Negative Media Images

Everyday, we see hundreds to thousands of media images. The media consists of photos, videos, and mass communication spread around the world through print and the Internet. The media creates our beauty standards and greatly influences societal ideas. There is no way to escape it since we are constantly exposed to it: on phones, TVs, magazines, ads, and billboards. The media can be used for good, but it has created a false standard of beauty and the “perfect woman,” which is damaging to young girls and women. Women and girls are consistently oversexualized on magazine covers, making even young girls feel that they must sexualize themselves to appear attractive to men.

Western media mainly shows white, skinny, tan, tall, long-legged girls, which is merely a sliver of the population. The media is identifying this small subset of women as an ideal image of beauty. Not only is it unrealistic for every girl to look like this, it’s absolutely impossible and discounts girls of other body types and ethnicities. Girls shouldn’t be bombarded by one standard image of beauty, because everyone is different, so how can there even be a standard of beauty? The media seriously needs to be more inclusive of ALL types of women. Sports Illustrated has been a major culprit of this, especially when they claimed that an average-sized woman was the first “plus-size” model of their swimsuit edition.

Beauty is shown to be of higher value than any other quality in all forms of media. Girls are taught from a very young age that how they look is what matters the most. It’s not. However, the media constantly focuses on the appearance of every women, no matter their amount of power or intellect. Jon Stewart commented on the media’s remarks on Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance, saying, “ Caitlyn, when you were a man, we could talk about your athleticism, your business acumen, but now you’re a woman, and your looks are really the only thing we care about.” The shallow, prevailing message of “why be ____ (smart, funny, kind, etc.) when you can be beautiful?” hurts young girls. They should be having fun, not worrying about their appearance. 50 percent of elementary school girls are concerned about their weight. This can lead to not only low self esteem, but depression and eating disorders. Studies show that a teenage girl’s mindset and academic performance can be negatively affected by too much focus on her appearance.  The ratio of men to women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields in family films is 14.25 to 1. Women make up 24% of the STEM workforce in real life. Not only is the media discouraging girls from entering STEM fields by portraying the “ideal woman” to be dumb and pretty, they are inaccurately portraying the industry.

Girls also feel the pressure to look perfect from dramatically photoshopped ads of supermodels. Companies photograph models, who are already deemed to be extremely pretty by society, then digitally alter their images to make them look even more attractive (Watch a video of this here). The result is a woman that looks like a Barbie doll. If Barbie was real, she wouldn’t be able to walk or stand on two feet.

Women on the covers of magazines and in ads are not only stereotypically white, skinny, tan, and tall, but they are oversexualized as well. Women are often displayed in sexual poses, wearing minimal clothing, but so are girls. Sexually objectifying women turns them into objects for other people’s pleasure. There are real people beyond the women on the covers of magazines. Girls’ value should not be determined by, or have anything to do with, their sex appeal. Objectification of women creates a societal tolerance of sexual violence.  Women shown as victims in images are also portrayed as sexual objects most of the time. “In a 2008 study of 1,988 advertisements from 50 well known American magazines, researchers from Wesleyan University found that half of them show women as sex objects (A woman was considered a sex object depending on her posture, facial expression, make-up, activity, camera angle and amount of skin shown). There has been a steep increase in the amount of images displaying young women in sexual poses over time. The media sensationalizes hyper-sexualized images, which causes many young girls to try to emulate them in their Instagram posts and Facebook statuses. People blame girls for trying to “look too mature,” but really the media is to blame. If the media showcased girls as girls and not as women, girls would not try to grow up so fast.

We see more images than ever before thanks to social media. Although social media has made our world even more interconnected, it’s not always a good thing. Social media can make girls view themselves negatively, although everyone presents a filtered and edited version of their life online. A research study has shown that “the more time women spent on Facebook, the more they compared their bodies with those of their friends, and the more they felt negative about their appearance.” Just like how images of celebrities and models are edited, the people around us can edit themselves and their lives to look perfect, even though they’re not.

Females are underrepresented in the media, and when they do appear the focus is usually on their looks or how they will contribute to a man’s story. Less than one-third of speaking roles in children's movies are played by females, and the majority of female characters are characterized by their physical beauty rather than their personality or intelligence. The Bechdel Test is a series of three questions that shows the lack of representation of females in movies and critiques the development of female characters. The criteria for a film to pass this test is: (1.) The movie has to have at least two female characters in it (2.) who talk to each other (3.) about something besides a man. However, there are many films with strong female characters that do not pass this test because of a mainly male cast. An example of this is the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. All seven of the other Harry Potter movies pass this test. Hermione is a very strong female character, who is looked up to by many girls for her confidence and intelligence. However, in this particular Harry Potter film, two females do not talk to each other. Aladdin and the original Star Wars trilogy do not pass the test either. The Bechdel Test is not a catch-all for all “feminist” movies, and not all movies that pass the test hold up to feminist ideals either (for example, Fifty Shades of Grey). Girls need strong female role models in popular culture to look up to, that are multifaceted and do not fit a single mold. Women are much more complex than the media makes them out to be.

