Visual Culture and Media: Effects on Body Image Perception in Youth
With advancements in technology comes more frequent access to media and communication. Where we once were exposed to visual imagery via art museums, magazines, and other printed media, we are now bombarded with visual culture practically throughout our entire day (Markello, 2005) from television, billboards, the Internet (Helser, 2004), and social media platforms such as Instagram (Hu, 2018). With this increased exposure to visual media comes an increase in cultural influences on identity in our youth, especially regarding body image. As art educators, not only do we have the ability to help students dissect, reconsider, and “think beyond the face value of visual content” (Etherington, 2018, p. 26), it is also our responsibility.
Visual Culture and Its Forms
There are several ways of defining visual culture. One must consider both words when determining a definition. The visual aspect is often given greater emphasis, but the political, philosophical, economic, and social aspects of culture cannot be forgotten (Markello, 2005). According to Markello (2005), visual culture is active and dynamic, and “refers to engagement in our present visual environment, relies on critical understanding of cultural influences…and is ever-changing in response to new technological developments” (p. 136).
Our students today are exposed to quite a bit more visual content than even just a decade ago. Having grown up in the nineties and the turn of the century, I’ve personally experienced the advancement of technology, growing interests in television programs such as reality TV, and the accessibility of the Internet and social media platforms on handheld devices. On Instagram, a photo sharing social media app, participants share 60 million photographs a day (Hu, 2018). Technology and social media have played a specific role in redefining beauty standards in women as they have been major factors in the spread of images and information (Helser, 2004; Hu, 2018).
Body image (BI) and sense of self have been areas of impact in adolescents from increased methods and access to visual and cultural influences (Markello, 2005). Defined by Featherstone (2010), “Body image is generally understood as a mental image of one’s body as it appears to others” (p. 194) and also incorporates ‘body schema,’ the non-visual perception of the body. Therefore, BI is not necessarily related to actual physical appearance (Peña, Carvajal, Luna, & Bojórquez, 2019). BI is developed from childhood and into adolescence by observing family, peers, fashion, and media, and can sway an individual’s self-esteem (Peña et al, 2019). Adolescents specifically undergo a greater concern for BI as they are going through physical, emotional, and social changes which are strongly influenced by their experiences (Peña et al, 2019; Vitelli, 2013), including those derived from “materialistic ideologies and assumptions” (Hu, 2018, p. 98).
Body Image Perpetuated through Visual Culture
Across art history, women are frequently portrayed showing fertility, motherhood, or as sex objects (Kunitz, 2017; Lai, 2009). Classical Greek sculpture, Aphrodite, c. 350 B.C. depicts softly rounded features and represents both sexuality and maternity (Kunitz, 2017). Vegée-Lebrun’s Portrait of Marie Antoinette with Her Children, 1787, was meant to embody how a mother is to look and behave (Lai, 2009).
Historically, advertisements were meant to be unbiased information. Not until after World War I was it deduced from reviewing a collection of girls’ and women’s diaries that they were concerned with self-improvement and identity (Helser, 2004). Unfortunately, art and media have displayed a constantly changing version of the “it girl” throughout history (Hart, para 1). The average American is exposed to approximately three-thousand advertisements each day (Helser, 2004). Much of the media projects the idea of a “good life” (Featherstone, 2010; Helser, 2004) which includes fashion, cosmetics, and cosmetic surgeries. According to Hu (2018), "In this era, media is widely used for redefining and remodeling the beauty standards of femininity” (p. 99). Women were inspired to become a Gibson Girl of the 1900s as seen on LIFE magazine with an hourglass figure which was achievable thanks to the corset. In fact, magazine covers play a big role in showcasing the ideal female figure. Examples include Photoplay who considered actress Dolores del Rio as having “the best figure in Hollywood,” the founding of Playboy in the 1950s, model Beverly Johnson becomes the first black woman on the cover of Vogue in 1974 in honor of the black pride movement of the previous decade, and Victoria’s Secret model, Gisele Bundchen, is deemed “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” by Rolling Stone in 2000 (Hart, 2015).
Magazines aren’t the only media over time to spread their influence. Immediately following the voluptuousness of the Gibson Girl, we switch gears to the narrow-hipped, long-legged flapper thanks to Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America in 1921, Rosie the Riveter poster propaganda to encourage women to join the workforce during WWII efforts, clothing tailored to the Twiggy look of the 60s (thin and androgynous) supported by the founding of Weight Watchers, 1980s aerobic music videos featuring Jamie Lee Curtis expressing a desire for muscle tone in women (Hart, 2015) and complemented by Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1981 photograph of Lisa Lyon, the first Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding Champion (Kunitz, 2017), and celebrity vocalists of today sporting bodysuits during stage performances to showcase their trim waist and full backside.
Effects of Visual Culture on Youth Today
The comparisons made by consumer visual culture with perceptions of themselves cause adolescents a decrease in self-esteem, particularly in females. In fact, to be labeled as unattractive specifically due to body image is “the ultimate source of low self-esteem (Hu, 2018, p. 100). Milkie (1999) posits that girls’ magazines enforce “unrealistic beauty images and a focus on traditional femininity” which can damage self-image (p. 191). Photographs of beautiful celebrities and their endorsements invite comparisons of who we are, who we are not, and who we would like to be (Featherstone, 2010). Dissatisfaction can also occur when groups of people (e.g. minorities, gender, etc.) are absent or misrepresented in the media (Milkie, 1999).
