ITROW Research Projects Fact Sheet



The Media's Portrayal of Women



Women are preoccupied with their appearance. Specifically, women are highly conscious of their weight and their bodies. Research shows that nearly half of girls aged 12-17  have dieted (Patton, et al; 1997), and more and more very young women are showing signs of anorexia (Kilborne, 1997). A  survey by Glamour magazine asked women what they would accomplish if they could achieve any possible goal. An overwhelming majority indicated that they would lose weight (Wooley and Wooley, 1984). Another study published in the New York Times found that women who had lost weight would deliberately choose to be blind, deaf, or have a limb amputated rather than regain the weight (Angier and Kolata 1992).  What is happening in our society, and in our selves, that is causing this widespread problem? What has convinced us that we, in our natural state, are inherently not good enough?


One need not spend too long surveying the racks of popular magazines to come to the conclusion that beauty is young, very slim, and most often white. Only one body type is presented in the media, that of the very tall and very thin woman, a woman who is well below the recommended weight for her height (Kilbourne, 1997); a woman who would meet the criteria for anorexia as 15% below normal weight (APA 1994). Furthermore, this constant bombardment of images of one body type sends the message that only this is beautiful, and those who are shorter, thicker, or browner are not. In fact, the body type presented is unattainable to 99% of women (Kilbourne, 1997). This is very convenient for those selling weight loss products, because 99% of the female population will be deemed unattractive, and therefore will be more likely to buy their products.  


Many times, even these "beautiful" women are deemed not good enough, and their photographs are airbrushed or otherwise altered. For example, one program that aired on Lifetime TV, The Changing Face of Beauty, detailed the experience of a 17 year old model, whose photograph was altered to remove "lines and wrinkles". The young woman then stated that she believed that she was past her prime for the modeling business.  A popular magazine airbrushed Cindy Crawford's thighs to make them appear smaller. An interview with Cybil Shepard revealed that as a young model, she often felt terrible when she was not able to naturally look like her image on magazine covers. Recent photographs of Demi Moore were airbrushed to remove inches from her waist and hips. Photographers use lighting and angles, makeup artists and hairstylists are used, and then the images are airbrushed, removing any scars, lines, too bigness, too smallness, anything less than perfection. This is the image that comes to define what is beautiful. An image that is entirely false and unnatural. Women and men see these images everyday, and internalize these images as defining the beauty standard. So what is there for the woman who does not have makeup artists and stylists, who lives in the real world un-airbrushed?  Products. Hair products, weight loss products, facial products, perfumes, polishes, even surgery. And those who market these products are reaping incredible rewards from increasing the insecurity of modern women.


Pressure to be Thin and The Dieting Industry


The pressure to be thin starts early.  A recent research study showed that children aged 4 and 5 consciously used body size to categorize someone as “nice” or “mean”. The chubby figure was consistently labeled as mean, while the thin one was labeled nice. The study also showed that children as young as 3 years old ascribed more negative adjectives to the chubby figure than to the thin figure. The children also were shown to prefer slender playmates. These findings were true, and in some cases enhanced, when the children themselves were overweight (Cramer and Steinwert, 1998).


It is becoming common to hear of very young girls dieting, and many developing eating disorders. Dieting and eating disorders are also very common among high school and college women. One study of a community found anorexia nervosa to be a common chronic illness among the 15-19 yr old women (Lucas, Beard, O’Fallon, and Kurland, 1991). Individuals with eating disorders often judge their self worth primarily in terms of their weight and shape (Fairburn and Garner, 1988). So even at very young ages women are objectifying themselves, and focusing primarily on their weight. 


Media images may increase the concern about weight and shape. In a recent study by Posavac, Posavac, and Posavac,(1998)  body dissatisfaction of college females was measured, then the participants viewed slides of slim fashion models or of neutral images. Then weight concern was once again measured. The results showed a significant increase in body dissatisfaction and weight concern in the females following exposure to the slides of the fashion models . Another study revealed that women who viewed the media's  image of beauty as ideal are more likely than any other group to have a very negative body image (Pinhas, et. al. 1999).  These results suggest that the media may play a part in the increasing drive toward thinness for many women. 


Not only does the media offer images of the desired appearance, it also offers methods to achieve this appearance in the form of diet products. One would have a great deal of difficulty opening up any magazine targeted towards women without finding an abundance of ads promoting weight loss products. It is no surprise that these ads target young women to create a need for their product, and to profit from this need. Unfortunately, along with product demand, they are potentially creating the foundation for devastating life long eating problems for these young women. 

