Save Us From the Media
Reordering Media as a Solution for Disordered Eating
by Anna Gonzalez
Doctors annually diagnose millions of Americans with eating disorders. Of those diagnosed, ninety percent are women. Most of these women have one of the two most common types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa (National Council on Eating Disorders, 2004). People with anorexia nervosa experience heart muscle shrinkage along with slow and irregular heartbeats and eventually heart failure. Along with their heart, their kidney, digestive system and muscles often fail them. The mortality rate of anorexia is twenty percent, which is the highest of any psychiatric disorder. People with bulimia nervosa experience erosion of their teeth, irritation and rips in their throat, stomach, and esophagus, and develop a dependency on laxatives. These symptoms occur along with the same symptoms that anorexics suffer. One third of people with eating disorders never fully recover. Instead, according to eating disorder researchers, they experience “repeating wavelike patterns of disease and recovery [and] seldom return to a state of normal eating” (D'Abundo & Chally, 2004; National Council on Eating Disorders, 2004).
How can a female choose to force her body into a state of living decay? In this paper, I have discussed the complex interaction of media and young women. I have also proposed solutions that might help activists interested in lessening the chances of girls developing eating disorders. In the literature review, I focus on the scholarly work conducted to understand how consumption of certain media interacts with low self-esteem to cause young females to want to fit the societal norm of being thin. This drive for thinness in young women can cause eating disorders. The literature has also shown that a solution to reducing risk factors of eating disorders can be found in media literacy programs. Using this research as a basis, I held a focus group with six high school girls who watched the critically-acclaimed documentary by Jean Kilbourne entitled Still Killing Us Softly. After watching the documentary, this group of girls came to understand the harmful effects of media exposure on adolescents. This is a tremendous step in overcoming the development of eating disorders. Teaching adolescents about messages in media is different from what scholars have suggested for preventing eating disorders over the last several decades (Bennett et. al., 2001). Finally, I discuss the implications of my findings.
DISORDERED EATING AND THE MEDIA
Scholars have continuously tried to understand why people develop eating disorders. Many have tested and proven one prerequisite for certain: having a damaging, negative, self-image (Fisher et. al., 2003; Button, Loan, Davies & Barke 1997; Cervera et. al., 2002; Thomas, James & Bachmann, 2000; O’Dea & Abraham, 2000). Other scholars have looked at how media interacts with these feelings of negative body image to produce females who harm their bodies in order to be thin (Berel & Irving, 2001; Busselle, 2001; Gettman & Roberts, 2004; Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003; Hendriks, 2002; Kilbourne, 2000; Leung Kwork Yan, Prendergast, & Prendergast, 2002; Posavac, Posavac, & Weigel, 2001; Slater & Tiggemann, 2004; Strice & Thompson, 2001; Thomsen, 2002).
Media conveys sociocultural pressures and ideals of attractiveness by presenting them as norms and values. One ideal standard of female attractiveness dictates that a woman must be thin. According to Alexandra Hendriks, the thin ideal female figure in media is a figure biologically normal for males. She describes the ideal female figure as “straight [with] broad shoulders and narrow hips,” (Hendriks, 2002) the ideal figure of a male. In order for a woman of an average height of 5 feet, 5 inches to look like an average model, she would have to lose 41 pounds (Prendergast, et. al., 2002). The beautiful women on television and in magazines represent about five percent of real American women (Kilbourne, 2000).
The female thin ideal has become equated with success and happiness in media’s images. Increased social acceptance, for example, is a perceived benefit of being thin. A recent content analysis of 28 prime time comedies revealed that thinner female characters earned more positive comments from males (Hendriks, 2002).
Many adolescents use popular media, such as prime time comedies, to help them construct self-identities and make sense of their world (Butler & Zaslow, 2002). The construction of identities through media is why most scholars believe media has a profound influence on young women’s concerns with their body (Posavac, Posavac & Weigel, 2001; Slater & Tiggemann, 2004; Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003, Prendergast, et. al., 2002; Berel, Irving 2001; Kilbourne 2000). Adolescent females in particular assess themselves, or certain parts of themselves, in comparison to models they perceive to be in the same social status (Thomsen, 2002). They then internalize these standards of attractiveness and try to reproduce these ideals within themselves in order to gain the perceived benefits (such as increased social acceptance) of being thin. The process is known as thin ideal internalization (Prendergast, et. al., 2002; Hendriks, 2002; Thompson & Stice, 2001).
