In studying various representations of social groups or types, students are examining how people construct generalizations about categories of people—that scientists are nerds or Native Americans are alcoholics. This analysis involves more than simply noting the stereotyping of these groups. It also involves examining reasons for these representations as constructions of beliefs about people, leading to questions such as “Where do these representations come from?” “Who produces these representations,” “Why are their producing these representations,” “How is complexity limited by these representations,” and “What is missing or how is silenced in these representations?” (Hall, 1997). Representations of groups often serves to fix the meanings of perceptions of groups. For example, media representations of black men affect how the society perceives black men in the “real world.” (Hall, 1997):
Groups are also often represented in highly essentialized ways by promoting generalizations according to gender, class, and race group categories—that “all boys always do X, and all girls always do Y,” or “all working-class people are like X and all upper-middle-class people are like Y.”
Jane Tallim, Exposing Gender Stereotypes
This essentializing fails to consider variations in identities, contexts, and cultures—the fact that, for example gender differences in one culture may be entirely different in another culture. Such essentialist categories are based on biological or behaviorist perspectives, rather than cultural perspectives. For example, essentializing males versus females as biological concepts fails to recognize that gender is a cultural construction evident in how people adopt or performs certain gendered social practices. People who are biological “males” may adopt “feminine” cultural practices, while people who are biological “females” may adopt “masculine” cultural practices. Gendered media representations are important in that they are central to adolescents defining their identities, as explored in the book, Media, Gender, and Identity
Representations of femininity. Femininity is represented in the media by the multi-billion dollar beauty industry in ways that links certain social practices associated with femininity as central to defining one’s identity as a female. All of this can have a limiting influence on adolescent females, as documented in the following factoids cited on the PBS program, Girls in America:
- The average model today weighs 23% less than the average American woman.
- If the measurements of a Barbie doll were translated into human terms, a 5'9" tall Barbie would be 33-18-28 (bust-waist-hips). The average 5'6" beauty contest winner measures 36-25-35.
- More than 80% of grade school girls (6th grade and below) report having been on a diet at least once. 40% of nine and ten year-old girls report having been on a diet. Most of them were not overweight.
- 50% of white girls ages 12-16 consider themselves overweight and only 15% consider their bodies normal. This is 6 times the rate for boys.
- Girls start school testing higher in every academic subject, yet graduate from high school scoring 50 points lower than boys on the SAT.
- Prior to entering college, 23% of male valedictorians and 21% of female valedictorians felt intellectually "far above average." After four years of college, 25% of the males felt intellectually "far above" their peers; none of the women believed that about herself.
- When asked "What is the best thing about being a boy?" the most common response among middle school aged boys was "not being a girl." When asked "What is the best thing about being a girl?" the top answer was "I don't know" or "Nothing" followed by responses focusing on hair and shopping.
- 85% of girls in grades 8-11 report experiencing sexual harassment.
One primary example of the role of media representations related to the construction of femininity is a focus on body weight. This focus on slimness is a current cultural phenomenon that reflects current cultural beliefs. In the late 1900s, women who were not slim were viewed in a positive light given they assumption that they were well-fed—a status feature associated with class. Since that time, the ideal body weight as portrayed in the media has moved towards increasing slimness. The Jean Kilbourne video, Slim Hopes, documents the ways in which the diet, weight loss, food, and even smoking industry associates slimness with a positive cultural image:
In media representations of female adolescent body weight, slimness is assumed to be the ideal “look.” These representations have resulted in adolescent females engaging in unhealthy eating habits and bulimia, with long-term negative effects on their bodies. For more information, search for “Standards of Attractiveness” on the following site:
See also the video clip and resources from the Media Education Foundation’s Recovering Bodies: Overcoming Eating Disorders:
A study conducted in 1996 by Children Now of media texts frequently used by female adolescents indicated that media texts emphasized the importance of adopting an ideal appearance:
* Across media, between 26 and 46% of women are portrayed as "thin" or "very thin" (compared to between 4 and 16% of men.)
* Women are much more likely than men to make or receive comments about their appearance in all three media - on TV 28% of women compared to 10% of men, in movies 58% of women to 24% of men, and in commercials 26% of women compared to less than 1% of men.
* Women are seen spending their time in appearance related activities such as shopping and grooming. On TV 10% of women compared to only 3% of men can be seen "grooming" or "preening". In movies, this grows to 31% of women and 7% of men. In TV commercials, it's 17% of women to 1% of men.
* 37% of the articles in teen magazines included a focus on appearance.
Such images may lead adolescent females to unhealthy eating practices and anorexia, with highly adverse health effects. One study http://www.thechiropracticvillage.com/id95.htm
the majority of preadolescent and adolescent girls . . . were unhappy with their body weight and shape. This discontent was related strongly to the frequency of reading fashion magazines, which was reported to influence their idea of the perfect body shape by 69% of the girls." It also obtained data showing that frequent readers of fashion magazines were significantly more likely to diet and exercise to lose weight and to get their image of ideal body shape from the pictures of grossly underweight models.
For other sites on body image: