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Beauty Matters: Media Myths Hurt Girls, Women (Men Too)

Less than 2 percent of women say they feel beautiful. How does your daughter feel?

I’m satisfied with my overall appearance, yet I often feel conflicted about certain aspects of my body.  

If I do feel beautiful, it’s because:  

1) I had parents who affirmed my beauty and built my confidence.

2) Research has led me to believe in True Beauty.   

3) I learned to spew the disgusting food the media insists on shoving down women’s throats and internalize positive messages instead.

The average American sees 3,000 advertising messages a day. That seems high, but when you consider that the barrage starts on our cereal boxes and includes magazines, television, billboards, computer screens and countless other images, it’s probably accurate.

Responding to the media is difficult for women, because women are portrayed differently than men.  

Years ago, I swore off crime dramas because I got sick of seeing the female detectives in tank tops while the men wore suits. Were they in the same room but in different climates? That was years before I discovered Susan J. Douglas’ book Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media, but I wanted to throw my remote at the screen. Douglas would have given me permission. 

Douglas says women are angry at the media because even decades after the women’s movement, “diet soda companies, women’s magazines, and the… ‘swimsuit issue’ still bombard us with smiling, airbrushed, anorexic and compliant women whose message seems to be ‘shut up, get [plastic surgery] and stop eating.’”

As a result, we women have become “alienated” from our own bodies.

There is more pressure for women to have the perfect look, in part because of the sheer number of images of women in advertising compared to images of men, but also because of how women are portrayed (though this is changing, as men are often objectified now, too — not a desirable equality).

We are forced to compare ourselves to images that aren’t even real.

Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly series studies the messages ads send to and about women and shows how images are “constructed.” Pictures of four or five women are photo-shopped to create one “perfect” woman, or one woman’s features are graphically altered, sometimes 20 to 30 rounds, until she barely resembles the original model (as in Dove’s “Evolution”—seen 7:30 into Killing Us Softly 4.)

“I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford,” Cindy Crawford once said.

In my True Beauty curriculum for teen girls, I call false messages
“media myths.”  

Striving to live up to unrealistic images leads to bulimia, depression, poor body image and low self-esteem. We overspend and are still dissatisfied. The beauty industry thrives as it continually proffers the next best thing to give us what we “need,” what we will never find from the hand extending its “treasure.”

Nicole Johnson, in her book Fresh-Brewed Life, describes “female schizophrenia:” 

"I think Vogue is a magazine for skinny women who wear clothes that are too small. But I still buy it. I think the fashion industry is outlandish, and I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing some of that stuff. ... But I still try it on. I think cosmetic surgery can be destructive … but I’ve thought about it. … I am angry over the exploitation of women … but I wish I had a body like that. We pretend we don’t care. But we do. We act as if it doesn’t matter. But it does. We wish we weren’t disappointed. But we are.”

It’s no wonder we have a love-hate relationship with the media, with beauty itself.

We must talk to our daughters before the beauty industry does. The dialogue starts in the toddler years. Advertisers have found children to be “brand-sensitive” at 18 months of age. Drive past the Golden Arches and your child wants fries and a toy.

Drive a little further, to the mall, and you’ll be bombarded.

I remember walking past Victoria’s Secret with my then 10-year-old daughter, who looked at the larger-than-life poster of a lingerie-clad model and exclaimed: “Mommy, that's not very modest!”

No one knew the truth of her words better than the 20-something young man who was trying to keep his mind on selling phones in the kiosk across the aisle. 

“She’s right!” he said.  

Talk with your daughter about the media myths you see. Use them to springboard ongoing, healthy discussions about true beauty. Encourage your daughter to share her thoughts and desires.  

Beauty matters. It’s important to girls and women (and even to men!) Until we acknowledge and affirm this longing, we can’t really combat the lies that tell our girls they have to look a certain way to be beautiful.

Speak truth: How your daughter looks, right now, is beautiful. It’s not wrong to feel great in a particular outfit or to enjoy make-up. These things help us feel pretty but they are not what makes beauty truly shine. Offering our smile, our encouragement, our positive presence, these things make us most attractive.     

Feminine allure is a treasure, not to be flaunted, wasted, or compared to still, photo-shopped images or headless mannequins. Real women have brains, and it’s time we encourage our daughters to wrap their minds around this fact: True beauty matters.

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