Technology and media can play a significant role in the development of women’s self-esteem. In the wake of numerable technologic advancements, ranging from I-Phones to HD television sets the size of a room, our society has quick access to images that support a culture of diet fads, refining a person’s looks based on popular images, and the subjection of women. For any insomniac or someone simply in the mood for watching mindless television, a quick flip of a button can take one to an hour-long infomercial waging the war against fat and how a super tummy-tucking exercise band can be a woman’s ticket to happiness and the body they always wanted. Of course, infomercials are old-school. More relevant, many people have access to the internet, a forum full of thousands of how-to guides on achieving the perfect body, become a successful female, and finding the love of our life through a dramatic makeover. In addition, we live in an age where going to the movies is a common activity and not surprisingly, many women find themselves playing the comparison game with ultra-stars worth millions.
Obviously, I use technology to advance my interaction with others, look up helpful information, and sometimes even to relieve boredom. This blog would not exist if I chose not to use technology! And, just like many people I know, there are times when I find myself hopelessly addicted to Netflix, with its wealth of juicy movies and shows to binge watch. There is nothing inherently wrong with using the internet or watching Netflix and I certainly believe that they can be part of a fulfilling and healthy life. They are fun and even as a lover of literature, I admit that sometimes I just want to sit in front of the TV and not have to think too much (anyone that knows me, knows that I have a habit of over thinking everything). Sometimes, watching a good documentary can be a momentous learning occasion. Finally, just like many people, I have a difficult time functioning without my phone. We live in an age of fast communication. We would have to restructure the fabric of our society if we returned to the days of buggy and horse communication. Convenience is the name of the game in Western society and many of us have become masters of finding the fastest route, speed-dialing, and showing off our smart phone skills. However, in relation to women, I believe that technology and the media have a dark side that suffocates healthy body image and self-esteem. And, this dark side cannot be ignored if women want to be free of the pressure of double-standards and diet culture!
Let me start by looking at the media. How many female movie stars have a standardized look to them? How many of them have bones sticking through their clothes, even when the camera supposedly adds a dreadful ten pounds? How easy is it to turn on E News and see a piece about what size dress an actress wears? It is all too simple to do a Google search of celebrity diet and training “secrets”. It is all too easy to look at the movie stars that have been lifted to above-human status, ones often portrayed as the ultimate standard of beauty, and feel like there is something lacking in our female essence and appearance. We are over-exposed to headlines and tabloids that display celebrities as infallible human beings and if we just try hard enough, we can get their body, face, and success. If a female celebrity gains weight, it can quickly turn into a demeaning headline, grabbed onto by greedy magazine writers as if the state of the nation is in dire conditions because of the God-forsaken appearance of stomach fat on a once bone-thin actress, model, or musician! The documentary Miss Representation, directed and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, points out that female politicians are often hyper-scrutinized for their appearance, rather than their qualities of leadership and public service. (By the way, this is a must watch documentary for those who wish to learn more about how women are falsely represented in the media.)
For movie stars, there is quite often the pressure to maintain a certain physical image, a point also made in Miss Representation. This can range from the pressure to get plastic surgery to losing weight for a certain role. And, in my mind, the problem with this is not so much celebrity bodies in and of themselves, as much as a forced and fixed idea of what an ordinary, everyday woman should look and behave like. Very rarely is the woman who a man woos for in moves of an “average” body size and shape. Very rarely do the women in romantic movies have pimples on their face or pooches on their stomach or have size A breasts. Very rarely do the women in these movies have “larger” body types or have a bad hair day. Believe me, I cringe even using the terms average and larger because I believe that they set the tone for an arbitrary standard that is relatively meaningless to health or beauty. However, these are also terms that have become commonplace and are the best way to show how movie stars very often do not represent everyday women.
Young girls, teenagers, and women are frequently exposed to images of movie stars and in all too real human fantastical thinking, it appears that the thin, plastic looking woman is the one who gets the guy; is the one who gets the job promotion; is the one who triumphs over hardship or heartbreak; is the one who defeats the bad guys with her sexiness. Of course, there have been movies and television shows in more recent times that do strive to veer from a standardized look of women, but by and large, it seems that we cannot break the cycle of this idealization of plastic looks and ultra-thin body types.