The thin ideal internalization process can lead to negative body image because women use the ideal to develop her sense of self (Albertson, 2003; Thompson & Stice, 2001). These feelings of dissatisfaction accumulate over time and lead to long term problems with negative perceived body image (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003). A person attempting to look like thin models in media will then engage in behaviors that will set them on the path to a perceived successful body image. These behaviors include dietary restraint and other disordered eating habits (Thomsen, 2002).
After simply viewing images of society’s perception of ideal bodies, 95 percent of women overestimated their body sizes. Forty percent of women overestimated by 50 percent the size of their cheeks, waist, hips or thighs (Hendriks, 2002). Merely viewing words used on the cover of glamour magazines can send thoughts of shame, body discomfort, and anxiety in women (Gettman & Roberts, 2004). While many prevailing theories exist on why these statistics are true in American society, one simple theory can explain them: mere repeated exposure theory.
Robert Zajonc, the creator of the theory, best described it as “the mere repeated exposure of a stimulus is entirely sufficient for the enhancement of preference for the stimulus” (Zajonc, 2001). Frequent mere exposure, as it applies to advertising, to a product, brand name or logo, is the idea behind basic advertising techniques (Olson & Mathias, 2003). The mere repeated exposure of idealized female models is sufficient in causing women to prefer the look of the model to such a degree that they want to look like them (Berel & Irving, 2001). American women are conditioned to believe they need to be good consumers, to buy products in order to be like the idealized female (Kilbourne, 2000).
Current programs dealing with eating disorders are reactive, which isn’t helpful in battling developing disorders. As Argras commented on reducing risk factors of eating disorders, “We will never prevent the spectrum of eating disorders by working individually or in small cognitive behavioral groups with high risk females” (Agras, 2003). Finding high risk females is difficult as these girls usually hide their disorder.
To be proactive, girls need to be evaluated for possible disordered eating symptoms and educated about eating disorders around the time of puberty, usually before middle school (Bennett et. al., 2001). A study of high school girls, ages 14 – 18, shows why early detection is so imperative. In the study, the researchers diagnosed 119 cases of eating disorders, with only four of them (3 percent) having previously been diagnosed (Cervera-Enguiz et. al., 2002).
When women compare their bodies to the media’s presentation of the perfect female figure, many fail to meet the standard of perfection. This failure plays a key role in the development of eating disorders. Comparison is unlikely, however, when the projections are seen as dissimilar from the comparer (Posavac, Posavac & Weigel, 2001). In their study, Posavac, Posavac, and Weigel observed that “if women were induced to perceive the media standard as an unrealistic image of female attractiveness, they might be less likely to compare themselves with media images because the fashion models pictured may be perceived to be ‘dissimilar others’” (Posavac, Posavac & Weigel, 2001). Teaching adolescents to analyze and deconstruct the way women are portrayed in media reduces internal comparison. Teaching media literacy to young women could lead to females understanding that the models are dissimilar others and play a role in reducing the development of eating disorders (Berel & Irving, 2001).
Media Literacy is, according to the Ontario Media Literacy Resource Guide,
Concerned with helping students develop an informed and critical understanding of the nature of the mass media, the techniques used by them, and the impact of these techniques. [It is] education which aims to increase students' understanding and enjoyment of how the media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality. Media Literacy also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products (Pungente, 1996).
These programs help students decipher between entertainment and information they can apply to their daily lives (Riley, 1995).
The mass media provide students with an alternative, more dynamic and persuasive curriculum then the curriculum in the classroom (Pungente, 1996). The best way to fight the lure of entertainment media is to teach students to think critically about media, using entertaining media texts. The primary goals of these programs are to help students avoid being passive consumers of media and to enable them to think critically about all media, all the time (Aufderheide; Riley, 1995; Pungente, 1996).
