watch tv. So I haven’t for years.

  5. Karen

    Honestly, I don’t understand either why the cartoon women in children’s shows and movies are half-naked with EE boobs and 7-inch waists, giant doe-eyes and teeny tiny lipsticked mouths. What the bloody Hell?