The Media's Role in Body Image

Dr. Ira Sacker
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” or so the saying goes.  In reality, however, it is not so simple.  In our society today, much more emphasis is placed on how one looks rather than who we are as people.  We no longer look to statesmen, authors, or Nobel laureates as our role models and idols.  Our “idols” have become the ultra-thin female and the Adonis male with his six-pack abs.  Our culture has sold out to an illusion, created by the media, which cannot possibly be reached. 

The average American female wears a size 12 –14.  The ideal size for a model in the 1950’s was a size 8; today the ideal size is 0.  Advances in computer technology make it easier than ever to alter images.  The images we see in magazines have been digitally altered to absolute perfection; blemishes can be removed with a click of a mouse.  These altered images are viewed to be the cultural “standard of beauty”.  This is a standard that not even the models can live up to.  Yet women and men look to these images to judge their own appearance and self-worth.  The result: 80% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance.  The rates of disordered eating have skyrocketed.  The diet industry has become a multi-billion dollar business.  Extensive plastic surgery is almost routine.  Men and women are willing to put their health at risk by abusing legal nutritional supplements, diuretics, and laxatives as well as illegal drugs such as steroids to achieve “the look”. 

Children are also affected by the images in the media.  Barbie Dolls, an unrealistic and complete distortion of the female body are marketed to little girls.  Ultra-thin teen idols, like the Olsen twins, perpetuate the idea that, in order to be successful, beautiful, and happy one must be thin. Surveys of young girls show that 40% of first through third grade girls want to be thinner and 81% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat.  Our anxieties and insecurities are being passed on to the next generation, with devastating results.

Dr. Ira M. Sacker is president and medical director of The HEED (Helping to End Eating Disorders) Foundation and director of adolescent medicine at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center.