Since mere exposure to images of the ideal female body can build a complexity of internalized, sometimes devastating problems within adolescents, this study seeks to find adolescents’ reactions to ideas within a media literacy program that encourages critical thinking about the media’s female images. Teaching adolescents about messages in media is different from what scholars have suggested for preventing eating disorders over the last several decades (Bennett et. al., 2001). Being exposed to a program with media analysis may encourage observers to see media messages in a way they have never been asked to look at them before, which could profoundly change the way the observers of the video observe media. As one proponent of media literacy said, “If students internalize the key concept of media literacy--that all media information is carefully manufactured--then they must be able to find information they can use that helps to break their dependency on media-generated sources” (Tyner, 1992).
Traditional media literacy programs in the United States have been problematic.
First, the United States educational system does not have funding available for any exploratory programs (Ferrington, 2004). As one critic argued, not having funding for media literacy programs is ironic because “as American culture [became] saturated with electronic information and entertainment, so little attention was being given to the influence of media on children” (Ferrington, 2004). Second, as one critic commented, American culture “is pervaded with commercialism such that it simultaneously produces a ‘culture of denial’ about the cultural implications of commercialism” (Aufderheide). Third, Americans tend to feel that media, such as television, is a source of entertainment not to be taken seriously enough to analyze (Rockler, 2002).
Finally, American teachers act as experts and protectors of the innocent students against the evils of media. There are two problems with teaching media literacy in that manner: first, the child considers himself /herself an adolescent and the adolescent loves media (Butler & Zaslow, 2002). Second, participants of any media literacy program want to be heard, active and entertained. According to Tyner, “The most successful programs in North American have a student-centered classroom; a cooperative classroom; teacher-generated (not top-down!) frameworks; student self-evaluation; and community outreach… Student learning in a democratic classroom where students are given responsibility and respect” (Tyner, 1992).
In an experimental study on media literacy, Butler and Zaslow addressed the second problem by finding that “student knowledge and experience must be at the root of the educational and research methods” (Butler & Zaslow, 2002). When studying a media literacy program that focused on tolerance toward diversity, Butler and Zaslow found astonishing results from the students in the program:
Although [the students] initially imitated talk about the need for depictions of consequences for those who commit deviant acts, when allowed to speak and to think more deeply, these teens established themselves as powerful, active media users who can resist negative and immoral messages and images in mass media. They argued for a discourse that includes knowledge of an active viewer with individual restraint as well as a critique of social structure that privileges the content and validity of some media forms over others (Butler & Zaslow, 2002).
Agras further noted that these kinds of creative, interactive programs change the messages of media images into “activism toward offensive media and into advocacy of healthier messages” (Agras, 2003). Similarly, Bennett et. al. stated from the research they found that “researchers and clinicians have argued for the need to shift away from the traditional medical treatment model to a public health model that focuses on primary and secondary prevention and the development and implementation of appropriate public policies” (Bennett et. al., 2001). As one media educator noted, good media literacy programs are “hands-on and experiential, democratic (the teacher is researcher and facilitator), and process-driven. Stressing as it does critical thinking, media literacy programs are inquiry-based. Touching as it does on the welter of issues and experiences of daily life, it is interdisciplinary and cross-curricular” (Aufderheide).
In response to the amount of time it would take to get public policy concerning media literacy programs in schools passed, this study sought to find what would happen if adolescent girls watched a single video on media literacy. I conducted the study thinking that the chosen video would be in place of a full-out media literacy program. In other words, it would be a mini lesson in media literacy. If successful, volunteers could use this video, or others like it, to get a conversation started on the portrayal of women in media.
THE WORKINGS OF A PRELIMINARY TEST IN TEACHING MEDIA LITERACY
In order to obtain direct and candid responses from adolescents, I conducted a focus group using Jean Kilbourne’s Still Killing Us Softly. I chose to conduct a focus group because of the efficient way I could obtain in-depth perceptions from the participants (Edmunds, 1999). According to Holly Edmunds, author of The Focus Group Research Handbook, “focus group participants provide a flow of input and interaction related to the topic or group of topics that the group is centered around” (Edmunds, 1999). The open interaction seemed best for my purpose. With the advice of Butler and Zaslow, I wanted the discussion to be student centered. The focus group allowed the girls the opportunity to freely speak their minds. The group consisted of six girls, which many believe to be the optimum number for focus groups (Ledingham, 1998).
The focus group met after school in one of the student’s high school classrooms. The studentS chosen created an intellectual bias for the study because they were extraordinary. The teacher chose six upper-level honors students who had shown excellence in school and had shown their ability to analyze. The students received no reward or incentive to come to the discussion; they were simply interested in learning.
