My cousin Lexi Rios is a lot of things.
She’s half Ecuadorean and half Dominican and incredibly tall for her age.
She’s the self-proclaimed Uno champion of St. Mary’s where she attends 8th grade honors classes.
She’s the funniest 13-year-old (or maybe just funniest person) I know, and she’s my best friend, in spite of the nearly 11-year age gap between us.
She was also only 6-years old the first time she broke my heart when she told me she hated how dark her skin color is.
How on earth could an innocent 6-year-old barely out of first grade have already grown to see a part of herself as wrong and ugly?
It was then that I realized the journey everyone inevitably takes with his or her body image was beginning to start a hell of a lot earlier. While there may be several reasons for this, I think the media have the majority of the blame to themselves.
Studies have proven that media can have a negative impact on a person’s body image.
Movies, television, and the music and fashion industries perpetuate stereotypes and promote impossible standards for Lexi and other kids like her to strive for.
Born into a post- September 11, 2001 world where discrimination toward non-white members of society started to become even more prevalent, Lexi’s chances at growing up to love the skin she’s in got lower and lower as time went on.
The environment children grow up in is already saturated with all things media. The access kids have to television, movies, music, video games, and advertising is increasing by the minute and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if what the media were portraying and advocating were messages of positivity, confidence, and self-love for all shapes, sizes, colors, etc. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
As a 5’7”, dark skinned, teenage Latina, Lexi doesn’t have many people in positions of power or celebrity to look up to that she sees bits of herself in.
It’s been my experience and the experience of those close to me that we feel better about what we look like when we see people we can identify with, doing what we dream of doing and being what we hope to be like.
They’re called ‘role models’ for a reason. We hope to model ourselves after the good example they’re setting and keep promoting the positivity they’ve instilled in us.
The media does a poor job in showcasing the melting pot the United States of America is supposed to be. It puts forth a less than diverse community of people doing all the talking and then wonders why anyone complains about lack of inclusion.
Because of this, we as the consumers watching and listening most of the time can’t help but feel that the way we look must be wrong if it’s hardly ever celebrated the way it should be.
It’s the reason why my little cousin at just 6-years-old was able to feel hatred toward a part of her and see negativity in the mirror.
According to ScienceDaily, nearly 60% of teenagers spend an average of 20 hours per week in front of television and computer screens and a little over 30% spend closer to 40 hours per week.
To put that in perspective for our younger readers who have yet to join the workforce (*sigh* to be young…) 40 hours is the average amount of hours worked in a week when one has a full-time job.
This so called “screen time” is full of television shows, commercials, movies, and articles like this one.
Last year, PBS analyzed an extremely telling study that focused on the media in regards to movie roles specifically.
Laura Santhanam and Megan Crigger wrote, “Researchers at the University of Southern California studied the 700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014, excluding 2011, and analyzed the race and ethnicity of more than 30,000 characters to reveal diversity in film.
The findings showed that for nearly a decade, filmmakers have made virtually no progress in portraying more characters from non-white racial and ethnic identities.”
Since 2007, more than 70% of Hollywood roles have gone to white film actors. Less than 20 of the top 100 movies of 2014 featured non-white lead or supporting actors.
Just this past year, out of the 20 men and women nominated for best actor/actress and supporting actor/actress academy awards, zero identified as non-white.
“I feel like if it’s true about how the TV really does add ten pounds,” Lexi confided in me, “then these people must be anorexic… They were always skinny, blonde, blue-eyed… There was always a certain quality that you had to have to be a movie star which always seemed to be white or skinny.”
What’s a young girl or boy with dreams of appearing on the silver screen supposed to do if they don’t identify as white?
This doesn’t just hold true for Hollywood roles either. I remember standing up at a diversity assembly at my college to point out my disappointment in never having had a professor that looked like anything like me.
Being taught by a majority of white male journalism professors gave me little hope that I could achieve the successes they had already achieved in their field – my future field.
When there’s little to no people to look up to or identify with, hopes and ambitions are quickly dashed and low self-esteem runs rampant.
Fortunately for me, I had one of the best advisors a college student could ask for. He called me into his office and told me he heard me loud and clear and as the head of the journalism department, he would personally make sure our branch of the school looked more diverse.
He then went on to encourage me to make my mark with my writing and then come back in a decade to teach… but that’s enough about me. It’s obvious that not everyone is as lucky as I was to have had a person in a position of power to listen and make the necessary changes in order to create a more inclusive environment.
