Media Literacy and Body Confidence: Is One Lesson Enough?

From Dove’s “Evolution” video

By Valerie Martin

This past year, as part of my graduate social work internship I conducted student counseling in a local high school, both one-on-one and in groups. For my final project, I created a presentation on Media Literacy that I gave to 10 classes. It provided an excellent opportunity to see the students’ reactions and opinions about the media’s standards for beauty, race, and gender after they were exposed to information and ideas that many of them had never encountered before.

When I came across an article about a recent study in the Body Image journal, it aligned so well with what I had just discussed with these students that I knew I had to dig into it to learn more. The study, carried out by researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto, aimed to determine whether seeing a commercial illustrating the deceptiveness of “beautiful” images in media could positively impact women’s body satisfaction after watching music videos featuring unrealistically thin and attractive women. In short, the answer was “yes.”

The experiment split participants into three groups: the first group watched music videos and regular TV commercials, the second watched the same music videos and “Evolution”, an ad spot by Dove, and the third group watched a wildlife documentary featuring no people and regular commercials. Afterwards, researchers measured the body dissatisfaction of each participant with a survey.

Dove’s “Evolution”: What and Why

In 2006, Dove’s “Evolution” commercial was released as part of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which was first introduced by Unilever in 2003 to coincide with the launch of Dove’s extended line of products. The spot was primarily created for online distribution, though it did also air as a TV commercial in the Netherlands, Middle East, and in the U.S. during MTV’s The Hills. The gist of the ad is this: A “normal” looking young woman walks into a studio fresh-faced, gets shellacked and styled with makeup and hair products, and then does a photo shoot. The chosen photo is then heavily edited in a Photoshop-like retouching program, followed by a shot of the retouched photo on a billboard advertising cosmetics. All of this occurs in 75 seconds, thanks to time-lapse videography.

When “Evolution” was first released, it went viral almost immediately and was well received by the advertising industry, winning several awards and generating serious buzz in the mainstream media. In 2007, Unilever estimated that the ad, which cost the company $135,000 to make, generated around $150 million worth of media exposure, and also partially credited the spot for Dove’s double-digit sales growth following its release.[1]

Researchers Stephanie Quigg and Stephen Want chose this spot as the “intervention” method because it “exposes the unrealistic and artificial nature of media portrayals of women and aims to discourage viewers from engaging in social comparison with such idealized portrayals.” Or more simply, if women can see exactly how distorted the beauty standard is that society holds us to, we may be less likely to compare ourselves to it and shun our own faces and/or bodies for not looking “perfect,” if “perfect” isn’t even real.

Why Music Videos?

Although fashion magazines are the most common choice for body dissatisfaction studies, Quigg and Want chose music videos to make it easier to slip in the “Evolution” commercial. They also took into consideration who watches music videos and how these videos portray women:

“Adolescents and young adults are the primary viewers of music videos, watching on average approximately nine hours per week, and … women in music videos are frequently portrayed in sexual roles. For instance, rather than being shown in whole, women’s bodies are frequently shown only as isolated body parts such as bare stomachs, cleavage, and thighs, which contributes to their sexual objectification.”

If you have ever flipped on BET or MTV (when they’re actually showing music videos) in the past few years, you know it would be hard to argue with this claim.

The Danger of Social Comparison

We all know the real dangers of comparing our bodies to the unrealistically thin and attractive Hollywood ideal. Although eating disorders aren’t directly caused by media images, they set a distorted standard of beauty that can affect body image and certainly act as a contributing factor in developing an eating disorder. The media teaches girls that they are expected to be sexy at an increasingly younger age, and before you know it, little girls are buying leg-toning shoes and push-up bikini tops and getting Botox injections. Something is very wrong, and even if the media isn’t completely to blame, they certainly aren’t helping.

The study also discusses how over the past 40 years, models and Hollywood types have continued to shrink, while the average Western woman has gotten heavier – making the gap between the women we see in media and the real women in our lives wider than ever. Is that to say the problem is the obesity epidemic? Sure, it’s a problem, but in this case the main issue is that media promotes the idea that this image is attainable for everyone. It has been estimated, however, that less than five percent of women are able to achieve the body of a fashion model.

Less than five percent! But is the average 10, 20, 30, or 40 year-old female aware of that fact? Or what about the fact that the gorgeous women they see in magazines and movie posters don’t even really look like that?

According to the study results, we could certainly benefit from a reminder. Women in the group who viewed music videos had significantly lower self-reported satisfaction with their appearance compared to those viewing the wildlife TV show. However, watching the Dove commercial counteracted this effect, leading researchers to conclude that, “demonstrating the extent to which media portrayals of women are artificially enhanced can mitigate detrimental effects on women’s appearance satisfaction.”

Beyond the Study

Good news, right? Well, yes, but not so fast. The positive effects of the commercial on body image may be all too fleeting:

“Whether the commercial would have any beneficial effect on viewers in everyday contexts, or over the long term, is still open to debate; one might argue that the commercial is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the volume of idealized media portrayals viewers are exposed to in the real world on a daily basis. In addition, any effects of the commercial may dissipate relatively soon after seeing it. On the other hand, the commercial may provide a salient reminder of exactly why comparisons to media portrayals are unfair or inappropriate that viewers may recall when subsequently viewing idealized media portrayals.”

So, this type of “reminder” could instigate change, but is by no means enough to fix the problem.

