Q: My 10 year old daughter loves reading teen magazines, but she’s at an age when she and her friends are starting to talk about weight and appearance a lot, and I don’t want her to think she has to look like just the tiny models in the ads to be valued. How can I talk to her about this?
-Beauty of the Beholder
A: Dear Beauty,
The goal of all media is to tell a story and affect the way the user thinks about an issue, whether it’s a website that presents information on a social issue, a documentary that details the lives of apes, or an advertisement for a beauty product. Advertising is an extremely powerful form of media because that story needs to be compressed into anywhere between the 2 seconds it takes to flip a magazine page to the 30 second spots that companies buy during TV shows.
To get all of this work done in so little time, the images in ads need to pack quite a punch. They portray extreme versions of thinness, wealth, speed, strength, and other qualities that even the models themselves can rarely achieve without photo editing and camera tricks.
As you mention, children and teens can learn unhealthy expectations from these ads, since they are still developing their understanding of who they are and how to go about becoming who they want to be. In fact, research shows that both young men and young women who read teen magazines have higher rates of distorted body image, dieting behaviors, and dissatisfaction with their appearance.
So what can you do to help support healthy, positive body image in the face of messages that are likely to make kids feel inferior? Talk about what you see! When you’re exposed to advertising that sells not just a product, but an image of how people should look, open up a conversation about it. Find out what your kids think and how the ads make them feel, and reinforce that ads are designed to get people to purchase a product, not to portray how the world really works. If all else fails, showing them this commercial that pokes fun at advertising techniques will at least get them thinking as they laugh!