Prior to the focus group, the teacher told the students that a former student (me) wanted to know what high school females thought about a video whose target audience is primarily college females. I stressed to them the importance of giving me honest, uncensored answers, and assured them that they didn’t have to agree with the ideas in the video. I also videotaped the entire discussion for later transcribing. I did not, however, record the faces of the youthS.
I segmented the chosen video into topics before the focus group session. After each segment, I asked the students: “What do you think about what she said?” and “Is this new information to you?” When each respondent had finished answering each question, the group returned to watching the video.
I chose the video because of its known in-depth information, analysis and critique on media’s images and messages toward and about women. Jean Kilbourne, the presenter in the video, conveys these messages through repetition of key themes. This repetition is important to mere exposure theory. I wanted to see what effect the repetition of the key themes would have on the girls in the focus group.
The Media Education Foundation outlines these key themes as questions in its description of the video:
Does the beauty ideal still tyrannize women? Does advertising still objectify women's bodies? Are the twin themes of liberation and weight control still linked? Is sexuality still presented as women's main concern? Are young girls still sexualized? Are grown women infantilized? Are images of male violence against women still used to sell products?
Inevitably, the video shows the answer to these questions is yes.
Furthermore, the wide acclaim for the video also influenced my decision to use the video. A member of the Italian Parliament said, "Hearing Jean Kilbourne is a profound experience. Audiences leave her feeling she teaches them to see themselves and their world differently" (Media Education Foundation, 2004). Acclaimed author Susan Faludi said, "Jean Kilbourne's work is pioneering and crucial to the dialogue of one of the most under explored, yet most powerful, realms of American culture: advertising. We owe her a great debt" (California Newsreel).
THE GIRLS’ REACTIONS TO NOT ANOTHER AFTERSCHOOL SPECIAL
In reaction to this video, during the focus group I observed that the girls went through phases of familiarity, justification, criticism, and acceptance. These phases did not occur in succession. Rather, each phase occurred as a reaction to a segment, topic or a statement Jean Kilbourne made.
Four of the six participants went through all four phases throughout the discussion: Alice, Alison, Shaye, Jane. The four girls also came to the same conclusion and underwent a major attitude change from criticism to acceptance of Kilbourne’s theories. The two other girls had two extreme opposite points of view, which did not waiver throughout the course of the discussion. Valerie never went through the acceptance phase, while Mari accepted the material quickly because of her familiarity with the subject matter. Further, all six of the girls were critical of feminism and also agreed that no woman should be objectified for the sake of advertising.
All six girls primarily went through a familiar phase with the video. This phase of familiarity is distinguishable because the participants not only acknowledge their prior knowledge of the subject matter, but also because they have a favorable reaction to the information. In this case, during the focus group, anything Kilbourne said that they had heard before, received a favorable reaction because it was familiar.
These girls seemed to take great pride in already knowing about the advertising industry. “I think she got it 100 percent right about what advertising is…She points out the mind games that they are playing,” Shaye said. The girls learned about advertising techniques through a school program known as Enterprise City. In this program, fifth grade students run an entire mock city for a day. The city includes a mayor, law enforcement, and a working economy. The shops at Enterprise City have to advertise in order to make money. Before going to the program, the students are taught various advertising techniques that stuck with this particular group of girls throughout high school.
The girls’ positive reaction to information they already knew is congruent with the mere exposure theory. As Zajonc stated, “the mere repeated exposure of a stimulus is entirely sufficient for the enhancement of preference for the stimulus (Zajonc, 2001).” In this study, the girl’s exposure to learning about advertising techniques (the stimulus) enhanced their preference for the advertising industry. The girls also had already accepted the ideas of the industry prior to our discussion.
While the girls may have already known advertising techniques and information about the advertising industry, they had never heard theories on how advertising techniques are linked with harming women. The girls disagreed with any theory relating to the harmful effects of advertising techniques. Their opposition could have stemmed from the theories being new to them, but some of their disagreement also stemmed from their discontent with feminism. I have classified their discontent into two distinct phases: justification and criticism.