Getting Personal

When I first saw the Dove “Evolution” ad online several years ago, I thought it was a great message, but I also thought, “well…duh.” I don’t know how effective this commercial would be for people (especially adults) who are already aware of the falseness of those media images. Then again, I also studied media in college and write for a body image website, so I may not be the average viewer.

I believe that the people who can benefit tremendously from this message of truth are younger girls and adolescents. In the Media Literacy presentations I mentioned earlier, we covered everything from gender and race stereotypes in media (including their beloved Disney) to perception of beauty and the credibility of information in mainstream and online media. In the surveys they filled out about the presentation, the Dove videos and discussion were the part that stood out the most to almost every girl, and even many of the guys. Their shocked expressions and statements (“Are you for real?” “That is so creepy.”) will always stay with me, and I was grateful to Dove for creating something so straightforward and poignant to provide that kind of “aha” moment for so many impressionable teens. Still, I made sure to test them. “At the end of the day, what is Dove’s goal?” They got it right: “To sell their stuff.” And that stuff happens to include wrinkle and cellulite cream. Oh, and let’s not forget about Dove’s sister brand AXE. Just try to find an AXE commercial that doesn’t use female sexuality and objectification to sell its products.

Finally, it’s disappointing that there has not been another instance of a similar message with heavy exposure since “Evolution,” which is soon to be five years old. “Evolution” is still relevant for both research and real life purposes, but it can’t carry the torch alone forever.

What do you think? Can the right message portraying the distorted reality of media images really affect women’s feelings about their own appearance and reverse the negative impact of the Hollywood ideal? Do you think the effect for the teens I taught will be short-term or lasting?

Related Content:

Dove Video Shown to Impact Girls’ Self-Esteem

7 thoughts on “Media Literacy and Body Confidence: Is One Lesson Enough?

  1. I agree entirely with Tatiana. I don’t believe that the media should be demonized for causing body image issues.

    It really all comes down to the way we were conditioned to perceive ourselves from early childhood. I do believe that if we were not so programmed to be forever dissatisfied with how we look, the images that the media project would not impact us in a negative way.

    You may find this useful:

  2. Read about this doctoral dissertation “The Effectiveness of the Dove Evolution Film as a One Shot Media Literacy Treatment: I don’t think it works in the long run, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t incorporate media literacy into our work.

    Your post is timely, as I just wrote about Dove/Axe issue, too.

    So happy to find you!

  3. I think it’s one of those cases where you have to start somewhere. The teens that you worked with probably had their eyes opened, which is really important. However, a long term, multifaceted approach to reversing the media’s negative influence is ultimately needed. It’s how I feel in my work every day–I’m merely planting the seeds of bigger change that I hope will take root in them in the future.

  4. I think the illusion of perfection goes beyond the photoshop magic producers put on images– most models and actresses do not look as good on an average day as they do the day of a photo or video shoot. Those girls’ bodies are their paychecks, so they prep for work by dieting and working out hardcore and are looking their absolute best even pre-retouching.

    I also tend to agree with the first commenter that the people influencing your life at early ages are at least as much as media images. At least based on my personal experiences, if you grow up with a mom (or whomever) who says she’s fat, identifies areas of her body she is displeased with, talks about dieting in front of you, you will be much more likely to be concerned with those issues as well-an example of “do as I say (love your body! you’re beautiful), not as I do (ugh I hate my muffintop! no carbs for me!). My mom never dieted and I didn’t consider dieting until I was in college and surrounded by girls dieting for one reason or another. My mom was absolutely definitely not anywhere near perfect as a mother, but I think she set a good example for body image.

  5. I’m probably one of the few people in the Universe who doesn’t think media is to blame for body dissatisfaction. Even though commercials always highlight women who look a specific way, people are the ones who put each other down. So while you can certainly make the argument that other people punish one another because of what they internalize, at the end of the day, it’s your mother who is ridiculing your body. Though certainly, media can exacerbate a problem that’s already there versus putting it there in the first place.

    Personally, a lot of my body image problems came from real people, not from commercials or magazine ads. And growing up, I wasn’t impressionable and even now I don’t internalize what I watch. For me, my problems with media tends to revolve around race (the lack of non-white women in everything) versus fat-phobia or rigid standards of beauty. But, I don’t know if many other people share my opinions of experiences.

    So for me, a lot of it comes down to parenting. A lot of parents pimp their daughters out at young ages, encouraging them to wear clothes designed and meant for young adults. The sexualization starts earlier as many parents conflate overt sexuality with self-confidence. The two aren’t one and the same.

    Teaching young girls to take pride in external qualities like sports, hanging out with friends, or internal qualities like persistence or intelligence might be a better idea than trying to tackle an industry designed solely to make money. You don’t destroy media to create confidence, what you need to do is create confidence because that’ll change media. People will only produce what sells, so you NEED to change what you’re willing to buy.

  6. What’s particularly interesting to me is that the last time I saw an Evolution-type video, it was actually…a tutorial for how to use Photoshop. It clearly had a dual purpose and could be used both in the way Evolution was and for its original goal–but it just made me sad to see it turn out that way.

    Glad to see someone getting into this. When you’re interested in this kind of stuff it’s easy to get inundated with the “it’s all FAKE!” messages, which can lead to a sort of cognitive dissonance when we recognize ourselves still falling for it. Or, as you point out, when we *don’t* recognize ourselves falling for it, but do anyway.

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