And this brings me to my next point about technology: we have easy access to “how-to” guides in regards to women manipulating their bodies, changing their style, and gaining celebrity-level sexiness. This can come through online magazine articles, blog posts, and websites that are dedicated to motivating women to be “good” with food, “refining” their looks, and making them feel bad enough about their natural selves that they sacrifice the simple pleasures of life to maintain an idealized image of self. The problem is that these articles and “how-to’s” spend much time criticizing normal and natural parts of women’s bodies, their relationship with food, and their inability to exercise sixty hours a week. The problem is that these articles and other internet informational sites bet women against their own selves, their intuition, and most importantly, their self-esteem. Even articles that talk about how it is “ok” to have that cheeseburger or take a day off from working out also stress the importance of starting back at the diet tomorrow and spend much time promising women that you won’t gain too much weight from one night of sinful eating. Thank you for giving me permission to eat what I feel like eating or deciding not to exercise because my body is not up for it! Phew! What a relief?!! My insecurity meter went down a notch, but of course, only until tomorrow…I promise! You can sense my sarcasm. The point I wish to make is that the internet can serve as a prop to put moral judgments on how women eat, look, move, and simply be. This is why it can be all too unhealthy for women’s sense of self and reassurance. We already have a marketing industry whose purpose is to make us feel insecure and wanting for relief from the beauty we lack.
Even when I Google for specific information, I often see a myriad of advertisements about the best weight-loss drugs, exercises, etc. And again, in an internet-crazed culture, girls and women see these advertisements repeatedly. Can we be surprised that women become insecure and feel the need to fix themselves and follow the guise of the internet and media? We look at images of females with flat stomachs and read words like, “You can achieve this too!” I believe that this can be devastating for an impressionable young woman seeking to discover her sense of self. When we live in a culture that feeds us instant information through a touch of a button on smart phones or laptops, we can gain quick access to self-esteem ruining propaganda of air-brushed images of women that look more plastic than they do human. And as is the case with human nature, this can begin the ultimate comparison game between women and the images that we are spoon-fed. The comparison game can not only make women’s self-esteem suffer, but also lead to a dark and dangerous turn: eating disorders. Constant exposure to pictures of bone-thin women, self-improvement and diet tips, and statements that suggest that body fat and curves are somehow unattractive, can lead young girls growing into their natural bodies and women already grown into theirs to believe that they need to control the situation. And this is the mindset that can lead to obsessive thoughts about food and weight and eventually to eating disorders. I will cover this topic in full in later posts because eating disorders are far more complicated and devastating than a paragraph or two can cover. However, I do want to talk about how the internet can influence the development and progression of eating disorders.
Of all the damaging websites dedicated to “helping” women and young girls change themselves and their bodies, “thin-spo” and pro-eating disorder websites (often called pro-ana) are the most dangerous. These websites often promote eating disorder behaviors, including starvation, purging, and over-exercising. These behaviors can be extremenly detrimental to a person’s health and even deadly. In fact, eating disorders, anorexia in particular, have the highest mortality rate our of any other psychiatric illness (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2012/spotlight-on-eating-disorders.shtml). Yes, eating disorders are not considered mere dieting tactics, but rather mental illnesses and process addictions. This is because they consist of extreme thinking patterns in relation to food and weight that manifest into obsessive behaviors, despite dire health consequences or interference in one’s daily life. Needless to say, this is why I believe that “thin-spo” and other pro-eating disorder websites and forums are horrifying, damaging, and possibly even life-threatening. These websites and forums contain information about how to restrict calories to the point of starvation and achieve an extremely underweight body fat percentage, as well as contain pictures of skeletal women and girls. The images and forums on these horrifying websites are used to “inspire” those struggling with eating disorders to continue on their destructive path. The underlying philosophy of these unhealthy “inspirational” tools is that eating disorders are more or less a lifestyle choice and the supreme example of self-control. And self-control is the theme that perpetuates diet mentality and culture and keeps women’s self-esteem in check. As discussed in my last post, we are trained to suppress our intuitive nature and instincts to well, take care of ourselves.
Technology and media can benefit and inspire women to be the best versions of themselves, as they see fit. I do not want to undermine that. However, these mainstays of our culture, can also contain harmful information and images that perpetuate the idea that everyday women lack the necessary ingredients and characteristics to be a successful, attractive woman. We are force-fed images that do not necessarily reflect the picture of health, and more importantly, sanity. And if women fall prey to the belief that their worth does in fact parallel the ability to count calories, remain wrinkle free, and wear the right kind of makeup, that they might make a sacrifice for the worse. When we live in a culture of convenience, largely aided by the internet, it is easy to allow technology and media to tell us what women should look like and do, rather than decide for ourselves, what our most healthy body is, what personal success feels like, and how to obtain meaningful relationships with ourselves and others, despite our weight.
It need not be like this. I encourage all women to look beyond internet ads and movie stars and determine what feels right to you and how you want to look and live. Write a blog of your own, begin a website dedicated to body positivity, scroll past the diet tips, do not read tabloids, and create an image of yourself that you feel expresses your best self. The media does dictate the fabric of your self and life. The internet provides arbitrary images. We all have the power to express our own truth and image that does not represent the standardization in movies and television. I believe self-representation is the choice to show our natural selves, embrace our unique image, and live according to our intuition and conscience. I believe this holds more water than any how-to guide or screen image can provide for us.