Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Sexy, Super Skinny and Searching for Love: The Kids are Watching WHAT?!

This is cross posted with permission from Lexie and Lindsay Kite’s Beauty Redefined website.  I love the work that Lexie and Lindsay are doing, and we share the common belief that female value is about so much more than how you look. See what they have to say about the messages that are sent to children through much of the media that they consumer. Inspired by Geena Davis’ support of research through the Institute on Gender in Media, they share some of the data that shows that girls are getting some pretty strange messages about what makes them valuable.

A study just released by the Institute on Gender in Media echoes the research we do, but could be shocking for many Beauty Redefined followers who haven’t spent their free time critically analyzing kids’ media options! And we’re not talking about pop culture choices you’ve never heard of – we’re referring to the most popular G-rated movies and TV shows from Disney, Fox, Nickelodeon, you name it. Read on to find out what the kids are watching, how it may be affecting them, and what you can do to make a difference for good in a media-filled world in need of light!

Get this: The average person spends 4 to 6 hours a day watching TV and movies. Do the math and that means by the time we reach age 70, we will have watched 7 to 10 years of 

TV and movies! Our research and the work we cite tells us the messages we get from those sources – not just the advertising but the “entertainment” – powerfully shape how we see our reality. Our feelings about everything – our bodies, beauty, worth, potential, etc. – are formed as our media choices whisper (and often YELL) what we should believe about ourselves. Most often, those voices tell us women are to be valued for their sexual appeal and thinness, they should spend their lives striving for those  ideals, and they cannot be loved and desired without reaching those goals (which are unattainable). That is why the media literacy messages we share are so vital for us all. Reputable scholars stand behind us as we claim our ability to think critically about inescapable media messages is essential to our health and well-being. The scary thing is the U.S. is the only industrialized country without media literacy in public schooling curriculum. While we teach our kids how to read classic literature, we have yet to help them understand and deconstruct messages that shape their entire lives. That’s why Beauty Redefined is hard at work spreading this knowledge!

Geena Davis, actress and founder of the Institute on Gender in Media 

Geena Davis, star of “A League of their Own” and “Thelma and Louise,” among other hit movies, told The Wall Street Journal about the “shocking” research on children’s media she helped fund and we can only hope it’s jarring enough to get media makers to change their approach. In the largest study of its kind, the Institute on Gender in Media found the more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in her life. And the more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become. Youch.

Scary? Oh yes. But there’s more:

  • In G-rated movies, for every one female character, there are three male characters. If it is a group scene, it changes to five to one, male to female.
  • Of the female characters that exist, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. Startlingly, the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.
  • The only aspiration for female characters in nearly every instance is finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance. Their No. 1 goal is becoming royalty.
  • The vast majority of female characters in animated movies have an “ideal” body type that cannot exist in real life. (We could’ve told them that :)

Those findings truly echo the reasons we  have taken up this battle for girls and women everywhere.  When the millions of images of women and girls we see in media reflect a distorted reality where females  are valued solely for their (unattainable) thinness and sexual appeal, their only goal in life is to find Prince Charming, and they are outnumbered by males at least three to one, we have a problem and we must not only speak up, but fight back. These messages, found in the most “innocent” of children’s programming and movies, are dangerous at best and deadly at worst.  Hospitalizations for little girlswith eating disorders went up 100 percent in the last decade, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics. No wonder that is the case when the only images little girls see in media aimed at them (and that media aimed at their sisters and moms) represents “underweight” as normal and the only form of desirable.  Cosmetic surgery increased 446 percent in the last decade to reach $12 billion in 2010, with 92 percent of those voluntary procedures (mostly liposuction and breast augmentation) performed on females – some younger than 18. No wonder that is the case when even the “mildest” of entertainment represents females of any age as sexual objects made up of digitally and surgically enhanced parts.  Today, girls who watch TV and movies grow up believing they have very few options available to them: find someone to love them, steer clear of school and jobs in math, science, and engineering (according to research that shows women make up a tiny percentage of those career paths), and focus the majority of their attention and energy on keeping their weight down and their sex appeal up.

This is not a media environment we want anyone growing up in! And we don’t want to live amid all these lies either! So let’s get to the uplifting stuff. Here’s what Davis and her team are doing:

Her goal is to increase the number of positive representations of girls and women in films and TV aimed at kids and she is going straight to the source! It sounds as though she’s following our strategy that tells us media decision makers can be powerful forces for good. She has approached the major studios and produces, the Writers Guild, the Animators Guild, the Casting Directors Guild, and the news media to correct this horrific problem.  As a powerful voice for good, Davis is – while probably unaware – collaborating with Beauty Redefined and all those passionate about these issues to make change happen and leave us all more happy, healthy, and hopeful.

