July 17th, 2012

What media doesn’t want kids to learn…about their bodies

Media profits by perpetuating inaccurate and intangible body stereotypes. Photo from angelashetler.com.

“Good guys are always skinny and bad guys are always fat.” That’s what a five-year-old told me recently while re-imagining Super Mario World through Legos. I immediately offered that Mario (a “good guy”) wasn’t necessarily thin and he admitted that he hadn’t gotten to all the levels, so perhaps his assumption wasn’t accurate. It was clear to me that he felt the need to speak about the stereotype so it would be challenged and he could verify a what he already knew–that it was a stereotype. And while this lead us to a larger discussion of stereotypes in the game and in real life, I realized it was the first time I’d heard a child point out body stereotypes specifically.

The conversation was timely as I had just recently watched an episode in the HBO series The Weight of the Nation. The one episode I saw did an excellent job of outlining the complex forces that support the obesity problem many Americans face while contrasting it with the socio-economic realities of access to health in this country. And while it’s ironic that this series aired on a network that many who are affected by obesity in the U.S. cannot access, I found the episode especially poignant. In one scene a corner-store owner in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood explained how unhealthy food items in his store are often priced lower by their distributors in these areas so that they are cheaper than healthier options. This recent LAMPpost on the Bloomberg soda ban highlights various LAMPlatoon junk food commercial critiques which help point out how advertising affects our notions of the food we consume. Companies use these tools to profit from and perpetuate the reality that health in this country is a privilege.

Kids should be learning that every body is unique. Photo from tamigustafson.com.

In response, reality shows like The Biggest Loser create a script of weightloss that proves unrealistic for most of its viewers. While I applaud its success in creating weight loss clubs across the country, its sentimentality irks me. The show proves how difficult weight loss can be even with a pricey team of experts, which most people inspired by the show simply cannot afford. Together with the deceptive marketing of unhealthy foods, the lack of education around obesity and health, and the disparate costs of junk food versus fruits and vegetables, it’s no wonder more than one-third of American adults are obese.

Throw in the absurd body standards perpetuated in media and you can understand why this issue is so complex. While people of all genders suffer from body image issues, women especially are pressured to conform to unrealistic body standards. Women’s experiences are diverse, yet media profits off of perpetuating body standards that homogenize them, comparing them to constructed norms that aren’t accurate or tangible. The result is women who, after constantly being told they aren’t good enough, are perpetually unhappy with their bodies. As long as ads feature narrow representations of people’s bodies, companies can profit off of people’s drive to get fit, diet or try the newest cleanse. For these companies, poor body image is money in their pockets.

Adding to this is that people are taught at a young age to objectify bodies in a way that only aids unfair marketing and excuses non-diverse representations of bodies in media. This is where the “good guy” complex comes into play. It’s one of the simplest scripts played out in all forms of media that people often dismiss as an “integral” and “unavoidable” aspect of boyhood. Yet it’s a tool pervasive in media that teaches kids not only that people should fit into rigid binaries, but that those who live up to the narrow standards represented in media are the “good guys” and everyone else are the “bad guys.” And it narrows the viewpoints of all kids when they should be learning that the coolest thing about the human body is that each is unique.

–Emily Breitkopf

Emily Breitkopf is a contributing writer to The LAMPpost. You can read more of her work on her blog, Kids and Gender and follow her on Twitter @emilybreitkopf.

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