The phase of justification occurred when five of the six participants justified why new information was wrong and explained why they were correct through personal experience. Advertising’s negative effect on women, as presented in Kilbourne’s video, was new information to the group. All six participants in the group also related feminism to Kilbourne’s theories after the first section of the video. Since feminism is outdated and unnecessary, according to the group participants, all of Kilbourne’s theories were too. Only one participant, although against feminism, did not think Kilbourne’s link to feminism discredited Kilbourne’s concepts. The idea that feminism was linked to Kilbourne’s theories stopped the other five girls from accepting any of the concepts Kilbourne presents in her documentary. Their idea of feminism created a veil of ignorance and rejection for the participants that lasted until the last section of the film.
Anytime the word “feminism” came into the conversation, the girls’ faces and body language all changed to portray their disgust for the topic. “I think this all sounds ultra feminist,” Shaye said. “She seems paranoid feministic,” Alice added. After the portion of the video which arguably had the most impact, Shaye said that even though she agreed with the concepts, she wished Kilbourne would “stop the whole feminist thing.”
The girls justified their antifeminist views through examples from their lives. Shaye’s female family members have always been strong women with, as she called it, “a strong stubborn streak” and have never called themselves feminists. In her mind, this proves you don’t have to be a feminist in order to be a strong woman. Alison’s mother owns her own business and this fact led her to believe that all women are equal to men in the business world. Through her college searches, Alison has also found that women now outnumber men in most colleges. To her, this gender inequality in schools meant that the fight for women in education was over. Further still, Shaye brought up the popular prime time show Will and Grace as the progress our society has made in allowing men to show their feminine side. The flamboyantly gay characters in the show disproved to the participants Kilbourne’s theory that men have a narrow traditional role that places them at the top of the gender hierarchy.
These personal experiences provided evidence against the idea of female subordination in any way. To the girls, feminism is not only irrelevant, it is a radical term used to describe women who are Amazonian, power hungry man haters (Alison, Alice, and Valerie said). Shaye added that feminism was an ideology that “is not equal for anyone,” implying that women want to suppress men because they are being suppressed themselves. Since the participants felt no need for feminism, they also felt no need for Kilbourne’s arguments.
The participants of the focus group had other ways of justifying why Kilbourne’s arguments did not relate to present society. Posters in the high school nurse’s office encouraging students to eat healthfully signified advancement in the prevention against eating disorders. Alison explicitly stated that ads had no effect on her, which made Kilbourne’s arguments even more irrelevant.
To counteract Kilbourne’s statement that women are made to feel unattractive and unwanted without the solutions found through consumerism, Alice said, “I woke up this morning, I put my jeans on, my shirt on and I didn’t brush my hair and I feel beautiful.” Valerie also shared a story of her youth when a boy called her beautiful. The declaration validated her self-esteem. All of these examples provided enough anecdotal evidence for the girls to believe Kilbourne’s theories of advertisers’ effects on women meant nothing.
Mari experienced the justification phase in a different way. At first, she cautiously eased into the video, only claiming her familiarity with the advertising industry like the others. However, when all the participants began to criticize Kilbourne’s ideas, Mari defended the concepts in the video through examples from her life. When discussing the sexual portrayal of adolescence in advertising and its harmful effects on young women in society, Mari stated she didn’t believe that young people could differentiate between reality and the world on television. “Since middle school, I have had seven of my friends become pregnant,” Mari said. Mari’s example illustrated that her friends felt that they should have sex because the young female sex images they saw on television portrayed a sense of power and control, instead of consequences (Kilbourne, 2000).
It is interesting to note that only Mari read and held subscriptions to women’s magazines. Mari subscribed to Vogue and the men’s magazine GQ. The other girls only read the magazines their parents subscribed to. Mari came into the discussion already familiar with the ads Kilbourne used in her video (most of the ads Kilbourne used were taken from magazines rather than television). Thus, she accepted Kilbourne’s concepts quicker than the other girls.
When the five girls weren’t justifying how inaccurate Kilbourne’s assumptions were, they were criticizing her statements. The participants reacted with disapproval as they analyzed the new information during the criticism phase. The harsh criticism also kept the girls from accepting the ideas in the video.
