Every generation has its own pressures and prescribed standards of beauty and female behavior. Madonna was wearing her bra as outerwear 25 years ago, and many of my favorite ’80s rock music had equally raunchy lyrics that promoted indiscriminate sex and drug abuse. So why does pop culture seem to have a stronger and more negative influence on self-esteem today? Is it the sheer volume of it? Is it the increased pressures also exerted by an ever-growing diet-and-beauty industry?
As reported in the Journal of Adolescence in 1997 as well as in the European Eating Disorders Review in 2003, when college-age women look at fashion magazines, their scores on body image and self-esteem tests plummet. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2003, when preteen girls read those same magazines, they are five times more likely to develop eating disorders within the next five years.
Even without glossy fashion spreads and weight-loss-focused articles, I see girls growing up in a culture saturated with what are impossibly thin images of female ideals. The precocious teenagers who star in children’s television shows, the clothing lines that include thongs, and sexualized T-shirt messages for pre teens all communicate and promote specific values about beauty and gender expectations.
These are tough messages even for an adult to sift through. Plenty of intelligent, skilled women struggle with their self-esteem and body image against the onslaught of pressures to look and act a certain way. Midlife women are told to resist aging and aim to look a decade younger, no matter how much time or money it costs them. New mothers are supposed to strive for near-impossible “yummy mommy” status. This translates to a message that all mothers should be fashionable and sexy while disguising all evidence of the honorable work of mothering. None of these messages take into account the inevitable lack of sleep, and the unsexy reality of dirty diapers and spit-up on clothes.
Television plays its role, too. Girl culture, as it is lived out on popular TV shows, promotes an underlying value that it’s what’s outside that really counts. On TV a girl can be mean, vicious or vacuously stupid, but if she is wearing the right clothing or has the prettiest hair, she may still be the most popular. This tactic is constantly repeated in the endless “reality” show competitions that highlight women vying for male attention.
Perhaps the most significant factor that sets current pop culture apart from that of the last generation is new media. Advertising images reach children and teens through video games, the Internet, and their cell phones. While I can appreciate social networking sites as a fantastic tool for self-expression and maintaining relationships, these sites are also fertile ground for bullying and harassment. Some web sites give girls the tools to post hurtful messages, rank friends, or rate each other’s appearance in photos. Many of their online communications mimic the blunt and often cruel evaluations in gossip blogs or celebrity magazines.
Girls were sometimes mean on the playgrounds of my childhood, too, but the relational aggression that occurs today is more powerful and potentially damaging to self-esteem. Research shows that if the perpetrator isn’t face to face with her victim, she is less likely to feel remorse or empathy. Down the line, that is not good for her sense of self-worth either.
Who is responsible for the self-esteem of girls and women? Blaming pop culture is easy – and mostly accurate – but we can’t stop there. As adults we choose what we want to consume from the pop culture smorgasbord. We choose where to shop, what companies to support and what magazines we read. I think we should be better role models to the girls in our lives by demonstrating female friendships that are genuine and compassionate and by refusing to be preoccupied with body size, unrealistic images of beauty, and other qualities idealized by the media.
* This post has been edited from one that originally appeared as an editorial for the Dove Self-Esteem Fund in 2008
My next post will offer tips on promoting media literacy & challenging the pop culture messaging at home.