A woman recently asked me, "Aren't you sending the wrong message telling girls they need to get in shape for prom? On the other hand, if they're going to diet (inappropriately), I guess you can provide a safe alternative resource." I love that question!
In April, a Maine 8th grader challenged media outlets to take more responsibility. Julia Bluhm's petition asks Seventeen, one of her favorite magazines, to feature one unretouched photo shoot monthly.
"They've already done a lot to help girls improve their body image," Bluhm said. "I thought that they could take it one step further."
"It's great that she's so passionate," says USC senior Mimi Honeycutt. "That said, people need to educate themselves. A magazine with glamorous ads is selling clothes and makeup. The model is just an attractive, enticing hanger."
Rather than focus on media images, Honeycutt said girls "should find things they are proud of. Get into archery or martial arts or some fun activity. It builds confidence and self esteem, and it doesn't depend on your looks. Knowing I can write well and articulate my thoughts makes me confident in my ability to express myself."
And so the struggle continues for so many teens.
"I have had the same feelings as Julia," says freshman Clare. "I used to subscribe to Seventeen, but I would always feel bad because the girls in the magazine would all be Photoshopped."
Kaitlyn also dislikes excessive image tweaks.
"Airbrushing models is about the stupidest thing in the universe," Kaitlyn says. "Not only are models a minority of the population, but airbrushing makes them (look even more) unnaturally skinny. Models are real people too, and real people aren't airbrushed."
Not all teens, however, think magazines are wrong.
"I know how hard it is to live up to a typical model," says freshman Daniella. "But Seventeen isn't there to portray a typical person. They need to sell. It can give kids the wrong idea of what the norm is, but that's where education and talking to other 'normal' people comes into play."
Bluhm's petition has already attracted nearly 25,000 signatures, and significant media attention. That's all great, but it's not just the media that affect girls' self esteem. Sometimes, it's students' easy access to seemingly innocuous images such as their friends' Facebook pictures, that can affect self esteem.
Part of the solution is right in front of people: better parenting. It's amazing how many adults are either unaware of what their kids see regularly or perhaps just don't look.
Too often the girls I speak with feel they are left on their own. They're expected to build self esteem and confidence from accomplishments and to surround themselves with real people. Every girl has some responsibility for that, but they need help from active, engaged parents.
A recent Israeli study found that girls whose parents were involved in their media usage had higher self esteem. That meant the parents:
- Watched what media their daughters consumed;
- Tracked where they surfed on the web;
- Consumed programming with their daughters;
- Discussed their daughters' surfing habits.
This resulting confidence, studies suggest, may form a protective emotional shield against eating disorders and other physiological issues. The studies also suggest the opposite is true: those parents who are less involved or who even prohibited any media consumption had children with less self-empowerment.
And here's more good advice: Become a smarter media consumer.
"Learning to question everything and not ingest every message thrown at you is a valuable skill for way more than just confidence," Honeycutt says.
So, parents are crucial. So is taking care of yourself by learning to be smarter about media, and learning some new skills. While efforts such as Bluhm's are wonderful, parents should never doubt their own influence, and responsibility.