Like Davis, we are enlisting as many as will join the fight to take back beauty and health for girls and women everywhere. Along with our commitment to break the silence that surrounds so much dangerous media that is so normal in our lives, we hope to give others a voice for the things they feel but maybe don’t have the words to really articulate. If you’ve ever calculated your Body Mass Indexand felt shocked and hurt by the diagnosis it gave you, our research can give you the real facts behind the profit-driven “health” measurement known as the BMI. If you’ve flipped through a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and been shocked by the sheer amount of nudity and pornographic poses in America’s most popular sports magazine, our research gives you the words to explain why those images are so hurtful to you. If you have watched Gossip Girl and noticed how sexual assault is framed as something normal for guys who are “players” and girls who hang around them, our work speaks to the ways that is wildly harmful for the millions viewing. The list goes on, but the point is, media literacy, as pointed out by Davis’ research and the work we do, is so necessary to get us back to reality – where we can work to attain real health and beauty and move on to everything more meaningful and uplifting.

There are so many valuable ways you can fight back against profit-driven media that wreaks havoc on our happiness and skews our sense of reality. Try these suggestions, and please check out our full lists of strategies at “How Girls and Women Can Take Back Beauty” and “How Boys and Men Can Take Back Beauty.”

Don’t let TV babysit: If you have kids or watch kids, make a rule that you can only watch TV and movies together. That way, you can engage in dialogue the whole time. If you see positive female role models doing things that are non-stereotypical (like a girl playing basketball or a woman working as a scientist), point it out! If you see messages that may have a negative impact (like a sexualized girl, an unattainably thin female character, or a lack of any positive female representation), point that out too! Talk to your kids about alternatives like “Couldn’t a girl have played that part?” and speak up about unattainable ideals like Photoshopping, soft camera lighting, and animated characters that could not be alive in real life based on their body size and shape.

Make time away from the big screen: If it scares you to think that by age 70 you will have watched 7-10 full years of TV, think of how many years of screen media your kids are viewing! Today’s kids watch more media (computer, TV, movies) than adults, which means finding time away from the screen can be a valuable way to get back to reality. Set a goal to only watch certain TV shows or movies and only during specific times. That way, media isn’t just used to pass the time, entertain, or otherwise take the place of time that can be spent being active, helping a neighbor, visiting family, or being otherwise productive.

Be an advocate for change: If our suggestion to turn away from media that degrades or otherwise hurts you is just not enough for you, consider your fierce influence as an advocate for women. When you see a children’s movie that features girls in only stereotypical roles, a company’s ads that fuels female insecurity, or a magazine that objectifies women even as it claims to empower them, speak up! Blogging your disapproval is a great start, and so is posting links to news stories and site posts that reveal harmful ideals on social networking sites. Join us on Facebook for regular links to share and continue this conversation! If you’d like to go a step further, write to and/or call your local cable company, network TV station, newspaper and any other media outlet perpetuating harmful messages. Since it is rare to see an ad that does anything positive for female body image, we have launched acampaign to fund a billboard that will promote positive body image here in Salt Lake City and that billboard is now in the works! Do you know the potential you have to do so much good if you want to?

And check out our examples of Photoshop as an industry standard, My (Sexy) Little Pony: Teaching Toddlers Sexual Objectification, and the rest of our strategies for even more empowering information you can use in your battle.

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2 comments on “Sexy, Super Skinny and Searching for Love: The Kids are Watching WHAT?!

  1. whatsaysyou
    April 21, 2011

    This is just mind-blowing information you wrote. However, I can clap my hands reading that Geena Davis is using her celebrity status for a very positive cause when it comes to tackling the issue of gender in media :) I agree that we can be advocates for change for the sake of the kids.

  2. Marisa
    September 7, 2011

    “The scary thing is the U.S. is the only industrialized country without media literacy in public schooling curriculum. While we teach our kids how to read classic literature, we have yet to help them understand and deconstruct messages that shape their entire lives.”

    Wow, I never even imagined that schools anywhere taught students to think critically about the media. What a great idea! There are so many areas in which the media sends messages that are harmful to people and the planet. I would love to see what a curriculum like this looks like.

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