Jiggly Thighs, Six-Pack Abs, and “Mediagirls”

MEDIAGIRLS gives middle-school girls skills to fight sexy, image damaging media.

Posted Oct 29, 2014

An abundance of media messages telegraph unrealistic portrayals of the female body in sexist advertisements. The messages bombard most young girls daily, making them feel unworthy. Michelle Cove, a documentary filmmaker and author of I Love Mondays has started MEDIAGIRLS, a non-profit in Boston, MA that provides programming to help young girls counter over-sexualizing and inappropriate media messages. 

The program is incredibly needed and worthwhile given that media affects developing minds in surprising ways: 

  • Fifty percent of American teens spend nearly 50% of their day consuming media. (The Representation Project)
  • Girls exposed to sexualized images from a young age are more prone to depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem. (American Psychological Association) 
  • 50% of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight (South Carolina Dept. of Health
  • Cosmetic surgery for girls age 18 and younger has climbed by 300% from 1997 to 2007, with breast augmentation climbing 600%.  (The Representation Project)

As someone who has been making media herself for years, Michelle is on a mission, determined to show young girls how they can have their voices heard and change the damaging and deflating messages they receive.

I asked Michelle to explain what she hopes to accomplish with MEDIAGIRLS and what steps parents can take to help their pre-teens and teens. She told me:

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“Why can’t I look like that?” I heard the pre-teen girl in the coffee shop say to her friend while pointing to a picture in a magazine of a model so thin she looked distorted. “I know,” her friend replied with a dramatic sigh, “I mean, I know the model was probably Photoshopped and everything, but … she is perfect. I hate my jiggly thighs.”

It’s hardly news that girls pine over their appearance and make endless comparisons. What is new is how virtually impossible it has become to protect girls from the onslaught of emaciated models, half-clad women grinding in music videos, girls and women “cat fighting” on TV and over Twitter, and celebrities Photoshopped to freakish perfection.

The average teen is consuming eight to 10 hours a day, and even if we could get girls to “unplug” from technology, they’d still be flooded with media on highway billboards, building exteriors, sides of buses, and gas stations. The bulk of that media aimed at girls is teaching them that what matters most is how "hot" and "beautiful" they are. Most of the parents I talk to feel appalled and defeated.

I don't. I am the mom of a tween and feel compelled to do something.

I believe media is not the enemy; it's a powerful storytelling tool with the potential to even change lives for the better. MEDIAGIRLS teaches middle-school girls to evaluate and challenge media messages, with an emphasis on creating content that is empowering for girls and women.

At the time when girls' self-confidence typically plummets, starting at around age 11, MEDIAGIRLS boosts girls’ confidence by giving them a nurturing space to voice their opinions, and mentors who provide them with writing skills to express themselves and create content that showcases girls and women who are strong, bold, smart, funny, and kind. 

The program runs 10 weeks, after school once a week for 90 minutes, and is taught in one community outside Boston and in one low-income public school in Boston with plans to serve more low-income Boston public schools starting next fall. In class conversations revolve around girls and media: (“Why do girls post videos on YouTube asking whether they are pretty?” “Why do so many magazines only put beautiful models on the cover?” “Who is the ‘perfect girl’ according to media standards?”). The girls learn strategies to create various types of media content—an interview, a review, an opinion post and so on—and then making it.

My goals with MEDIAGIRLS are to boost girls’ confidence by giving them a nurturing space to form and express their opinions; help them become savvier about the media’s influence, strengthen their analytical reasoning and writing skills, and give them a platform to showcase content that highlights strong girls and women who are changing the world for the better.

Each time a participant publishes her work on the MEDIAGIRLS blog (www.mediagirls.org/blog) she does her part in giving the media a makeover.

Conversation starters for parents

There's much you can do too, and right in your own home. Use the media as a springboard by asking your children questions about what they're seeing and hearing in the media:

  • "Why do you think millions of people tune in to see women fighting with each other?"
  • "What do you make of the lead character acting flaky to get that boy's attention?"
  • "Why do you think that guy isn't sharing with anyone how sad he is?"
  • "How do you feel after watching gory Halloween films, and why?" 

Don't dump on their culture

Ask questions in as neutral a voice as you can muster; if your child hears judgment or a preachy tone from you, he or she won't want to answer (would you?) As one wise media-literacy teacher told me, "Don't crap on their culture. Parents have been doing that for decades, and it doesn't work."

When you listen to your child without interrupting or trying to prove a point, you teach her that you value her opinion and give her practice in forming and articulating opinions. There's also a much better chance your daughter will then ask you what you think. 

Media isn't going away, and most experts predict kids will consume more, not less, in the future. So it is essential that we think through what messages hurt our culture, share media content that inspires and enlightens us, and help build our children's self-worth so they are less susceptible to fears about jiggly thighs and six-pack abs. If they can develop skills to add positive media into the world—whether it's through writing, filming, songwriting, art, whatever—so much the better!

Copyright @2014 Michelle Cove

For more information, visit MediaGirls.org

Related: Your Child’s Engagement With Technology: Test Your Savvy; Facebook Posts That Can Put Your Kid in Jail; The Big Disconnect: Parents’ Digital Dilemma

Resources:

--American Psychological Association http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx

(depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem)

--South Carolina Department of Health

http://www.state.sc.us/dmh/anorexia/statistics.htm (overwieght)

--The Representation Project: http://therepresentationproject.org/resources/statistics/

(media consumption)

http://therepresentationproject.org/resources/infographics/repinfo3/ (plastic surgery)

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Photo Credit: MEDIAGIRLS