Some companies have initiated advertising campaigns from a feminist angle. One positive example is Like a Girl, an initiative by Always, which seeks to make doing something “like a girl” a compliment, not an insult. It seeks to boost girls’ self confidence and show that being a girl is an awesome thing. The advertisement videos show many different kinds of girls doing a variety of activities like a boss. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty seems to send slightly the wrong message. It seems to say that everyone is beautiful in their own way BUT beauty is more important than any other quality. Dove’s #ChooseBeautiful video sparked an immense amount of online backlash. The video was created in order to highlight the point that many women do not think of themselves as beautiful. However, why can’t women be other things? Why would the video highlight beauty over all other qualities? (because it’s an advertisement, but still) In Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches video, the women describe themselves as “uglier than they really are.” What if a woman watching looks more like the “uglier” sketch? Is she now not beautiful? The important thing to remember is that these are advertisements geared to sell products, although they may have empowering messages. Feminist advertisements are not the same as the feminist movement.

The sexualization of females in the media is not only a problem in the U.S. This problem affects girls from all around the world. In Japan, not only is there an obsession with beauty and thinness in the media, but there’s also an emphasis on the Western ideal of appearance. 30% of Japanese women in their 20s are underweight. No matter where you are in the world, images in the media are constantly telling girls not to be who they really are. This is not okay, and we need to come together to change this.

Learn More:

Check out these organizations:

  • New Moon Girls — Girls’ magazine and online community for girls

  • About-Face — Equips women and girls with tools to understand and resist harmful media messages that affect their self-esteem and body image

  • Hardy Girls — Nonprofit organization dedicated to the health and well being of girls and women

  • Project Girl — Girl-led initiative that combines art, media literacy, and youth-led activism

  • Teen Voices — Global girl news site that incorporates teen girls in the production of news about their lives

  • Brave Girls Want — Alliance that asks media creators to rethink products in development and ensure they teach girls to be strong, intelligent, and adventurous

  • Powered by Girl — Online magazine by girls for girls

  • Women’s Media Center — Trains women and girls to become media savvy, curates original content from female writers, and monitors and calls out sexism in media

  • Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media — Research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to influence the need to dramatically improve gender balance, reduce stereotyping, and create diverse female characters in entertainment targeting children 11 and under.

  • Media Smarts — Nonprofit organization for youth media literacy

  • SPARK — Movement by girls for girls against the sexualization, objectification, and violence against women in the media

WatchMiss Representation  - A documentary that exposes how mainstream media contributes to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. It’s filled with interviews with politicians, entertainers, journalists, activists, and academics; statistics; stories from real teenage girls; and examples of some of the worst work of the media. Warning: it does showcase some graphic images. (it’s on Netflix!)


Take Action:

  • Create a blog and share your opinions on the media

  • Educate others about the harmful effects of the media’s representation of girls and women

  • Channel your outrage over the way girls are disrespected in specific ads, music, movies, etc. and start a petition at or begin a boycott (let’s call it a girlcott) urging everyone not to buy certain products, music, etc.

    • Domestic abuse campaigners protested at the Fifty Shades of Grey London premiere

    • Julia Bluhm, a teenage girl, created an online petition on and held a successful protest outside of the Seventeen office in New York City to request that the magazine print one unaltered photo spead per month  

    • SPARK members led a mock fashion show style protest in Times Square against Teen Vogue’s use of too-thin, photoshopped models in their magazine spread

  • Don’t like ads in certain magazines? Rip out the subscription card and use it to write a complaint and mail it back (no postage needed).

  • If you end up working in the media, hold everyone you work with and everything you create accountable in terms of gender and racial parity

  • If your female-identifying friends express interest in working in the media, but are apprehensive about what they might face, encourage them. Show them there is a place for women in the media!

  • Share positive media representations of girls and marginalized groups

  • When you consume media around you, even local news and radio, hold your sources accountable. If you feel an institution has been negatively portraying women and girls, write them, call them, or post about them. Do what you can to show that they cannot continue this way.

Check out the Healthy Media for Youth Act: “A bill to authorize grants to promote media literacy and youth empowerment programs, to authorize research on the role and impact of depictions of girls and women in the media, to provide for the establishment of a National Task Force on Girls and Women in the Media, and for other purposes.” You can write to your congressmen and tell them to support this!

By Rachel A (15), based upon a previous issue brief by Anika M.

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