The participants felt that Kilbourne based her research on observation and emotion. The most articulate arguments against the ideas and concepts in the video came from Alice. When she spoke her opinion, most of the girls would follow her statements with agreement or personal examples justifying her criticism. Valerie also reinforced and presented arguments against the video, but the strongest critique came from Alice, which is that:
It’s culture – any culture – it’s totally archetypical. There is an ideal beauty and that’s what people strive for, this idea of perfection and you can’t get rid of that. And she is trying to get rid of that in order to achieve some kind of perfection. Her argument is to me weak in that sense.
Alice also added that advertisers have permission to objectify a woman. Objectification calls for a person to be made into an object – they are dehumanized. Alice stated that it’s unrealistic to end objectification. Advertisers can’t be expected to introduce a woman before they use her in ad where she will be objectified simply to prove she is a human being. Valerie gladly supported anything Alice said.
Valerie was the only participant who never agreed with the theories Kilbourne presents. She initially expressed her desire to go into the advertising industry and was put off by Kilbourne’s attack on her academic interest:
“[Advertising] is the only way the TV show can make money. I think [the ideas she is discussing are] true but I don’t think it’s a problem. How else are they going to get the product out there if they can’t get it stuck in your head?” Valerie asked.
She added that while the problems that Jean Kilbourne describes in her video are real, there is no correlation between them and advertising.
Valerie believed that an individual is responsible for what kind of media they engage in. According to Valerie, individuals have a choice to walk away from media that make them feel negatively toward their bodies. Valerie stated that other people understand the distinction between reality and television. Since people already understand this distinction, Kilbourne’s ideas are useless. Alice further stated that Kilbourne “underestimate[s] the audience as if they knew nothing.” Since all the girls felt they knew about advertising, Kilbourne’s approach insulted them. “I think she is treating [female television viewers] like victims,” Valerie said. “It’s not like we’re like saying, ‘Help! Save us from the media! We’re helpless and brainwashed!’”
With five out of the six girls feeling negatively towards Kilbourne and her video, it’s hard to image the significant shift in opinion that occurred in the last five minutes of the film. However, when Kilbourne quantifies her research, the four girls who had initially criticized Kilbourne’s theories significantly changed their view. The girls finally accepted that media’s techniques to get women to buy products have a profoundly negative effect on women. Acceptance occurred when the participants approved and had a favorable outlook on new ideas. Acceptance can occur initially or after repeated exposure to an idea coupled with hard facts and statistics.
I tracked this shift in opinion with a simple question. At the conclusion of the film I asked the girls to think back about everything they had learned during the discussion and to share whether they agreed or disagreed with most of the concepts presented in the video. Five out of the six girls agreed.
These girls were initially hostile to a documentary that teaches students how to critically think about the way media portray women. While they did not ever become familiar enough with feminism to accept it, they did manage to separate feminism from Kilbourne’s ideas. This separation helped them understand the concepts in the video. After the final segment, the girl’s accepted the following concepts: advertising objectifies women’s bodies, thinness is a form of success in the context of advertisements, and these realities plus having a standard beauty ideal for women harm females emotionally and can lead to eating disorders.
WHY DO WE CARE ABOUT THESE GIRLS
Understanding the girls’ reactions to these concepts is important if anything is to be done to reduce the desire among adolescent girls to be ultra thin. The literature review has shown that a solution to reducing risk factors of eating disorders can be found in media literacy programs. The media literacy programs, like the video, use media as a weapon to battle media messages. These programs must depict the ultra thin female models as dissimilar from the average female. The video conveys this message and other important messages clearly. This study reinforces the effectiveness of a simple teaching method by showing how the girls accepted the concepts in Kilbourne’s video. Accepting these concepts can lead to the prevention of having negative body image and the development of eating disorders.
After the focus group, two of the girls informed me of the effects of the video on them. Mari had shared the ideas with her other friends and was able to discuss with them at length the problems in media. Alice, who had originally been against Kilbourne, said the video had made the connection between media and women’s negative feelings toward themselves very clear and that it had become hard to watch television commercials without seeing reinforcement of Kilbourne’s theories. Both participants seemed excited and proud about the new information they had learned, just as they had originally seemed proud of their knowledge of the advertising industry.