Another point that isn’t touched upon in the aforementioned PBS article but that I feel is possibly the most important thing the media gets wrong is something called sizeism.
Sizeism is defined as prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s size.
Just the fact that the red squiggly line comes up under the word should tell you enough about how it’s not taken seriously or recognized as a detrimental thing to our society.
In addition to a lack of diversity in regards to skin colors and gender identities, there is such a thing – albeit a lesser-known thing – as thin privilege.
This is not to belittle thin shaming, which is just as harmful to society as fat shaming. No one should be put down and judged for the size and shape of his or her body, no matter how big or small.
Shannon Ridgway wisely wrote on EverydayFeminism, “Through mass media, we’ve been bombarded with messages that the ‘normal’ size is actually thin… This assumption that you need to be thin in order to be okay and normal gets played out frequently for people who are bigger than ‘normal.’”
Ridgway proudly advocates making sizeism recognizable and unacceptable in order to make the world – and the environment our youth grows up in – a better place for people of all shapes and sizes.
The fashion industry in particular plays a heavy hand in making its audience feel negatively about their own body image.
Erin McKelle Fischer, contributor at Bustle writes, “It’s no secret that the fashion industry has long been a culprit of body shame, with thin, white, Photoshopped models having become the norm for almost 20 years, and the rest of us not in that demographic being pushed into the margins.”
I remember being 15-years-old and not being able to go shopping for clothes with my friends because while they went into Victoria’s Secret and picked a bra up off the rack for $25.00, I was forced to wait for my mom to take me to a store that sold specialty sizes for breasts like mine (36H) for anywhere between $80.00 and $100.00.
Because my body wasn’t recognized as an option in mainstream stores, I was forced to feel like I was the “other.” I felt my body was wrong and not represented for good reason. I must have deserved to be hidden if that was the choice everyone everywhere decided to make.
Please Try This At Home
I decided to try a little experiment while writing this article.
I went to Google images and typed in, “beautiful people.”
Figure 4 Provided by Me! (Corinne Santiago)
It took 30 pictures until I saw someone noticeably non-white and 130 pictures until I saw someone that wouldn’t be considered “thin” by society’s standards.
I also feel that it’s necessary to add that the second picture was a pregnant woman – something that will be temporary before society once again pressures her into having what is deemed as an “acceptable” post-baby body.
Why is it that society’s standards of beauty are so narrow?
Human beings come in an infinite amount of beautiful shapes and sizes; and yet, the people consuming these media packages are constantly being told they only get to be considered beautiful and important if they fit into the tiny square hole the media have so harmfully carved.
Just Say… Yes?
During my research for this article, I encountered an amazing website called JustSayYes.
At first, I wasn’t thrilled about the website’s name since I’m much more familiar with the ‘Just Say No’ campaign, but I learned to get over it once I discovered some of the great things they’re involved in.
As a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping prepare teens for success in the goals they set, Just Say Yes educates through youth speakers and classroom curriculum and have a firm opinion on how the media affects today’s youth and how they view their bodies.
On this topic, they write, “Teens are barraged with a constant stream of media and peer pressures related to body image. The media tells them their value is based on their outward appearance. Society tells them that they must be thinner or more muscular to be loved, accepted and successful in life.”
They go on to explain that their mission is to tell them that beauty is far more than just skin deep.
A person’s mental perception of what they see when they look in the mirror can turn out to be dangerous if he or she doesn’t like what they see. Many teens turn to eating disorders, abusing drugs and/or alcohol, or self-harm just to get closer to the impossible standard the media sets.
Television, movies and magazines have images with unrealistic and impossible versions of what bodies should supposedly look like.
By now, everyone knows these images are airbrushed beyond belief. What’s more is that the models we see in magazines and on the runway weigh 23% less than the average woman, according to Just Say Yes.
Still, as the website’s contributors point out, countless numbers of teens believe what they’re seeing is real and attainable and go to great lengths to achieve what we know to be the impossible.
One Reddit user pointed out that it isn’t just mainstream media causing these body image problems anymore. Social media has created a whole new playing field equipped with photoshop, cyber bullies, and unimaginable standards. The most disturbing issue social media has created is that it’s not just the movie stars anymore – it’s your classmates, your neighbors, and all the rest of your loved ones.