The dieting industry, including diet books, pills, and programs, like Weight Watchers and Slim Fast, makes an incredible $33 billion a year.  These programs have a great deal of incentive to keep you thinking you are too fat, and that too fat is unacceptable. In fact, one researcher reported reviewing the recommended weight charts from one of the weight loss programs, then she compared this chart to that of her doctor. Not surprisingly, the "normal" weight chart offered by the diet program showed normal weights to be approximately 20 lbs. less than those on the doctor's chart. So the researcher was determined to be of normal weight by her doctor, but conveniently too heavy by the weight loss program (Hesse-Biber, 1996).


In addition, there is evidence that many of the weight loss remedies common on store shelves are actually hazardous to your health (Fraser, 1999). Records from the American Association of Poison Control Centers show that in 1989, 47,000 people called poison control centers to complain of reactions to diet pills that required hospital stays or medical care. Many weight loss pills, like “Dexatrim”, “Acutrim” and “Appedrine” contain the drug phenylpropanolamine (PPA), which is known to cause the blood pressure to rise among other adverse effects. Other pills like Herbalife’s Thermojetics, and “Herbal phen- fen” contain ephedrine, a chemical similar to amphetamines. A report from the FDA states that 18 deaths have been caused by use of ephedrine, and 800 complaints of adverse reactions to ephedrine, including myocardial infarction, cardiac arrhythmia, psychosis and seizures. Ephedrine in small doses does cause the metabolism to rise, which is why is has been marketed as a diet aid, but in larger doses can cause the heart to speed up to dangerous levels. Even the use of dieter's tea has been linked to death in several cases (Fraser, 1999).


The FDA has considered banning some of the diet pills, or requiring them to have warning labels.  However, the only legislation passed has been the 1994 Dietary Supplements Act, that states the following:

The product label must bear the statement ‘This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.’ Unlike health claims, nutritional support statements need not be approved by FDA before manufacturers market products bearing the statements, however, the agency must be notified no later than 30 days after a product that bears the claim is first marketed (US FDA, 1995). 

The law makes it very easy for manufacturers to make claims about weight loss on their products packages, as long as they include the disclaimer statement. One need only to visit the dexatrim website to see the minimal effect this legislation has had on packaging. In large letters, the company boasts their claims of dramatic and easy weight loss, while in barely visible letters it includes the FDA statement. Even when visible, the disclaimer is not sufficient to warn people of the adverse effects of these over the counter drugs. Many people assume, often erroneously, that if a product is sold without a prescription, and easily available over the counter, then it is not a health risk.   


Cosmetics Industry


The cosmetics industry is also reaping hefty rewards at the expense of women. The cosmetic industry's advertising creates an idea of "defect" in the consumer, a defect that can only be remedied by the product they are selling. This method is very effective. The constant creation of new appearance problems opens the markets for new products.  When was the first time you realized you needed :  lipstick, cellulite cream, self tanner, eyebrow groomers, mascara, foundation, wrinkle cream. What was it that gave you the idea that you needed that product? Chances are it was an advertisement (with a slim, red-lipped young woman pictured) that made you think that only something other than your natural state was acceptable. Advertisers are well aware of the amount of suggestibility in the consumer, particularly the young ones. Unfortunately, along with selling products they also inherently sell the belief in the defects the product claims to cure.


After WWII, the cosmetics industry began to take hold of American women and girls. Advertisers for cosmetics like Cover and Revlon promoted their products with illustrated ads of flawless beauty. The ads made the use of the product central to achieving the feminine ideal (Peiss, 1998). The feminine ideal presented in the ads was perfection, something most women could not attain. Women writers of that era recall the intense pressure to conform to the beauty images, and the feelings of inadequacy when they could not. About this time, social researchers began to report that teenage girls wanted to change their physical appearances more than anything else (Brienes, 1992). A 1942 survey of Baltimore consumers polled women over forty, those who had come of age before cosmetics became a huge industry with widespread advertising. These women reported that beauty preparations and cosmetics were inessential (War Production Board, 1942). However, younger women who had been exposed to the cosmetics industry’s advertising viewed lipstick, powder, blush and cold cream as necessities (PI, 1942).  


It is no accident that advertisers use a great deal of airbrushing in the photographs.  Even the models are deemed imperfect and in need of products to fix their imperfections.  If the beauty goal is unattainable, then the consumer’s goal appearance will never be met, and therefore the need for the product will never decrease.