In addition to mental and emotional health are effects to an adolescent’s physical health. Several of those diagnosed with serious eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, attribute these results to bullying from peers and unrealistic media images presented as ideal (Vitelli, 2013). Female movie and TV characters become role models to adolescents, and when those characters are presented thinner than the average body size, adolescents feel a sense of inadequacy and body dissatisfaction (Vitelli, 2013) which has even lead to suicide (Etherington, 2018). Markello (2005) describes her interactions and observations of her own teenage daughter and friends; they discuss TV, music, boys, sex, and clothes, to name a few, and have also engaged in some destructive behaviors such as taking diet pills and self-harm. Magazines advertise to both women and teens a variety of weight loss methods, which can have such negative effects as osteoporosis if starting at a young age, including smoking cigarettes to curb your appetite (Helser, 2004). So how do art educators arm their students with the skills to be more critical of the constant persuasion of visual culture and media?
Addressing Visual Culture in Art Education
According to Etherington (2018), art educators should necessitate critical thinking and questioning of visual content as it “provides an opportunity for students to learn how to connect with and participate in democratic society beyond the school walls” (p. 27). Students must be more than passive consumers, which is echoed by Milkie (1999) who states that recipients can reject media content that contradicts their personal experiences and Markello (2005) who encourages active participation and public awareness of visual culture. As Markello (2005) states that young women ought to make sense of visual culture rather than fear it, Etherington (2018) and Lai (2009) use art to create an open dialogue with their seventh graders and college-level art appreciation students, respectively.
Etherington (2018), upon noticing his students’ preoccupation with the social implications of fashion, decided to implement a four-week unit on fashion design including ethical issues such as sweatshops, fashion’s influence on social norms, and the effects of digital manipulation on body image. He reflects on the success of the unit by providing student quotes in response to their analysis of the social capital in the fashion industry. One student says, “I feel like Photoshop is cool to use on objects, but on people it’s very unethical. People should feel good about themselves and want to be who they are, not a ‘fixed’ image” (Etherington, 2018, p. 32). Lai’s (2009) students created collages using magazines and other media to express concerns about the lives of women. One student used images of women’s shoes to represent the various roles a woman performs each day while another critiqued heterosexism and lack of interracial representation in women’s magazines. By creating these images, Lai (2009) states that students were able to critique conventional representations of women and “recognized the power and problem of visual culture and were empowered to reject or reshape visual culture” (p. 18).
Adolescent students are going through quite a bit of change when it comes to their growth and development as they hit puberty, not to mention questioning their identity as they are combating the variety of visual culture telling them who they should be. Students are being bullied over fashion (Etherington, 2018), suffering from blows to their self-esteem (Hu, 2008) and body dissatisfaction (Vitelli, 2013) sometimes resulting in cases such as eating disorders or suicide (Etherington, 2018; Vitelli, 2013). With the growth in exposure to visual culture and media thus far, I can only assume it will continue to grow. Art educators need to help equip their students with the skills to consider visual media critically to become less a “passive consumer” and more an “active agent” when it comes to developing their identities, including the perception of body image (Etherington, 2018, p. 27).
Etherington, M. (2018). Criticizing visual culture through fashion design and role-playing. Art Education, 71(6), 26-32.
Featherstone, M. (2010). Body, image and effect in consumer culture. Body & Society, 16(1), 193-221.
Hart, M. (2015, January 15). See how much the “perfect” female body has changed in 100 years (It’s crazy!) Greatist. Retrieved from https://greatist.com/grow/100-years-womens-body-image
Helser, K. (2004). A Study of visual culture and its impact on adolescent identity. A thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts. Ohio State University. Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/51288567.pdf
Hu, Y. (2018). Exploration of how female body image is presented and interpreted on Instagram. Advances in Journalism and Communication, 6, 95-120.
Kunitz, D. (2017, January 2). What art history can tell us about female beauty ideals. Artsy. Retrieved from https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-how-art-has-shaped-female-beauty-ideals-history
Lai, A. (2009). Images of women in visual culture. Art Education, 62(1), 14-19.
Markello, C. (2005). Visual culture and teenage girls: Unraveling "cultural" threads tied to "self” and “other.” The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education, 25, 134-153.
Milkie, M. A. (1999) Social comparisons, reflected appraisals, and mass media: The Impact of pervasive beauty images on black and white girls’ self-concepts. Social Psychology Quarterly, 62(2) 190-210.
Peña, Y. O., Carvajal, A. S., Luna, M. O., & Bojórquez, R. C. (2019). Gender, and satisfaction of body image in high school students of Yucatan, Mexico. Psychology, 10, 30-45.
Vitelli, R. (2013, November 18). Media exposure and the “perfect” body. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/media-spotlight/201311/media-exposure-and-the-perfect-body