Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln PhD

Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln PhD

Author:Renee Engeln, PhD
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: HarperCollins
Published: 2017-04-18T04:00:00+00:00


The Ways We’re Fighting Beauty Sickness Aren’t Working


Media Literacy Is Not Enough

A couple of years ago, a fifteen-year-old named Sarah sent me an email. Sarah is one of many high school students who have contacted me about their own activism around body image. Hers took the form of a mini-documentary about how advertising affects girls. She sent me the YouTube link and asked if I would watch it. The video begins with a montage of the usual suspects: makeup advertisements featuring inhumanly flawless skin, a fashion ad with an egregiously Photoshopped model, scenes from the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Sarah followed these images with a series of powerful interviews she conducted with girls at her school ranging in age from twelve to seventeen.

The interviews begin with the girls talking about what beauty means to them. Their answers would do any parent or teacher proud. Beauty is on the inside, they explain. It’s your personality. It’s how you define it. One girl shares that she finds people most beautiful when they’re sharing something about which they’re passionate. If you stopped at this point in the video, you’d think everything was fine for these girls. Better than fine, even. But a few more minutes into the video, it becomes clear that this is not the case.

The next section of the film shows these same girls holding a laptop and looking at a set of advertisements featuring women. The girls catalogue what they’re seeing: flawless skin, extreme thinness that somehow coexists with curves. Human Barbie dolls, one explains. You can hear Sarah’s voice in the background asking, “How do these pictures make you feel?” The answer, across the board, is “sad.” These girls are smart. They know they will never look like the women in these pictures, and quite simply, that makes them sad. They reflect on the times boys at their school called them chubby, fat ass, or too skinny. Times they were called “rocky road” because they had acne, or had their nose made fun of for looking “too Jewish,” or were told they’d be hotter if they “just lost a couple pounds.” Their openness and vulnerability astound me.

One of Sarah’s teachers showed this video to her classes. Several girls cried when they saw it. One boy apologized directly to Sarah for the body-shaming comments he had made. The twenty minutes of that video were a powerful experience for all involved.

The girls interviewed in the film were plenty critical of the images they saw. They called them unrealistic. One made the particularly astute comment that the ideal she sees in ads is “genetically impossible.” But do these smart, critical girls still want to look like those airbrushed images? Yes. Without question. This is a fundamental weakness with what’s commonly called media literacy. In case you haven’t heard the term, media literacy in this context involves a few different tasks. The first is cultivating an awareness of the types of messages about women’s beauty we’re exposed to and what the explicit and implicit arguments in these messages are.


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