Interview with Professor Mark Sullivan

My professor of mass media and society agreed to be interviewed about the media’s affect on body image throughout the world. As an expert on this subject, he has very real opinions and great examples to back his assertions up. I think many of you may find this interview to be both very interesting and fascinating.

JK: How do you think the media affects today’s youth (especially young girls)?

MS: Kind of asserting the consequent there, aren’t you?  Not that I disagree that media affect youth in this regard, and especially young girls.  Mainly, I think media depictions highlight and reinforce fantasy in general and, more specifically in this case, about what a woman’s body should look like.  Of course, that’s why we turn to entertainment, for fantasy.  The trouble comes when we blur the line and start expecting things in the real world to be like the fantasy, especially when we start judging ourselves against the fantasy.

JK: What media vehicles in particular do you think have the biggest effects on body image (i.e. magazines, tv, etc.)?

MS: I think it’s probably magazines, because the focus there is tightly on bodies, not just in passing as on TV shows, for instance.  I know, for example, that fashion magazines are banned in many, if not all, eating disorder clinics.  Although the magazines cannot create eating disorders on their own, they can greatly exacerbate the problem if some other preconditions are present.

An interesting article on the subject is: Payne, J.W. (2004, July 6). Beyond appearances [Electronic version]. Washington Post, p. HE01.

JK: What specific programs on television or specific magazines do you think give off the wrong message (regarding body image)?

MS: In the magazine department, I’d say it’s a combination of fashion and celebrity magazines, not that there’s a big divide between the two categories.  What is especially odd is the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the celebrity magazines, in particular: One week they’ll have a cover story criticizing one or more celebrities for being too thin and the next others for having gained too much weight.  And every once in a while, one magazine will feature a celebrity, say Jessica Simpson or Jennifer Love-Hewitt, on the cover saying she loves her new “curvy” or “more womanly” body in the very same week as another cover’s headline declares her fat.  And inevitably, a few months later, the magazine that praised her more natural body will feature her on the cover again, promoting the diet she used to get trim again.  And even if a magazine does occasionally run an article on the importance of healthy bodies over thin bodies, it’s usually sandwiched between ads featuring oh so fashionably thin models.  That can’t help but give women very mixed messages.

Oddly enough, the magazines promoting the ridiculously thin body are edited, written and read predominantly by women.  That is not the female body type that you see in men’s magazines.  Most men are telling the truth when they reassure the women in their lives that they don’t find emaciated models attractive.  Not that the body in men’s magazines are any more realistic, as deconstructed by Rosie O’Donnell in this movie clip:

And many of those men’s magazines are also beginning to pressure men in the same way women’s magazines have long been pressuring women.  There’s an interesting ad from a few years ago for Special K ( where men are mouthing clichéd complaints of women like “Does this make me look fat?”  The tagline is “Men don’t obsess about these things.  Why do we?”  It was hilarious when it ran about a decade ago.  It gets a little less funny every year as it seems less and less strange to think of a man obsessing about these things.

JK: Do you think that the media is one of the main, if not the main reason why such problems arise among young people?

MS: I think the media are a major contributor to these issues, but they wouldn’t have much power if they were the only place these messages were coming from.  It gets back to the big “chicken or the egg” question of media studies, do the media reflect or lead society?  Of course, it does both in a big feedback loop.  So the pressure comes from the combination of fashion and celebrity magazines, from TV shows, especially TV shows like Gossip Girl or 90210, from movies, etc, but also from peers, who also watch these shows, who measure themselves and others, parents who monitor their children’s weight, etc.

JK: What is a classic example where a young person is affected by what they see, read, etc. from the media? (The example can be from a movie or a TV show- like the clips you show in class)

MS: Barbie.  Barbie has a ridiculously unattainable body: 39-21-33 if she were 5’ 6”, the likelihood of which in a real woman is 1 in 100,000.  And little girls are given this model, literally and figuratively, of a grown up female body at a very young age.  One glance as reveals how long that model can stick with a woman.

And then the importance of self-surveillance, measuring oneself against some perceived norm, is introduced around the same time in kids movies like Snow White: “Mirror, mirror on the wall” indeed; and the whole plot revolves around who is the “fairest of them all.”  Sure, the evil queen is depicted as vain for her jealousy, but Snow White is still rewarded for her beauty, which is all the more beautiful because it’s effortless on her part.  So women are taught from a very young age to hide all of the prep that goes into that effortless beauty.

Only recently are we seeing some celebrities who are trying to demystify that process, to expose that prep.  Tyra Banks has done it on her show.  And Aisha Tyler has revealed all of the retouching that goes into making a shot perfect:   She also works with Dove Self-Esteem workshops for girls.

JK: Is there anything these young people can do to prevent succumbing to such pressures?

MS: Dove is trying to do just that.  Their website,, has all sorts of information on how to improve girls and women’s self-esteem.  Of course, Dove is owned by Unilever, which also manufactures Axe, which is guilty of exactly the kinds of ads the Dove site criticizes, so the messages in this one company are just as mixed as those in society at large.

JK: Do you think the decision to undergo plastic surgery stems directly from what people see in the media?

MS: Not directly.  Again, I think it’s a contributing factor.  Media may play a part, but there have to be other insecurities there as well for it to reach the tipping point.  However, once the decision is made, odds are any potential victims, uh, patients, are going to look to the media for how they want to look when they’re done.  I imagine the planning consultation being like that old boy band song, “Liquid Dreams”:

I dream about a girl who’s a mix of Destiny’s Child

Just a little touch Madonna’s wild style

With Janet Jackson’s smile, throw in a body like Jennifer’s

You’ve got the star of my liquid dreams

Only the names have been replaced by more recent celebrities.

In addition, the media often tend to downplay the cost of plastic surgery, not just financially, but probably more importantly, physically and emotionally.  All of those makeover shows that were so popular just a few years ago tended to downplay, or completely ignore, the prolonged recovery period.  The fictional Nip/Tuck is interesting in this area.  Which comes through louder, how beautiful their patients look after surgery, or that their patients’ lives are usually more miserable after the surgery than before?

JK: As a professor of mass media and society, what do you believe is the best way for young people to ignore the messages they consume about body image in the media?

MS: Just as societal and, particularly, peer pressure are the ultimate power behind the media depiction of body image, peer anti-pressure would probably be the most powerful force in combating it.  Stop measuring ourselves and each other against the media.  Turn away from media that push extreme, unattainable images without balance.  And studies have shown that recent kid shows are not only depicting a wider variety of bodies, but are not always depicting them in stereotypical ways – for instance, heavier kids are not just used for humor.  So maybe that variety will follow them into more grown up shows as that audience ages.

And things can and do change over time.  And those changes are often influenced by factors completely outside the visual or esthetic.  For example, there is the “Rubenesque figure.”  The term comes from the nudes of 17th Century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. His women were quite voluptuous (for example:; by today’s standard, they would probably be considered fat. However, at the time, they were the image of beauty. In a time when many did not have enough food to eat, fatness was a visible sign of wealth, something to be desired and coveted.  Now thinness is often a signifier of privilege, the financial ability to afford a full time trainer, the time to get a full body tan, etc.

A more recent change can be seen by looking at the covers of the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Edition.”  Although much fitter and trimmer than the average woman, then or now, the bodies featured on the covers have changed over time.  The models of the ‘80s, for instance, are far shapelier, far more athletic than the models of a decade later.  The most recent cover models are becoming more shapely again, including Beyonce.  So maybe we’re seeing the beginning of a shift away from the overly thin body.


~ by jklein0414 on September 27, 2009.

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