Sexualization of women leads to eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem
Photos of ultrathin, fit, and tan women with flat stomachs and big boobs in bathing suits and short shorts fill pages on social media sites like Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr. From women so thin each of their vertebra pokes through their skin, to women wearing nothing but a thong and a sultry look, the Internet provides millions of images of women in a sexualized state.
These photos, referred to by some to as “thinspiration,” or “thinspo” for short, are pinned, retweeted, reblogged and reposted by thousands of social media users daily.
Screenshots of these images also appear on Bianca Rivera’s phone.
“I used to sit there and search for those pictures, literally my life would revolve around it,” she said.
Rivera, a sophomore liberal studies major at the University of La Verne, struggled with bulimia throughout her teenage years at St. Lucy’s Priory High School.
“I would definitely let the media influence me a lot, because I would want to eat but then I would look at pictures of what I wanted to look like and then make myself throw up,” Rivera said. “It was always a comparing thing, it was never enough.”
After her parents became aware of her illness, Rivera worked with a therapist during her junior year of high school, until she got a handle on her eating disorder.
“I never wanted to label myself as bulimic or something until I went to a therapist, and she helped me accept it because I didn’t want to,” she said.
Although the 20-year-old said she is no longer binging and purging, she still holds being thin as an important goal, but no longer fixates on the numbers on the scale.
“I am definitely healthier now, I just want to have confidence in myself,” she said.
The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 20 million women will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life—a common outcome of the sexualization of women in the media. In 2007 the American Psychological Association formed the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls and published a report that said sexualization is linked to the most common mental health issues in women and girls. These problems include eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem, as well as problems developing a healthy sexuality.
“Thinspiration spreads like fire. It works as cultural shame,” said Cindy Tekobbe, digital rhetoric and literacies doctoral candidate and faculty associate at Arizona State University. “Social media is really good at spreading the broader media messages from the media culture that we are all entrenched in.”
Recent studies show that body dissatisfaction is linked to use of digital media, including social media sites like Facebook. In April 2013, the International Journal of Eating Disorders published a study of 1,087 girls ages 13 to 15, which found that Facebook users were more likely to internalize a desire to be thin.
The study states, “Facebook users scored significantly higher on all indicators of body image concern than their non-user counterparts.” The majority of teens do use social media sites like Facebook, according to a 2012 study by Common Sense Media, which found 75 percent of teenagers between 13 and 17 have some form of social media profile.
“I felt like everything you see on reality shows or Instagram, or whatever social media, is all about girls who have nice flat stomachs, and I felt like what was attractive to guys was being skinny and having big boobs and a nice butt – everything just had to be perfect,” Rivera said. “I was trying to be what I thought guys would like.”
Rivera said her feelings about the physical qualities men are looking for in women was reinforced by her unhealthy relationship with her ex-boyfriend, who showed her images of extremely thin women and told her that they were what she could look like.
“One of the worst parts about (the media representation of women) is that it puts guys in a box too, it makes them think they should want a certain kind of girl,” said Emily Greener, co-founder of I Am That Girl, an organization dedicated to building the self-esteem of women and girls. “The pressure for guys is that this is what the girl you date should look like and how they should act.”
The APA Task Force report also found that frequent exposure to the “narrow ideals of female attractiveness” makes it more difficult for men to find partners they deem acceptable.
“Guys are also influenced by media and are almost programmed to want one thing,” Greener said. “(The sexualization of women in media) is creating unhealthy relationships with guys and girls and societally creating an unhealthy relationship with sex.”
Long before social media, traditional media including television, magazines, music, movies, advertisements and even toys, showed images of women in a sexualized way.
And they continue to do so today.
Just this year, a Carl’s Jr. Super Bowl commercial features supermodel Charlotte McKinney walking through a farmer’s market, seemingly completely naked in the opening of the ad. As the commercial goes on, an apple strategically covers her butt and melons are shown in place of her boobs. After 16 seconds, it is revealed that McKinney is actually clothed in a string-bikini top and shorts as she takes a wide-mouthed bite of the “All-Natural Burger.”
The APA Task Force report found that sexualization is present when a person’s value is equated with his or her sexual appeal or behavior; a person is made into an object for others’ sexual use; or “sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person.”
The depiction of McKinney fits the APA’s definition of sexualization since her value in the commercial comes from her sexual appeal, which is equated with her thin body and the apparent lust she shows for the burger.
While media has perpetuated the sexualization of women, it has in recent years also become an outlet for political and social campaigns end this destructive practice. Dove launched the Campaign For Real Beauty in 2004, with the mission to widen narrow definitions of beauty. Through a series of videos and social media campaigns, Dove is using digital media to spread positive messages to women and girls.
With more than 18 million views on YouTube, Dove’s 2006 short film, “Evolution” directed by Tim Piper, displays how modern photo-editing technology can take a woman from normal to the typical beauty ideal within a matter of minutes.
According to the #SpeakBeautiful campaign, more than 5 million negative beauty Tweets were sent in 2014. The most recent Dove campaign, #SpeakBeautiful, encourages women and girls not to shame their bodies.
Others have followed suit and protested the predominant unhealthy images of women. I Am That Girl is a movement that co-founder Greener hopes will encourage girls to recognize their flaws and work toward “turning self-doubt into self-love.”
“A girl gets 3,000 images a day mostly from the media telling her what she is not, and I Am That Girl tries to combat negative media with empowering, inspiring messaging so girls understand that they are enough exactly as she is and there is nothing she needs to wear, or do, or date to be enough and to be worthy,” Greener said.
The 5-year-old organization has nearly 23,000 followers on Instagram, 160,000 Facebook likes and more than 42,000 followers on Twitter.
“My ideal vision for media is that the most popular shows, music and films are the ones that lift people up instead of tear people down. The ones that portray honest stories and honest people and give a true representation of what the world looks like,” Greener said.
About three years ago Seth Matlins began working on the Truth in Advertising Act, federal legislation that would require the Federal Trade Commission to outline a framework that would reduce the use of images in advertisements that have been altered to greatly change the physical attributes of the subjects shown.
“The bill is not a magic wand; it is not going to fix everything, but it will help some people,” Matlins said. “It can do no damage, it can only do good. How much good it does depends on how broadly it is enacted and protected, and we will keep marching on from there.”
The bill was first introduced in 2014, and will be reintroduced to Congress this month.
“Advertisers’ dollars are what pay for ‘Vogue’ and ‘Cosmo’ and ‘Elle,’” Matlins said. “We know we cannot beat the media industry on the grounds of the First Amendment, but false and unfair advertising doesn’t have those protections and that’s where we are starting.”
Matlins, a former advertising executive, said he was inspired to make an effort to change media images to do right by his children for their future.
“The bill itself aims to reduce the number of people who suffer the consequences of these false and unrealistic expectations,” Matlins said.
People like Rivera.
Today Rivera said she has more self-confidence after transferring from Mount Saint Mary’s University to the University of La Verne. She hopes to become an elementary school teacher.
“I would teach the kids to be confident in themselves not just body-wise, but kids have strengths in different areas,” Rivera said. “I would show the students that people have strengths in different areas and teach them not to be so focused on what you’re not.”
Kellie Galentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kellie_gal.
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