This study gives insight on the tools needed to battle the negative media effects on young women. Society does not need to look at reforming (or taking on) the advertising industry or the media as a whole. We do not have to boycott, or become radical activists in order to develop healthy children. We can not ignore the need to create a generation of media literate students. As Kilbourne said in Still Killing Us Softly,
“What [the changes in the media] will depend upon more than anything else is an aware, active, educated public that thinks of itself primarily as citizens rather than primarily as consumers. We need to get involved in whatever moves us, not to change just the ads, but the attitudes that run so deep in our culture and that affect each one of us so deeply” (Kilbourne, 2000).
This group is a prime example of the success of gathering young women and challenging them to take media seriously. All of the girls enjoyed engaging in discussion about issues in media to such a degree that they invited me back to show another video by Jackson Katz that addressed how media affect men. Teachers and other interested parties should take this as a signal to begin similar programs. These students have shown a willingness and openness to engage in conversational learning groups in which the students are seen as valuable sources of insights. This study adds to the literature that proves the success of this experimental teaching method. These kinds of discussions can take place after school with a teacher willing to lend their classroom and listen to students.
RESPONDING TO LIMITATIONS: ACTIVISM
It is important to note and respond to the limitations this study presents. Albertson makes clear in her study of eating disorder prevention programs that “long-term effects are not likely from such a brief intervention because internalization involves years of messages from the media, family, and peers” (Albertson, 2003). Another limitation to this study is the difficulty in measuring if and when the positive effects of the group discussion wear off. Finally, although the responses of the participants were candid and honest, the group was not selected at random. The girls were chosen because their teacher knew they would be able to discuss the materials in a mature fashion. The teacher also thought that the girls would be more open to hear new ideas.
This study can be made more powerful in three ways. These suggestions can help future activists interested in lessening the chances of girls developing eating disorders. First, videos that analyze media can be part of a larger curriculum specifically aimed at helping students develop healthier attitudes towards food and their bodies. Albertson describes many successful courses that integrate media literacy, psychology, and introspection. As she quotes from a lead author of one successful study, “The [prevention] course deconstructed the sociocultural, biological, historical, developmental, and psychological components of body image rather than focused on participants’ personal change” (Albertson, 2003). Further, Tracy Wade, Susan Davidson, and Jennifer O’Dea found success in a program that included self-esteem as well as media literacy programs (Wade et. al., 2002). The key to the success of these programs is to have them student centered.
Second, if the ideal curriculum could not be achieved or implemented, a volunteer program could be started to replicate this discussion group. The volunteers could be trained in condensing the material in an ideal curriculum into two hours. Using the video as a guide, the volunteer could expand on the concepts Kilbourne addresses while adding new, updated and current material to the video. If the discussion group were repeated to many groups of students within one school, students would start to talk to each other about what they had learned. The volunteers would essentially train the students to spread the ideas throughout the school. Other students would be able to respond because they too would learn media literate vocabulary. At the very least, the ideas in the discussion group would stay fresh in the students’ minds for a longer period of time.
Third, if the discussion group from this study were to be replicated, companion materials could be developed and given to the girls. Just as scholars have done with media literate films, the next step is to create media literate print. More specifically, a creative media literate magazine could be created. The magazine would look just as fun to read with the same layout and bright colors as popular women’s magazines. However, the messages inside the magazine would be superimposed with new messages reminding the reader of the lessons in media they had just learned. Whatever new elements are added to the discussion group, it is essential that people continue trying to find new ways to educate and uplift future generations.
WE MUST TAKE ACTION
Society can no longer make excuses to marginalize the problem of eating disorder and media literate education among American girls. By the time they reach high school, thirteen percent of high school girls purge. The number of girls unhappy with their bodies increases to 78 percent at the age of 18. Fifty-three percent of thirteen year old girls do not like their bodies. Forty-five percent of children in grades third to sixth want to be thinner, and thirty-seven percent have dieted to become thin. Most ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Fifty-one percent of nine to ten year old girls feel better about themselves when they diet and nine percent have vomited to lose weight (Eating Disorder Coalition).
To say that insecure feelings are just a part of being a teenager is to say that having the threat of another Columbine is just a part of the bully-tormented high school experience. The assumption misses a larger problem. We live in a society where young women are fed on by media buzzards like carcasses, making their insecurities, their inside fears, more exposed by reinforcing impossible images of the perfect female body. While we wait patiently for education reform, volunteers can positively impact girls’ lives by taking extra-curricular activities to a new level.
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