Women in media: Is it time to give the media stereotypes a makeover?

  • Age: 9-14 yrs
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Women in media: Is it time to give the media stereotypes a makeover?

Worried that all your daughter ever sees in magazines and on screen are unrealistic images of “perfect” women? If media stereotypes are getting on your nerves, we have an activity plan for you and your daughter to give them a makeover – and have a lot of fun while you’re doing it.

The pressures young girls are under to look “perfect” are growing every day. It’s enough to make any mom anxious. “I find it worrying that there is little diversity in the culture aimed at tweens and teens,” says Gill, mom to Kirsty, 13, and Natalie, 11. “I’m crying out for some better role models for my daughters because there comes a time when a teenager takes more notice of what they see on the TV and online.”

That’s why we’ve put together an action checklist with some fun ways to challenge the stereotypes.

The evidence on media stereotypes is hard to ignore

“One of the major underlying causes for increasing low self-esteem among young people is that they do not see their uniqueness reflected back at them within the media environment that surrounds them,” says leading UK psychotherapist Dr. Susie Orbach. “They see so many perfected images of girls and women that this idea of how they need to be seeps into them, leading them to feel their own loveliness is inadequate”.

Nearly half of 12- to 15-year-old girls read magazines every day. Studies such as Body Image: An Introduction to Advertising and Body Image show that looking at magazines for just 60 minutes lowers the self-esteem of more than 80% of girls. And, when you consider that the body fat of models and actresses portrayed in the media is at least half that of healthy women, it isn’t surprising that 6 out of 10 teenage girls think they’d “be happier if they were thinner”. We need to teach our daughters to be more media savvy than this and understand that these images just aren’t real.

Women in media: The figures just don’t add up

It might shock you to hear that males outnumber females three to one in family films. That’s what the Gender Inequality in Cinematic Content? A Look at Females On Screen & Behind-the-Camera in Top-Grossing 2008 Films research report found. And, when it comes to body image, the figures don’t add up either. Females are nearly twice as likely as males to be shown with a diminutive waistline, and women are almost four times as likely as men to be shown in sexy clothes. And what of those “celebrities without make-up shocker!” articles that the gossip magazines love so much? While magazines might insist that they run them to make us “normal” people feel better about ourselves, the opposite is true. Girls in a recent survey on Girls’ Attitudes by Girlguiding felt that they preyed on their insecurities and highlighted issues that previously they wouldn’t have been concerned about.

By helping your daughter start to critically assess the media she consumes, you will help her to develop an objective eye and avoid potentially damaging comparisons. As she learns to distinguish what it is about these women’s appearances that she likes and doesn’t like, she’ll also feel more confident expressing and enjoying her own fashion choices.

So why not try our action checklist to give women in media a genuine makeover – one that will have us all feeling much better about ourselves?

To protect privacy we’ve changed the names of the people whose stories we tell on these pages. But the stories they tell are absolutely true.

Action checklist:
Have fun and give women in media a genuine makeover

  • Start a conversation: The next time your daughter goes to the movies or has her favorite TV show on, talk to her afterwards about the female characters she saw. How many did she notice? What jobs did they have and what was their part in the storyline? All too often they will be playing the role of a mother or an object of desire, such as a seducer – hardly representative of the diverse lives women lead today. And even when they play a lawyer or doctor or engineer, they are typically shown looking drop-dead gorgeous, suggesting that is what is crucial in pursuing interesting lives.
  • Look for genuine inspiration: Ask your daughter why she thinks the media chooses such limiting roles for women and how it makes her feel. Can she think of any films or books where the heroine is more inspiring?
  • Start imagining something better for your daughter: Ask your daughter if she were to have a starring role in a film what would she like her character to be famous for?
  • Rewrite the rules for magazines: Look through your daughter’s teen magazines together and rip out images of women in the ads, fashion shoots and features. Lay them out on the table and play a game of “spot the difference”. List all the similarities you notice and circle anything on the images that represent a more real or diverse image of women.
  • Celebrate difference: Use your new layouts as prompts to talk about how “different” can still be beautiful and how few people in real life actually match up to the media’s vision of beauty.
  • Separate the fact from the fiction: As you go, also talk about the clothes and styles they’re wearing. What is it about the colors, fabric or cut that suits the model? Explain that these looks have been carefully picked by stylists to suit the model or celebrity. What else has been made to look appealing in the picture – from glossy lips to skin tone – and how realistic are these features? Which clothes and colors does your daughter think suit her? Or you?
  • Start a makeover with a difference: Try “restyling” a page together to explore what your daughter would prefer to see to reflect the real girls and women she knows. Write your own captions on it; draw in different items of clothing and use different colors to change hair and skin tone.

What next: Action steps to help

  • Share "Retouch Roulette" with your daughter. It’s a fun way to find out how media savvy you and your daughter really are – and why it’s impossible for us women in the real world to look like women in the media.
  • Use the activities we’ve suggested to start a conversation with your daughter. Talk to her about how the images of women make her feel about herself and explore the idea of diversity and difference.
  • Encourage her to talk to her friends about the same subject the next time they are at the movies , reading a magazine, surfing the web or watching TV.
  • Would your daughter have the confidence to write to the editor of a magazine or celebrity blog to ask them about how they portray women?
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