The Mass Media, Body Image, and Self-Deception

How culture can influence your body image and ideals of beauty.

Posted Jun 04, 2014

We don't often think about how profoundly the mass media influences the lies we tell ourselves. On television, in movies, and in advertisements, we are fed information about who we should be in our culture (Warren, 2014).

As a woman living in mainstream American culture, for example, attaining the perfect appearance is fundamental to your value from a cultural perspective (Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999). Specifically, you need to look eternally 18 years old with perfect skin, big eyes surrounded by long eyelashes, white teeth, and a very thin yet feminine figure. If you do not meet this ideal and are deemed unattractive, there is nothing you can do to make up for it.  No matter how hard you try, you cannot be smart enough, funny enough, nice enough to compensate for your imperfect looks—you will never be as valuable as the “beautiful woman” sitting next to you.

As a man living in mainstream American culture, your gender-role is mostly tied to money, intelligence and your physical strength. Not only do you need to be muscular and fit, but you also need to make a lot of money, be educated and be smart. Although you have slightly more flexibility than women around how to be culturally valuable—you can be valued for your money or brains instead of just your physical appearance—you are still evaluated and scrutinized on the basis of these culturally imposed characteristics (McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2004).

From a very early age, we begin learning what is most valued in our culture for our sex. Walk down the aisle of toys at any major store. What does the girls section look like? What does the boys section look like? Even a cursory glance shows that girls should be princesses dressed in pink tiaras, while boys should be strong, car-loving men of action, dressed in military fatigues.

Over time, we consciously and unconsciously internalize these cultural norms, evaluating ourselves and others in comparison to them.  Usually without conscious awareness, we grow up trying to emulate whatever culture deems to be most valuable because we all want to be desired, loved, and wanted

In fact, the goal of most mass marketing and consumerism is to make us feel badly about ourselves. We are encouraged to lie to ourselves about our true value because the worse we feel, the more we will buy! For after convincing us that we are less than ideal, the media will offer us endless products that claim to fix our prescribed faults. For example, if marketers convince us that we are not good-looking enough and then offer us products to fix our flawed appearance—make-up, anti-aging products, dieting aids, hair growth serums, plastic surgery—we are more likely to buy them.

A large body of research suggests that the mass media is doing an exceptional job of making us feel badly about ourselves. As we internalize cultural values and ideals of appearance, we become more dissatisfied with ourselves (Cafri, Yamamiya, Brannick, & Thompson, 2005; Warren, Schoen, & Schafer, 2010). In addition to being one of the strongest predictors of eating disorder development, body dissatisfaction leads us to spend enormous amounts of our personal resources—including money, time, and energy—trying to fix our flaws.

The Naked Truth is this: We need to become more critical consumers of the mass media. We need to think about the messages that we learn from a very early age about what makes us valuable or not valuable. As we become more aware of our surroundings and the cultural messages we learned, we must determine whether we aspire to be a certain way because we believe it is right or because we were culturally conditioned to believe it is right (TEDx Honest Liars: The Psychology of Self-Deception). The next time you watch television or a movie, ask yourself: What messages is this show promoting about my fundamental value as a human being? Have I internalized this message? If so, now is the time to change.

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D.

Selected References:

Cafri, G., Yamamiya, Y., Brannick, M., & Thompson, J. K. (2005). The influence of sociocultural factors on body image: a meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Science and Practice12, 421–433. 

McCabe, M. P., & Ricciardelli, L. A. (2004). Body image dissatisfaction among males across the lifespan: A review of past literature. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 56, 675–685.

Thompson, J. Kevin, Heinberg, Leslie J., Altabe, Madeline, & Tantleff-Dunn, Stacey (1999). Exacting beauty: Theory, Assessment, and Treatment of Body Image Disturbance. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Warren, C. S. (2014). Lies We Tell Ourselves: The Psychology of Self-Deception. Sevierville, TN: Insight Publishing.

Warren, C. S., Schoen, A., & Schafer, K. (2010). Media internalization and social comparison as predictors of eating pathology among Latino adolescents: The moderating effect of gender and generational status. Sex Roles, 63, 712-724.