Plastic Surgery


The number of people getting plastic surgery is increasing, particularly young women. Seventy percent of people seeking plastic surgery are women (Morgan, 1995). Breast implants, liposuction, and nose jobs are among the most popular procedures. What is it that would make a healthy person opt to have a very painful surgery? Some people have died having plastic surgery, and many women with breast implants complain of complications regarding that procedure, such as leakage, or hardening. It is also known that as a result of breast augmentation, a loss of sensation occurs in the woman’s nipple, so her breasts literally move from being objects of her own pleasure to objects of someone else’s pleasure (Kilbourne 1997). That is the underlying idea behind undergoing a painful surgery, ones own pain or pleasure is disregarded in order to become the object of someone else’s viewing pleasure.


Breast implant surgery has become one of the most popular procedures, at times taking over the top spot from liposuction.  Breast implant surgery involves cutting under the breast and inserting the implant, usually made of silicon, saline, or more recently soy.  There has been a great deal of controversy over silicon implants. The manufacturer, Dow Corning, has had numerous law suits filed against them by women who claim that the implants caused them a variety of adverse effects, including the implant hardening, leaking, and breast cancer. The FDA banned the use of silicone breast implants for cosmetic surgery in 1992 (E.B. 1997) The Mayo Clinic conducted a study of 749 women who had had breast implants between 1964 and 1991. The researchers found that 178 of these women had required subsequent surgery from a problem associated with the implants. 131 of the women had problems with the formation of scar tissue around the implant, called capsular contraction, and had to have it surgically removed. Forty-three of the patients experienced a rupture of the implant, and others had infections or blood blisters (E.B. 1997).


Cosmetic surgeries carry some substantial risks, including pain, infection, swelling, bleeding, scar, numbness, and even death. Injections of Botox, a toxin causing botulism used to remove lines around eyes, can migrate and cause eyelids to droop. Skin resurfacing procedures use acids and lasers that can cause inflammation and discoloration if they go too deep. Eyelid surgery can leave patients with eyelids that wont close. Facelifts can also go wrong, leaving scars, hair loss, or injuring nerves (Gross, 2000). 


One case involves a former TV newswoman who underwent a facelift in an effort to keep her career in a field that she says classifies women as “over the hill at 30, ancient at 35, and unemployable at 40.” Mary Nissenson’s facial surgery somehow went wrong. She now lives in excrutiating pain, and is unable to tolerate loud noises, direct light, or the touch of a feather on her face. Her plastic surgeon claims that she is either exaggerating or the pain is caused by some psychological reason (Gross, 2000). She was, however, very attractive according to the interviewer.


Along with the sinister implications of having such a surgery, there can be some very adverse consequences of having plastic surgery. Each type of surgery comes with its own kind of risks. The current most popular surgery among both men and women is liposuction, where pockets of fat are removed surgically. This surgery can be performed on nearly any area of the body, including the abdomen, hips, thighs, face, and chin.  Different types of liposuction procedures involved different risks. In the UAL type of liposuction, ultrasound heat is used to liquefy fat cells. The heat may cause injury to the skin or deeper tissues. The long-term effects of ultrasound energy on the body are not yet known. The tumescent type and super wet type of liposuction the anesthetic fluid injected may cause lidocaine toxicity (if the concentration is too high), or the collection of the fluid in the lungs (the, 2000). One in 5,000 of these surgeries is fatal. Recently, one famous television star, Kathy Griffin, comedian and star of Suddenly Susan, underwent liposuction. She was a size four, and wanted to become a size two. There were problems during the surgery, and as she wrote in a story published in Glamour magazine, she nearly died due to the surgery (USA Today, 2000).


A recent article in Ladies Home Journal (Jan 2000) detailed one woman’s account of her “successful” liposuction surgery. The article states that patients can expect 3-5 days of aching and burning, and it may take a month before they can resume normal activities. “Was it painful? Absolutely.” The woman explained. She went on to state that despite the pain, “When it’s all over you really have something to show for it. That first weekend home I put on these Capri pants that I hadn’t worn in years- which canceled out a lot of the pain.” What is wrong with our culture that putting on a pair of pants that are a size smaller can possibly cancel out a month of aching and burning? Why would a sane person mutilate herself in order to fit into a pair of pants? Any other type of self- mutilation is considered by the DSM IV to be characteristic of mental impairment (APA 1994). Why does it suddenly become acceptable, normalized, and published in glossy women’s magazines when it contributes to female “beautification”?


