How Much Does the Media Influence How a Woman Feels About her Body?
I remember the first time I did not like how I looked when I stood in front of the mirror. I was in third grade and had put on weight due to the fact that my mother had returned to work full-time and she filled my brother’s lunch box and mine with all kinds of treats to make sure we ate. Before that, we went home for lunch every day and she served us what we liked. Never were we allowed to have so many desserts when she was home!
Yes, at the ripe old age of nine, my rounded belly bothered me.
Over the years, I found myself in a war with hating my body. I thinned out in middle school, only to gain weight in high school. My days were either “good” or “bad” depending on what the scale read. The funny thing is, I wasn’t fat. A little chunky, perhaps, but fat, no.
Why did I feel and believe that I was fat?
What the Media Told Me
I am the last of the Baby Boomers, having been born in 1964. Television was a more simple medium then, with only three major networks. When I think back to my female television idols, they all looked alike.
Melissa Gilbert, Valerie Bertinelli, Kristy McNichol, Marie Osmond, the Brady Bunch girls, Erin Moran, Susan Dey…the major stars on my screen all were thin and had straight hair. There were no chubby or overweight tweens or teens on a series television, except for Natalie Green, the overweight Jewish girl on the NBC series The Facts of Life. Over time, the show was nicknamed "The Fats of Life" because all of the stars were going through puberty on camera, and all gained a significant amount of weight during the show’s run.
In print media, I was always told I was overweight. Every month, Teen Magazine arrived in my mailbox each month. They featured stories about the models in the issue, and all were over 5’ 9” tall and no one weighed more than 110 pounds.
Ahem. I weighed more than that and I was only 5’ 1 inch tall!
In the past, People Magazine would run stories about the celebrities of the day, and in addition to their age, their weight was also given. Of course, my idols were all less hefty than I was by many pounds.
Something had to be wrong with me!
Or was that the message I was being sent?
When I left for college, I did what many young girls do-I gained the “freshman fifteen“. There is nothing like bowls of French fries and all you can eat ice cream twice a day to pack on the pounds.
When I went home that summer and none of my clothes fit, I had to take positive action. My parents went to our local high school track each night to walk, so I joined them. Almost seven nights a week, I would walk three or four miles as I listened to my favorite 80’s tunes on my Walkman.
I stopped eating bowls of fries and swapped them for bowls of salad, and grilled chicken replaced chicken wings. I ate a bowl of cereal for breakfast, not a bowl of peanut butter with a bagel, like I did at school.
Upon my return to college, I had shed twenty pounds and had to buy a whole new wardrobe. With the exception of my pregnancy and a bout with undiagnosed thyroid issues, I have maintained a normal weight for the past thirty years.
But you know what? Until my forties, I never shed the thought that I was not thin enough. When I was looking at old photos taken when I was in my twenties, I found pictures of my college best friend and me. We looked young, happy, and were a healthy size. Yet we always complained about how we looked.
I called her up and we talked about how crazy we were…why did we think that we were not thin enough? We would both kill to look like that today!
Who is to blame for telling us, as well as millions of other impressionable young women that we were not thin enough.
The media is.
Please note that I am not saying that the media causes eating disorders. It does not, as eating disorders are a mental illness. What it does, however, is to cause women to feel less than worthy with the constant bombardment of celebrities who do not represent the norm in America.
The Celebrity Madness Continues
Marie, Christie, Valerie...Please Stop!
To be honest, I do not pay all that much attention to celebrities under the age of forty. I still like to follow the careers of those whom I watched from my younger days, as well as programs I enjoyed as an adult.
Recently, I was taken aback at the cover of People Magazine. On the cover is a 60 year old Christie Brinkley in a bathing suit! While this is not the first time People has featured celebrities in swimwear, are we supposed to believe that the picture gracing the cover is totally untouched?
While it is wonderful that Ms. Brinkley looks the way she does, she is not the norm.
Far from it.
Marie Osmond, whose Nutrisystem commercials make me change the channel each time I see one, is not a typical woman in her fifties. I am sick and tired of hearing how she can fit into costumes she wore at the age of eighteen or how she wore her original wedding dress when she remarried her first husband. According to my doctor, no woman should expect to be the same size or shape as she used to be. Your body changes, gravity takes effect, pregnancy and childbirth shift things around, hormones come into play…it is an unrealistic expectation to try and look like you did four decades previously.
And then there is my gal, Valerie Bertinelli. I was such a fan of hers when I was growing up. I loved her Jenny Craig ads as she lost her first 40 pounds. I read her first autobiography and I felt like I could have written half of the pages. I rooted for her to succeed at her weight loss goal.
And she did!
Then came the next 10 pounds, which she lost so she could wear a bikini. That was okay, until I read her second book and found out how much she trained for this photo shoot. It was not all Jenny and a regular exercise plan-it was personal training at a pace that a non-celebrity woman could not keep or even afford. I felt like I had been lied to.
Magazines need to stop peddling this trash to women. While it is great to be in shape, exercise and do our best to stay healthy, to try and lead us to believe that if we follow what these women do, we, too, can turn back the hands of time, is an outright lie.
Positive Changes in the Media
We can still use more!
There have been positive changes, like the Dove soap campaign that features woman of all shapes and sizes. Some children’s programs have female and male lead characters that are not rail thin, and their curviness or weight is never the butt of jokes or is an issue.
For example, Drake and Josh, a popular children’s program that aired on Nickelodeon from 2004-2007, had a lead character who was obese. Over the course of the show‘s run, Josh Peck lost weight, but it was never mentioned. It just happened. In fact, he was the one, not the slender Drake Bell, who had a steady girlfriend when he was overweight.
I sincerely hope that more positive changes appear, because we are all so much more than a number on the scale.