“I think social media has changed body image for the worse,” one Reddit user wrote. “You didn’t used to be able to see these retouched, staged, angled photos of your friends. You only photographed vacations and milestones… you never photographed yourself just to show off your looks unless you were a model.”
Since the age of social media has only recently gotten into full swing, the user went on to explain how their granddaughter’s struggle with body image issues has been much more intense and starting at an earlier age than their daughter’s ever did.
It’s so true. The invention of the selfie stick says so much about this current generation’s culture.
We’re so obsessed with looking at ourselves and each other; getting the perfect angle to show off the new color on our pouted lips while simultaneously hiding the scarring from your most recent breakout.
A (Faint) Light At the End of the Tunnel
In spite of all of this negativity, there are beacons of hope in the great big world of mainstream media and they are speaking out louder and prouder than ever before.
“I think women out there shouldn’t really try to conform to any kind of stereotype. Just be happy and hopefully healthy.” –Rebel Wilson
“I’m not going to sacrifice my mental health to have the ‘perfect’ body.” –Demi Lovato
“I think about my body as a tool to do the stuff I need to do, but not the be-all-end-all of my existence.” –Lena Dunham
“I am not a woman whose self-worth comes from her dress size!” –Kristen Bell
“I have a belly and I have cellulite, and I still deserve love.” –Amy Schumer
“I’ve never wanted to look like models on the cover of magazines. I represent a majority of women and I’m very proud of that.” –Adele
“One day I decided that I was beautiful and so I carried out my life as if I was a beautiful girl.” –Gabourey Sidibe
“Since I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that… to be different… but different is good.” – Serena Williams
Don’t you wish you could give each and every one of those women a hug? Sometimes I just read those quotes over and over again until my face hurts from grinning.
Serena said it best. Different is good. We are all different. Every single one of us is unique and that is a GOOD thing, no matter what the media tries to tell us overtly or subliminally.
I’m proud and humbled to say that my cousin looks up to me- but seeing as I don’t have a hit show on television or a song on the Billboard Hot 100, I totally understand that I’m not the only role model she has. It’s only natural to idolize the rich and famous. (All hail Queen Bey…)
Anyway, Lexi tells me she’s always looked up to Selena Gomez, touching on the fact that she admired the way she handled body shamers with dignity and class. My cousin also voiced her disapproval of seeing her role model distorted by photoshop and Hollywood bigwigs that clearly don’t appreciate her for exactly who she is.
“I feel like we’re our most beautiful when we’re just natural,” Lexi said.
Companies like American Eagle seem to have heard Lexi’s words and have used their fame for the better, launching their #AerieReal campaign which exclusively features unretouched models in advertisements for their lingerie brand.
Promoting body positivity, self-love, and challenging what they call ‘supermodel standards,’ every advertisement and shopping bag with a model on it reads, ‘The girl in this photo has not been retouched. The real you is sexy.”
American Eagle isn’t the only company heading in the right direction.
Bradley University writes, “While the mass media all too often present us with oppressive images of ideal beauty and ideal bodies, some media forms are designed to challenge such unrealistic representations. One recent example of this is the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty that uses the images of women of a variety of ages, ethnicities and body shapes to advertise its products.”
While there is still a long way to go, small strides like this make big differences for youngsters just starting to understand what they watch, read, and listen to.
Did You Miss Lexi?
Lexi’s come a long way since being that 1st grader that hated her skin color.
She’s one of the top students in her class with hopes of attending college at Yale University – it’s never too early to start preparing for a dream, right?
She now cares more about the grades she gets than the likes she gets on an Instagram selfie.
She attends tennis lessons, idolizing Venus and Serena for their strength and athletic accomplishments more than their dress sizes and ability to highlight and contour with their makeup.
She’s one test in December away from earning her second degree black belt in karate and prides herself on surprising everyone with her capacity to take down men more than three times her age.
The most important thing Lexi and kids like her have hopefully learned is that it’s okay not to look, sound, and act like what the media shows us. They are just a small percentage of this vast, diverse population.
Whether or not you do identify with what we see and hear, you’re beautiful the way you are.
Every version of every body is valuable, important, and deserving of love, respect, and celebration. Until the mainstream media catches up with its audience, who better person to give your body all the positivity and attention it deserves than you?
Figure 6 Provided by Corinne Santiago (Lexi and I at Rye Playland – Summer 2016)