Author Sharlene Hesse-Biber makes the point in her book Am I Thin Enough Yet? that many of the current measures for female beautification are very similar to Chinese foot binding practices.  There is a clear analogous relationship between the ancient practice of footbinding and modern cosmetic surgery. Women or girls undergo a very painful experience, often with lasting negative consequences, in order to become more appealing to the male eye. Mothers in China wanted their daughters’ feet bound in hopes that they could get a wealthy husband (Peiss, 1998). Modern cosmetic surgery is also a method to increase a woman’s “market value”.


There are a great many industries that thrive from women’s insecurities. They strive to convince you that your face and body are not adequate and need a boost that their products can provide. When self worth depends on an attractive appearance, and an attractive appearance depends on products, an incredibly profitable industry is generated. Women must begin to overcome this climate of insecurity fostered by advertising, women must challenge themselves not to view their bodies as merely objects to be beautified whatever the cost. By shifting the focus from how we look, to how we think or feel, we can begin a change that will effect how we view ourselves and each other.


Recommended Reading  


  • Am I Thin Enough Yet? by Sharlene Hesse-Biber.

  • No Fat Chicks: How Big Business Profits By Making Women Hate Their Bodies by Terry Poulton.

  • Fat Talk: What Girls and Their Parents Say About Dieting by Mimi Nichter.

  • Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry by Laura Fraser.

  • Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders.  Edited by Patricia Fallon, Melanie Katzman, and Susan Wooley.

  • "Nagging" Questions:  Feminist Ethics in Everyday Life.  Edited by Dana Bushnell.

  • Killing Us Softly I-III.   [Videorecording] by Jean Killborne.

  • Hope in a Jar by Kathy Peiss.



  • Angier N. and Kolata G., (1992) New York Times, Nov. 22-24.

  • American Psychiatric Association.  (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.) . Washington, DC.

  • Brienes, W. (1992) Young white and miserable: Growing up female in the fifties. Beacon: Boston.

  • Cramer and  Steinwert, (1998) Thin is good, fat is bad: How early does it begin? Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19, 429-451.

  • E.B. (1997) Complications with breast implants. Medical Update, 21 (2), 3.

  • Fairburn and Garner, (1988) Diagnostic Criteria for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa: the importance of attitudes to weight and shape. In D.M. Garner and P.E. Garfinkel (EDs.), Diagnostic Issues in Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa (pp.36-55).   New York: Brunner/Mazel.

  • US Food and Drug Administration (1995) Dietary Supplements Act.

  • Fraser, L. (1999) Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Dieting Industry. Penguin Group New York.

  • Gross, M. (2000) The lethal politics of beauty. George, 5 (5), 52-61.

  • Hesse-Biber, S. (1996) Am I  Thin Enough Yet?  Oxford University Press, New York.

  • International Journal of Eating Disorders. Vol 25(2), (pp. 223-226).

  • Kilborne, J. (1997) Killing Us Softly III (Film)

  • Lucas, Beard, O’Fallon, and Kurland, (1991) 50 year trends in the incidence of anorexia nervosa in Rochester, Minn.: A population based study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 148, 917-922.

  • Morgan,  K. (1995) Women and the Knife, In Nagging Questions: Feminist Ethics In Everyday Life Ed. Dana Bushnell. Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Maryland.

  • Patton, George C.; Carlin, J. B.; Shao, Q.; Hibbert, M. E.; et. al.(1997) Healthy weight control or borderline eating disorder? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. Vol 38(3), 299-306.

  • Peiss, K. (1998) Hope In a Jar, The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. Metropolitan Books, New York.

  • Pinhas, Leora; Toner, Brenda B.; Ali, Alisha; Garfinkel, Paul E.; Stuckless, Noreen; (1999) The effects of the ideal of female beauty on mood and body satisfaction.

  • Posavac, H., Posavac, S. and Posavac, E., (1998) Exposure to media images of female attractiveness and concern with body weight among young women. Sex Roles, 38 (3/4) 187-201

  • PI, (1942) Face Powder and Lipstick, Tops among Indispensables, PI 199 (24 April) 13-14.

  • Shoop, S. A. and Rayl, A. (2000) Liposuction is serious surgery [online]

  • War Production Board, (1942) Survey of Baltimore Group, Cosmetics Questionnaire File, War Production Board Policy File.

  • Ward, S. (Executive Producer).(2000, March 19).  The Changing Face of Beauty. Lifetime Television.

  • Wooley S. and Wooley O., (1984) Feeling fat in a thin society, Glamour, February.  



•  ITROW’s Talking about Teaching Lunch Series



University Police

Closings & News
410-704-NEWS (6397)

Text Alerts
Sign up now