Last summer, I spent some time reflecting on my reflection. I turned 50 at the end of July. Of course I spent time thinking about the lessons I’d learned and the blessings I’d received over the course of the first five decades of my life. The very fact that I was pondering how fast time flies, proves the fact that I’ve been aging. After all, I grew up hearing all the old people in my life say the same thing.
But it was what I saw in the mirror that really got me thinking about my age. I caught myself lamenting my changing hairline, waistline and wrinkle lines. Processing the mirrored image through prevailing cultural standards left what I was facing look pretty undesirable. The same culture that set those standards offers me an endless array of products and processes promising to put a smile on my aging face and a spring in my slowing step by retarding and reversing the effects of time and gravity. But processing the reality of agings effects on my body theologicallythrough the eyes of a Christian world and life viewleft me thinking something entirely different: Mirror, mirror on the wall, what I see is from the fall.
You see, along with spiritual death and the sufferings of life, physical death and the process of aging are a result of humankind’s sinful rebellion against God, a rebellion that started in the Garden of Eden and which continues today. And try as hard as we might, we’re only fooling ourselves if we think we can avoid, reverse or put any of it off. The fact is, I’m wasting away and in need of a redeemer, and nothing I can buy, apply, use, ingest or enlist can reverse the effects of sin. Diets, cosmetics, hair dye, Rogaine, exercise, tanning beds and plastic surgery are marketed to us non-stop as redeemers that can make our broken lives whole once more. Oh, these things might serve to temporarily hide the reality and make me feel good by helping me to forget it all for awhile, but the reality of my sin, my sorry state and my need for redemption is still there waiting to rear its ugly head no matter how handsome and young-looking my head might be.
If all of this is a battle for us as adults, imagine what it must be like for our kids. More than any other prior generation, they’ve been pounded since birth by media messages that are convincingly leading them down the road of false promises, and they don’t even know it. Adolescence is a time when our kids need to be encouraged and built up. But by setting standards for beauty and body image that are largely unattainable, the media can mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually rip our kids apart, leading them away from the One true Redeemer.
Consider television. Let’s face it, ugly and overweight people don’t make it on TV unless they are cast as ugly and overweight people. Unfortunately, our definition of what is ugly and overweight has been defined, in many ways, by television. TV is overloaded with beautiful people who don’t look much like anything most of us see when we look in the mirror. The women are slim and trim. The men are dashing and muscular. And everyone is good-looking. Today’s shows are engaging, but they provide our kids with more than a half hour or hour of entertainment. They are full of spoken and unspoken lessons on life that powerfully shape impressionable young hearts and minds. One of TV’s most powerful lessons is that of body image and appearance. Kids learn that teens who have fun with friends have nice bodies, beautiful hair and clear complexions. While these messages are no doubt life-shaping for males, too, it is girls who pay the highest price. Quentin Schultze summarizes TV’s appearance message: It’s impossible to miss the point: women are what they look like, not what they accomplish or what they value and believe. Their looks are their essence, for their body determines their identity as well as their image in the minds of family members and especially peers. Without the proper look, identity and intimacy will never be satisfactorily achieved.1
A few years ago a middle-school-aged girl came to me in tears over her looks: I’m too short. I don’t like the color of my hair. And my face looks funny. When I asked her why she wasn’t happy with the way she looked (she was a beautiful kid), she began to describe each feature she would like to change and gave me an example of someone who had the particular characteristic she coveted. Sadly, each person she mentioned was one of the beautiful people she had seen on TV, in videos, on the movie screen or in any number of magazines. She wanted to become them because she hated herself. In reality, she hated herself because she believed they had become what she saw on paper and film. In later conversations I learned that she had been trying to build herself up by telling her friends that she had just signed a modeling contract. She also told me she was thinking seriously about plastic surgery.
All the images our kids see combine to define a culturally created standard of beauty that few people ever attain. You may wonder why your children are so consumed with spending time in front of the mirror. The answer is simple. They are trying to measure up to the images they’ve seen plastered on TV, the printed page, the big screen and billboards. They balance perilously between trying to measure up and the frustration of never measuring up. My two daughters have grown up in a world where you’re led to believe you have to look like a supermodel to be acceptable to guys. Sadly, my sons have grown up in a world where they’re led to believe this is what any girl worth your time and attention looks like. Guys spend their time trying to develop big biceps, ripped abs and the look of the handsome guys who, in the ads, seem to be getting all the attention of one or more girls.
As time passes, the standards change, becoming increasingly unrealistic and more difficult to attain. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, reports that in 1950, the White Rock mineral-water girl was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 140 pounds. Today, she stands 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs only 110.2 These same unrealistic standards pummel our kids through daily media portrayals. A recent study that examined the effect of teen-targeted television on teenage viewers concluded that as in most of television, these shows tend to cast svelte, attractive females and, to a lesser extent, handsome and buff males. In terms of body type, no heavier-than-average main teenage characters appeared on these programs.3
These are the standards being adopted by those who encounter them in media. One study traced this growing problem by measuring the level of body satisfaction among women. In 1972, 23 percent of women felt wholesale displeasure with their bodies. That number had increased to 38 percent by 1985, and to 48 percent by 1997.4 A more recent study looked at the problem of female body dissatisfaction on a global scale. The study found that only a minority of women see themselves as being above average in appearance, and only 2 percent describe themselves as beautiful. Forty-eight percent of the women surveyed strongly agreed with the statement, When I feel less beautiful, I feel worse about myself in general. Only 11 percent strongly disagreed with that same statement. Of the women surveyed, 63 percent strongly agreed that women today are expected to be more physically attractive than their mother’s generation was, and 60 percent strongly agreed that society expects women to enhance their physical attractiveness. Fifty-nine percent strongly agreed that physically attractive women are more valued by men. In addition, 57 percent of all women strongly agree that the attributes of female beauty have become very narrowly defined in today’s world, and 68 percent strongly agree that the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve. Finally, 76 percent strongly agreed that they wished that female beauty was portrayed in the media as being made up of more than just physical attractiveness, and 75 percent strongly agreed that they wished the media did a better job of portraying women of diverse physical attractiveness, including age, shape, and size.5 To their credit, the Unilever Company, makers of Dove soap, commissioned this survey, which yielded a new advertising campaign featuring more normal and average female models.
