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Women in the media: give the stereotypes a makeover

Women in the media: give the stereotypes a makeover

Worried that all your daughter ever sees in magazines and on screen are unrealistic images of “perfect” women? Our fun activity plan will let you both give the stereotypes a makeover.

Young girls are under ever-increasing pressure to look “perfect.” It’s enough to make any mom anxious. “I find it worrying that there is little diversity in the culture aimed at tweens and teens,” says Gill, mom to Kirsty, 13, and Natalie, 11. “I’m crying out for some better role models for my daughters, because there comes a time when a teenager takes more notice of what they see on the TV and online.”

That’s why we’ve put together an action checklist to challenge the stereotypes.

The evidence on media stereotypes 

“One of the major underlying causes for increasing low self-esteem among young people is that they do not see their uniqueness reflected back at them within the media environment that surrounds them,” says leading UK psychotherapist Dr. Susie Orbach. “They see so many perfected images of girls and women that this idea of how they need to be seeps into them, leading them to feel their own loveliness is inadequate.”

Nearly half of 12- to 15-year-old girls read magazines every day. Studies such as “Body Image: An Introduction to Advertising and Body Image” show that looking at magazines for just 60 minutes lowers self-esteem in over 80% of girls. When you consider that the body fat of most models and actresses is at least half that of healthy women, it isn’t surprising that 6 out of 10 teenage girls think they’d be happier if they were skinnier. 

We need to teach our daughters to be more media-savvy and understand that these images aren’t real.

Women and the media: the figures don’t add up

It might shock you that males outnumber females 3-to-1 in family movies – those were the findings of the research report Gender Inequality in Cinematic Content: A Look at Females On Screen & Behind-the-Camera in Top-Grossing 2008 Films (PDF) (205 KB)🔗. When it comes to body image, the figures don’t add up either. Females are nearly twice as likely as males to be shown with a diminutive waistline, and women are almost four times as likely as men to be shown in sexy clothes.

And what about those “shocking – celebrities without makeup!” articles in gossip magazines? While magazines might insist they run them to make us non-celebrities feel better about ourselves, the opposite is true. In a survey by Girlguiding, 71% of girls and young women aged 11-21 feel that newspapers, magazines and influencers on social media need to do more to stop reinforcing gender stereotypes.

While magazines might insist they run them to make us non-celebrities feel better about ourselves, the opposite is true. In a survey by Girlguiding (PDF) (8.3 MB)🔗, 88% of girls said they think newspapers and magazines should stop criticizing women’s bodies.

By helping your daughter critically assess the media she consumes, you’ll help her develop an objective eye and avoid potentially damaging comparisons. As she learns to distinguish between what she likes and doesn’t like about the appearance of women in the public eye, she’ll also feel more confident expressing and enjoying her own style choices.

Try our action checklist together to get your daughter thinking about how women are portrayed in the media.

To protect privacy, we’ve changed the names of people whose stories we tell on these pages, but the stories are genuine.

  • 1

    Start a conversation

    Next time your daughter watches a film or favorite TV show, talk to her afterward about the female characters. How many were there? What jobs did they have, and what was their part in the storyline? All too often they will be a one-dimensional mother or love interest – hardly representative of the diverse lives women lead today. Even when they play a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, they typically look drop-dead gorgeous, suggesting that’s a crucial part of female achievement

  • 2

    Look for inspiration

    Ask your daughter why she thinks the media chooses such limiting roles for women and how it makes her feel. Can she think of movies or books where the heroine is more inspiring?

  • 3

    Imagine something better

    If your daughter were to have a starring role in a film, what would she like her character to be famous for?

  • 4

    Rewrite the rules for magazines

    Look through magazines together and rip out images of women in ads, fashion shoots, and features. Then play a game of “spot the difference” – list all the similarities you notice, and circle anything that represents a more real or diverse image of women

  • 5

    Celebrate difference

    Talk about how “different” can still be beautiful and how few people in real life match up to the media’s vision of beauty

  • 6

    Separate fact from fiction

    Discuss the clothes and styles you see in magazines. Explain that these looks have been carefully picked by stylists to suit the model or celebrity. What else has been done to enhance the model’s appearance, and how realistic are these features? Which clothes and colors does your daughter think look good on her? Or you?

  • 7

    Start a makeover with a difference

    Try “restyling” a magazine page together to reflect the real girls and women your daughter knows, and explore what she would prefer to see. Write your own captions, draw different items of clothing, and change hair and skin tone

Next steps

  • Talk to her about how media images of women make her feel about herself, and explore the idea of diversity and difference
  • Encourage her to raise the topic with her friends next time they are at the movies, reading a magazine, surfing the web, or watching TV
  • Could your daughter write to the editor of a magazine or celebrity blog to ask them about how they portray women?
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