When the Media Is the Parent

The media as family member

The American Girl’s Dilemma

Sexy or fat, pimply or perfect?

Young American females grow up in a kind of cultural vise. In article after scholarly article, we confront an ever-growing body of documentation about how widespread childhood obesity has become and how immersion in the media, which seems to grow more extensive from year to year, is playing a crucial role in this trend. Concurrently, another body of research accruing since the 90s has shown that young females as they enter puberty are more and more prone to becoming sexually active secondary to their simply watching mainstream movies and TV. In both comic and dramatic shows, many blithe plotlines circle around sexual behaviors. Finally, and perhaps as nettling for impressionable females, the body type thrown constantly before their eyes is that of the thin, almost gaunt female with big breasts. Imperceptibly but relentlessly this has become the female body ideal, one out of reach for most of them.

From many directions they face a tangle of alluring images, which involves the collision of certain media-driven forces that often foment many troubling psychological states in many American girls.

First, to the matter of over-eating and the epidemic of childhood obesity: As is not well known, but is actually well documented, childhood obesity is tightly connected in our culture to media immersion. In a recent Canadian study, for instance, a large number of children were closely monitored for both weight and hours expended with the media. The upshot seems a clear tie between watching over 3 hours of TV per day and childhood obesity. This study offers an interesting new wrinkle. Book reading, if compared to TV watching, does not lead to increased body adiposity. It seems the very experience of sitting in front of a screen and imbibing the TV fare, which includes many commercials that tempt one to gorge on fatty foods and guzzle sugary drinks, really does drive the viewers both to drink and to eat more heavily. So these TV commercials, as is well known to those in the industry, are hopelessly successful.

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But the matter goes further. When kids approach the adolescent epoch, and even during the preteen years, they are prone toward internal struggles with self-esteem. They are coming to grips with their emerging adult bodies. Also, they are separating from their families of origin and engaging with peers, a developmental step fraught with uncertainty. But since their taste buds imbedded in their mouths at birth were in fact constructed over the millennia, probably due to evolutionary forces, to seek out salty, fatty and also sweet foods, when foodstuffs stuffed with these ingredients touch these buds, the teen tastes them and goes, “yum.” In short, our taste buds send delicious messages to the pleasure centers of our brains. And we experience a slight euphoria and so want more. Though we adults often have developed messages to ourselves that urge us not to over-eat, kids do not have these cautionary tales built in to their psyches, and so they often gorge.

Since the makers of TV commercials have one purpose in mind—the selling of products at a profit—the fatter the merrier. And since salty, fatty and sugary foods give kids bursts of pleasure, the waves of commercials that flood through them work their magic well.

Next to the issue of sexiness: The issue here is the emergence of a new morality. As demographic studies clarify, kids are having sex younger, more frequently and often without much protection. A central driver here is the establishment of a new normal around sexual etiquette propelled by media representations in many mainstream films and TV shows. In so many, many shows, the momentum of the comedy, or drama, or suspenseful thriller moves along on the actions women characters in revealing clothing who flaunt their sexual forms in the faces of slavering guys. Even as they engage in daring-doo, or bathe in canned laughter, or solve the riddles to deep mysteries, they are engaging in bawdy flirtiness, or impulsive sex with strangers, or full-throated infidelity at the blistery clip. This is the mix of much of the media world. Though we might argue that this is all fictitious, that the shows are not to be taken literally, the fact is that kids do. They are impressionable, even gullible. In fact, their brains are still developing and so they lack the maturity to use solid social judgment. Besides, they admire the movie stars who are so cool. They want to be like them, both in their looks and their actions. Hence, as research suggests, kids immersed in mainstream media do in fact engage in sexual activities more frequently and more recklessly.

To make matters even more complex, the sex that presents itself both in mainstream films and TV and in many form of popular music often edges toward not just the impulsive and flirty but the voyeuristic and exhibitionistic, even the sadomasochistic. On the air girls are demeaned, threatened and raped in alarming numbers. The rationale for this media thrust seems to be that the American sensibility has grown jaded, desensitized to images of average sex. So the makers of media have to go further and shock, even pulverize the viewer with presentations of ever more extreme spectacles of the unusual.

Finally, there is the issue of body perfection, of an ideal of female beauty never quite like any other in the history of humankind. Woman stars are taller and lither, even gaunter than in the past. The contrast of Marilyn Monroe to Twiggy is now a cliché. But if we bear in mind how female stars often revert to the use of liposuction on the one hand and breast and lip enhancement on the other, we are left with the dark realization that the beautiful women we see prancing through movie scenes or idealized as Anime characters or flowing blithely through gales of laughter on sitcoms are hardly real at all. In a sense they are cartoon versions of the female. Even their blemishes and zits the filmmakers have learned to delete. As adults we know this, or at least will state as much when directly asked. But not so for kids who are seething with insecurities and desiring to be loved by family, friends and those of the opposite, or same, sex. And besides, the media whispers incessantly to them of a certain someone who will one day lavish them with love. If not today, then tomorrow.

In short, we have a recipe for psychic and, dare I say, cultural disaster staring us in the face. Eating fat and sweet is good, but being sweet is bad, and being sexy means being lithe, even gaunt, big-breasted, and ready for anything that life dishes out.

Dr. George Drinka is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). His new book, When the Media Is the Parent, is a culmination of his work with children, his scholarly study of works on the media and American cultural history, and his dedication to writing stories that reveal the humanity in us all.

George Drinka, M.D. is on the clinical faculty of the Oregon Health Sciences University.

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