It should come as no surprise that a connection has been made between media body-image standards, and the rise in occurrence of eating disorders. One study found media consumption significantly predicted symptoms of eating disorders among women and attitudes in favor of thinness and dieting among men.6
What has been the effect among young people? College-aged students who watch TV shows and read magazines that overemphasize sex and the body tend to be more prone to define themselves by how their body appears to others.7 Another study measured the effects of soap operas and music videos on teenage viewers, concluding that boys who watched music videos were at higher risk of developing the male version of body-obsessiona drive toward lean, hyper-muscular physiques, and TV soap operas (daytime and primetime) may help make adolescent girls desperate for a thinness few can healthily achieve.8 Other research finds that for boys and girls who identify with television stars, girls who identify with models, and boys who identify with athletes, there is a positive correlation with body dissatisfaction.9
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the Internet has become a place where young people struggling with their own body image can go to be encouragedyes, that’s right, encouragedto celebrate eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia as fashionable. These pro-anorexia Web sites have become online communities and support groups for those who worship the goddess Ana (short for anorexia). These sites offer tips, tricks, quotes, images and creeds (that reveal the ideological beliefs of disordered eaters).
On the bright side, there are those in the media who are taking responsibility by spearheading efforts to reverse the media’s negative influence regarding body image. For example, Jamie Lee Curtis appeared on the cover of the September 2002 edition of More magazine. While she’d appeared on the covers of numerous magazines before, this time it was for a different reason. Inside, the article and photos revealed the truth about magazine photo shoots, how they’re doctored and how long it takes a model to get ready for one. In fact, she told readers that it took 13 people three hours to get her ready for the More shoot. Then, she allowed readers to see what she really looks like. Wearing a sport bra and briefs, Curtis had the magazine photograph her and then place the undoctored photo inside. Her honesty was admirable, and the Jamie Lee Curtis in the undoctored photo looked remarkably normal and different than the version on the cover. They’re photos all our kids should see.
Another positive step was taken when Christina Kelly took over as editor of YM magazine in 2002. Aware of the body-image issue, Kelly banned dieting stories and started featuring larger-sized models in the popular teen-girl magazine. When she made the jump to a similar position at Elle Girl in 2005, she decided to do the same by getting rid of stories on weight loss and dieting.
While these are steps in the right direction, they are only very small ripples in a very large mass of media water. Media’s unhealthy obsession with body image and the resulting pressure on kids yield two results. First, they sell a slew of products designed to make us more attractive, and to slow and stop the inevitable process of aging. And second, they sell an image that 99.9 percent of the people in this world will never attain. As a result, kids and adults waste terrible amounts of time, energy and money on pursuit of the dream, only to be let down over and over again.
We are raising a generation of kidsboth girls and boyswho have been hammered by images of culturally defined beauty and perfect body-types since the day they were born. Consequently, they believe they are nothing unless they look and are shaped a certain way. Never are they told by the media that if they have nothing in this world but a relationship with God through Christ, they will have everything.
What message are you sending to the kids you know and love? Yes, there’s a lot of muddled muck to cut through. But we must tell them the wonderful story of the One who gives life. Then, when they look in the mirror, they will be satisfied with what they see because they will understand it’s all been undone.
1 Quentin J. Schultze, Winning Your Kids Back From The Media (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 149.
2 Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 184.
3 Donna Mitroff, Prime-Time Teens: Perspectives on the New Youth-Media Environment, 2004, www.wtgrantfoundation.org/usr_doc/PrimeTimeMediascope2004.pdf, (2 June 2006).
4 Karen Lee-Thorp, Is Beauty the Beast? Christianity Today, 14 July 1997, 31.
5 Nancy Etcoff, Susie Orbach, Jennifer Scott, and Heidi DAgostino, The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report Findings of the Global Study on Women, Beauty, and Well-Being, Commissioned by Dove, September 2004.
6 Kristen Harrison and Joanne Cantor, The Relationship Between Media Consumption and Eating Disorders, Journal of Communication 47(1), 1997, 60.
7 TV, magazines affect viewers body image, USA Today, 4 May 2006, 10D.
8 E.J. Mundall, Soaps, Music Videos Linked to Teens Body Image, HealthDay Page, 14 June 2005, www.healthday.com, (15 November 2005).
9 Fact Sheet: Media’s Effect on Girls: Body Image and Gender Identity, National Institute on Media and the Family Page, 6 September 2002, www.mediafamily.org, (7 December 2005).