Mrs J Forbes, School Psychologist
Body image is a significant issue for teenage girls. Mission Australia has surveyed Australian adolescents (aged 11 to 19 years) annually since 2005 and has found that for the past six years body image has consistently been identified by teenage girls living in Queensland as one of their top two issues of concern (Mission Australia, 2007; 2008; 2009; 2010; 2011; 2012). Last year 42.7 % of Queensland girls aged 15 to 19 said they felt ‘extremely’ or ’very concerned’ about their body image (Mission Australia, 2012).
For most children, their body is nothing more than something that helps them get from one place to the next. Around puberty, however, we can see a shift from happy disregard to obsession about appearance for some adolescents (Levy, 2005). Given the major physical changes taking place in the adolescent body, it is perhaps no wonder that this is precisely the time when young people focus on and fret so much about their looks. More puzzling perhaps is that forty-two per cent of teenage girls worry about their appearance compared to only nineteen per cent of teenage boys (Mission Australia, 2012). Concerns about appearance, feelings of anxiety and depression, disordered eating and loss of confidence are all more prominent in adolescent girls. Whilst many factors may contribute to this situation, one which deserves consideration is the concept of self-objectification, a term first coined by Fredrickson and Roberts in 1997.
Considered a key issue for many females (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Tiggermann & Williams, 2012; Calogero, Tantleff-Dunn, & Thompson, 2011), self-objectification invites a person to view themselves as an object to be looked at, evaluated, or desired on the basis of their appearance. It is unfortunate that our current generation of girls are exploring and developing their identity at the same time that we are seeing an increasing focus on sex and sexuality within popular culture. The objectification and early sexualisation of females by the media, together with the proliferation of social networking sites such as Facebook, has created an environment where adolescent girls find it extremely difficult to escape self-objectification and subsequent body image concerns.
While the objectification of women by the media is hardly a new phenomenon, increasingly, the sexualised approach taken by modern advertising to sell everything from breakfast cereal to cars is concerning. ‘Raunch’ culture (Levy, 2005) and the saturation of mainstream media with erotic images presents teenage girls with confusing and damaging messages, constituting a level of pressure never before seen. Moreover, this is not balanced between the genders. Research has repeatedly revealed that women are portrayed in the media in a sexual and objectified way more than men (American Psychological Association, 2007). Models and celebrities are thinner and their images are digitally photo-shopped more than ever before. The shape, skin-tone, style and look to which girls are aspiring are far from real or realistically obtainable within a media environment which sends the message that appearance is a young girl’s most important asset. Self-objectification has been correlated with poor self-image, anxiety, depression, body image issues, eating disorders, self-harm and reduced educational achievement (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; American Psychological Association, 2007; Levin & Kilbourne, 2009; Calogero, Tantleff-Dunn, & Thompson, 2011; Tiggermann & Williams, 2012). Popular media then, from magazines and television to music videos and computer games, has a significant effect on shaping a girl’s perception of her body.
There has been an incredible rise in technology in the last decade and social networking has become rapidly woven into the fabric of everyday life, no more so than for our current generation of adolescents. Internet sites such as Facebook can be a vehicle for self-objectification in a unique and concerning way. Facebook allows girls to scrutinise their own profile page and photos on the screen in front of them as another person would, whether it is as a member of the public or a (Facebook) friend. By doing this, an adolescent girl can engage in self-objectification in a visual and immediate way. Girls can spend great lengths of time creating the perfect profile for their Facebook account, take and upload photos immediately to their profile due to smart phone technology, and constantly monitor the number of ‘likes’ received or comments offered on their posted photos. In fact, there is much competition and comparing occurring among girls to see who has the most ‘likes’ on the photos they post of themselves. Those girls with fewer ‘likes’ can be left feeling less popular, less attractive and less worthy. ‘Today’s girls for the first time are growing up with mirrors that talk back to them. Girls not only use Facebook to check up on how they look, they also use it to gauge how others see them’ (Schryver cited in Steyer, 2012). Females spend about thirty per cent more time on Facebook than males (Walton, 2012). In fact, journalist Paul Gilbert (2012) has said of Mark Zuckerman, creator of Facebook, ‘A 17-year-old man with no children has more influence on young girls than any single human being on the planet.’ Dr Amy Slater from Flinders University (2012) found that girls in Years 8 and 9 were spending in excess of 1.5 hours per day on social networking sites and averaging 215 Facebook friends. Of concern, female Facebook users were found to feel less happy and less content with their lives than non-users (Walton, 2012).
Dr Harry Brandt, Director of The Centre for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore (2012), asserts, ‘Facebook is making it easier for people to spend more time and energy criticising their own bodies and wishing they looked like someone else.’ A study in Israel has linked Facebook use to body image issues and disordered eating (University of Haifa, 2011). The recent timeline feature added to Facebook has further been suggested to add to body image issues due to the easier comparisons of body shape and weight over time (The Centre for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, 2012). For adolescent girls going through puberty and maturation, comparing their body over time can be fraught with anxiety. The more concerned a girl is about her appearance, weight and body image, the more she tends to check her Facebook profile (Steyer, 2012). Given the cultural climate, girls are invited to exhibit very slim photos of themselves on the internet via poses and camera angles. Some girls will photo-shop their own photos in order to appear thinner and receive more positive feedback publicly (Steyer, 2012). The ‘double whammy’ faced by this generation is that girls are not only aspiring to look like the uniform body type offered to them by models in the media, but now they are also aspiring to reach benchmarks in appearance and weight set by their peers on social networking sites, and these are often digitally altered unrealistic images.
