The article, “Mom says system is failing kids,” in The Telegram on Dec. 14, told the story of a mother’s 12-year-old daughter who had been cutting herself and was suicidal.
There was one telling sentence: “A few months ago, Jane said, her daughter carved, ‘I’ll never be good enough,’ into her skin.”
How it is that a tween girl believes she is flawed, and can never be “good enough”?
Everyone who stands in line at the grocery store sees images of women — models or celebrities — with perfect complexions and curves in all the right places, are beautifully proportioned and are dressed to the nines.
We’re led to believe that there are women out there who actually look like that, and that if other women worked really hard, they could look like that too — but nothing could be further from the truth. In the Media Education Foundation film, “Killing Us Softly 4,” media critic Jean Kilbourne states that, “women learn from a very early age that we must spend enormous amounts of time, energy and, above all, money striving to achieve this look and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail, and failure is inevitable because the ideal is based on absolute flawlessness. She never has any lines or wrinkles, she certainly has no scars or blemishes. Indeed, she has no pores! And the most important aspect of this flawlessness is that it cannot be achieved. No one looks like this — including her — and this is the truth, no one looks like this. The supermodel Cindy Crawford once said, ‘I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.’She doesn't — she couldn’t — because this is a look that has been created for years through airbrushing and cosmetics, but these days it’s done through the magic of retouching.
“Girls are getting the message these days so young, that they need to be impossibly beautiful, hot, sexy, extremely thin and they also get the message that they’re going to fail — that there’s no way to really achieve it. Girls tend to feel fine about themselves when they are 8, 9, 10 years old but they hit adolescence and they hit a wall, and certainly part of this wall is this terrible emphasis on physical perfection.”
Kilbourne notes that a photo of Kate Winslet that was on the cover of GQ magazine was digitally enhanced to make her look a lot thinner, and that Winslet issued a statement indicating that this had been done without her approval, saying, “I don’t look like that, and I don’t desire to look like that. I can tell you that they’ve reduced the size of my legs by about a third.”
Bombarded with images
According to the Media Education Foundation’s study guide that goes with this film, the average American is exposed to over 3,000 ads per day (on television, buses, billboards, in magazines, etc.). I’m figuring Canadians can’t be far behind.
Furthermore, the editor in chief of Advertising Age magazine is quoted as having said, “Only eight per cent of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind. The rest is worked and reworked deep within the recesses of the brain.”
Subliminally, we are affected by these images that are subtly crafted to convince us that we are not good enough the way we are and that we need to buy things in order to meet an unattainable standard.
There is no way of knowing the extent to which “perfect” images of women affected the 12-year-old who suffered with the belief that “I’ll never be good enough.”
In a perfect world — free of media messages like this — young people wouldn’t have to contend with such a toxic cultural environment, precisely at an age when they are in the process of trying to figure out who they are.
But there is no perfect world. Perhaps the best we can do is to expose the hypocrisy of these media images and encourage young people to develop media literacy skills.
Andrew Safer writes from St. John’s.