Combating the prevalent images in the media may seem daunting, but it is important to understand that there are other powerful influences on our girls. Parents, friends and teachers all too have a role to play. It is interesting to note that sexualisation can also come from social influences such as peers and parents, so we all need to be mindful of the messages we send. How comfortable are we with our own body image? What do we model for our daughters through our comments and behaviours regarding our own appearance? What compliments do we give our daughters, and are they appearance-based, achievement-based or behaviour-based? Ensuring a balance is important. How do we spend time with our daughters? Shopping days and beauty treatments are a lovely way to be together, but need to be balanced with other less appearance-based pursuits, such as going to the beach, visiting a museum, or kicking a ball. Helping girls to focus on their physicality and strength and what their bodies can do when exercising, rather than how they look, is crucial. As parents we can challenge the notion that appearance is a woman’s most important asset by modelling respect for others and refraining from gossiping or criticising other women on their appearance.
When exploring their environment, how many times have we witnessed adolescents whipping their camera phones out, striking the perfect pose, immediately uploading, and then evaluating what they look like on Facebook, instead of savouring such moments? Asking girls what they feel or think about during such experiences, rather than what they looked like while doing it, can be a place to start. The involvement of parents in their daughters’ media usage, together with cooperative and critical discussions, are considered protective factors against disordered eating (University of Haifa, 2011).
Educate your daughters about the superficiality of ‘likes’ and photos on Facebook, and monitor the time spent on such sites. Discuss how they feel when they are using social media. Question and be curious about the posting of photos and the impact of ‘likes’ on their feelings of self-worth. However, resist banning social networking sites altogether, as they have many benefits for this age group. In reality, it is impossible to avoid media and the internet, and, despite our efforts, we are not going to be able to shelter our children entirely from such things. The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open, be a good role model and offer a different perspective.
Brisbane Girls Grammar School embraces the opportunity to educate young women about their contributions to the world, offering a myriad of alternative ways to define themselves, or make a mark, without focusing on appearance. Girls are celebrated and respected for their achievements, behaviour and opinions. This year part of the Year 9 Ethics programme will be devoted to discussing students’ strengths, character and values. To complement what is embedded within the curriculum, the Ethics programme will also be providing additional media literacy education to equip students with the skills to critically analyse the messages they receive from the media.
Ensuring our girls have the space to think, alternatives to ponder and role models to challenge the harmful messages that media and social networking sites offer is a joint venture between home and school. While none of us can escape the dominant media culture that surrounds us, we do not need to succumb to it. By working together with our girls, we can ensure that we provide our current generation of adolescent girls with the skills and experience required to resist developing self-objectification and instead move towards self-acceptance.
American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Calogero, R. M., Tantleff-Dunn, S., & Thompson, J. K. (Eds.). (2011). Self-objectification in women: Causes, consequences, and counteractions. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Centre for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, The. (2012, March). Public survey conducted by The Centre for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt finds Facebook use impacts the way many people feel about their bodies [Media Release]. Retrieved February 8, 2013, from http://eatingdisorder.org/assets/uploads/managed/default/docs/mediarelease/22-publicsurvey.pdf
Fredrickson, B., & Roberts, T. (1997). Objectification theory: Towards understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173–206.
Gilbert, P. (May, 2012). Not just another pretty face. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://www.missrepresentation.org/leadership/not-just-another-pretty-facebook/
Levin, D., & Kilbourne, J. (2009). So sexy so soon: The sexualised childhood and what parents can do to protect their kids. New York: Ballantine Books.
Levy, A. (2005). Female chauvinist pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture. London: Simon & Schuster.
Mission Australia. (2007; 2008; 2009; 2010; 2011). National survey of young Australians. Retrieved February 4, 2013, from http://www.missionaustralia.com.au/document-downloads/youth-survey
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Slater, A. (2012). Poor body image linked with Facebook time. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://blogs.flinders.edu.au/flinders-news/2012/02/21/poor-body-image-linked-with-facebook-time/
Steyer, J. (2012). Talking back to Facebook: The common sense guide to raising kids in the digital age. New York: Scribner.
Tiggemann, M., & Williams, E. (2012). The role of self-objectification in disordered eating, depressed mood, and sexual functioning among women: A comprehensive test of objectification theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36(1), 66–75.
University of Haifa. (2011, February). Facebook users more prone to eating disorders [Media release]. Retrieved February 8, 2013, from http://newmedia-eng.haifa.ac.il/?p=4522
Walton, A. (2012, May). The true costs of Facebook addiction: Low self-esteem and poor body image. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/04/05/the-true-costs-of-facebook-addiction-low-self-esteem-and-poor-body-image/