The Effects of the Mass Media on Women

Well, one aspect, anyway.

It is commonly accepted that one problem that many women face these days is pressure to conform to societal standards of beauty. (I believe this has been discussed in a recent thread.) I have seen people saying that this is a result of the media “glorifying” idealized versions of feminine beauty. What I haven’t seen brought out is that at least part of the problem is that the very concept of the mass media (I use this loosely to include TV, movies, publications, etc.) causes the bar to shift, by pushing upwards the top end of the beauty scale.

All beauty is relative - the most attractive is a 10, the least a 0. Seems to me that before the invention of photography etc., this scale was for most people limited to people that they actually knew. As a result, an average woman might rank relatively high up. What photography, movies and TV have done is to give every average person access to the highest fraction of a percent in the world. Using this yardstick guarantees that many more people will fall short.

What this means is that even if the media did not “glorify” the “beautiful people”, and even if they showcaseded more “regular looking” people, the fact that they will also show alot of gorgeous ones (there will always be a market for this) will of itself cause problems for those who fall short of this extremely high standard.

Of course, all of the preceding applies to men, to the extent that their happiness and success depends on their physical attractiveness. But I think the consensus (which I share) is that it’s more of an issue for women.

Not sure if this will turn out to be a debate. Maybe just a thought.

I think the problem is that the media do not portray reality and it warps the mental map which, bear with me, is how you see the world as opposed to how it really is.

Fortunately, everyone still has to live in the real world.

My girlfriend used to go on about the models in magazines until I pointed out that very few women looked like when we went to the shopping centre ( sorry, i live in england, i just can’t say mall ).
I think it warps the mind of women and men.

My advice is, stop watching TV and read a quality paper instead.

It’s certainly an interesting thesis, but I think it’s somewhat self-limiting, to the extent that even taking the complete universe of women portrayed by the media, your 10 and my 10 ( as well as 9, 8, . . . 0) may not coincide. The way I read your OP, it really doesn’t account for that. You acknowledge that beauty is relative, in that some women are 10s and some are 0s, but also appear to imply that there are fixed categories defining “average” and “gorgeous.” Am I reading that right?


I certainly wouldn’t say it is fixed (as in complete agreement), but there is certainly a large degree of consensus. That’s why the top actresses/models get paid such big bucks. You are right - for a person whose tastes are such that he finds many of the women that he meets every day more attractive than the top actresses and models, the phenomenon that I describe is not a factor. But such people are extremely rare.

i was watching the british tv show a few years ago, A TOUCH OF FROST. about an elderly detective. i suddenly thought, “why are the women in this program so UGLY.” then i started focusing on the women more and i dawned on me. they weren’t ugly they were just NORMAL looking. i expect women to be at least an 8 when watching TV.

Dal Timgar

Interesting - when I saw this topic, I thought it would be from another reader of Salon, because they’ve just run a couple of articles about advertising and women. Part 1 Part 2

These are less about the images of perfection displayed in the media and more about other messages about who and what women are, but I found them very interesting.

This relates more to men and to British media . . . But I noticed on two British shows (AbFab and The Vicar of Dibley) the “studio audience” (a soundtrack, I’m sure) gasped audibly in awestruck lust when a “hunk” appeared onscreen. Now, these guys would not have turned a head in the U.S., and would certainly never be cast as leading men—they were both chubby, pasty and had very unremarkable faces.

Does this mean the Brits are much healthier than we are when it comes to standards of (male, at least) beauty? Or maybe AbFab and Dibley were having us on?


Why would it be “healthier” to admire men who are “chubby, pasty and had very unremarkable faces” than any other standard?

Izzy—Because there are a lot more chubby, pasty, unremarkable-looking men than there are men who look like Dylan McDermott.

Just as I would be a lot happier if ZaSu Pitts and not Michelle Pfeiffer were the standard of female beauty.


I don’t think your assumption follows. There’s no reason to think that these people gasp audibly whenever any chubby guy comes around. Presumably these particular chubby guys had some unique quality that made them “hunks” in the eyes of these viewers. Tastes in appearence may vary from country to country, and from era to era. But in the end, the “hunks” or “knockouts” are always going to be the top percentile, based on how they conform to whatever ideal is currently in vogue.

One could argue that this consensus was built by the media. There are certainly absolutes: clear skin is preferred over acne, missing teeth probably aren’t considered attractive by too many people, etc. But there are a lot of other standards of beauty that we can see varying according to fashion, like the amount of body fat and muscle, general face-shape, amount of body hair, etc. However, the media have presented only one ideal: unhealthy thinness, a washboard stomach and toned biceps, high cheekbones, and baby smooth legs and armpits. These are not inherently attractive characteristics. Their desirablity depends on societal and personal preferences. However, I think the media have a vested interest in training us to believe that the only way to be beautiful is to conform to their ideal and buy the products and services that they are advertising in order to do it. (By the way, I’m not trying to push all the blame off on “the media”–we as a society and as individuals culpable because we continue to swallow their crap.)

You’re certainly right that the industry can set an unreasonable standard because they have many women to choose from–don’t forget that they can and do devote a lot of resources to molding each these few attractive women into their perfect vision of female beauty, though personal trainers, makeup artists, hair dressers, airbrushed photos, and the like.

I think you will get little argument on that. Fankly, most human beings are particularly entertained by a media representation of the average human life.

I think that the distortion affects both sexes, but that it is more concentrated (focused?) for women. Men also are bombarded by unrealistic images, but those images might deal with financial success, personal courage, appearance, physical accomplishment, intellectual excellence, etc. And with men, excellence in one facet might be shown as overcoming shortcomings in any one (or several) of the others.

Female images in the media, IME, run far more consistenetly toward looks above all other criteria. (Well, in drama kindness/compassion/faithfulness is often highly valued, but even then a minimum standard of aesthetic appeal is generally required.) While an ugly man can find many media images of unattractive men valued for wealth, athletics, etc., there are far fewer such images for women.

Now, as to whether the media builds the conssensus image or responds to it, I think that both answers are overly simplistic. Media images exist in a feedback loop. What’s out there influences popular opinion, and popular opinion influences what’s out there. The simple fact that these images change over time makes it clear that taste is not dictated from a single source. At the same time Kate Moss was almost filling out her Calvin Kleins Anna Nicole Smith was bursting out of her Guess Jeans.

By the time a woman has finished reading any “beauty” magazine, she will have learned that:

Her hair is the wrong color, too straight or too curly, not shiny enough, and cut wrong. Her scalp has dandruff she doesn’t know about. Her cheeks, eyes, eyebrows, lips, and skin must be covered with or enhanced by cosmetics or they won’t be attractive. She should change her eye color with colored contact lenses. Her skin has blemishes, blackheads, wrinkles, large pores, or must be “exfoliated” to look okay. She may need surgery to get rid of those wrinkles–or she can “peel” her skin with acid. Her teeth are not white enough and may need to be capped. Her neck is not long enough. Her ears must be decorated with jewelry. Some of this jewelry requires that holes be poked in the ears and then kept open with little wires and rubbing alcohol so the wounds won’t heal naturally. Her breasts are either too small, too large, or at any rate, the wrong shape, and must be either pushed together to make them look larger or minimized to make them look smaller. Shee needs to remove hair from a number of places on her body where it grows naturally. Her waist, hips, butt, and thighs are disaster areas which must be exercised constantly and treated with special creams to prevent the appearance of some mysterious stuff called "cellulite. Her underarms are too flabby and her hands are rough and unattractive unless moisturized and her nails need to be colored and artificially extended by gluing on little nylon fakes. Her feet must also be buffed up and her toenails painted. She is not tall enough, so she must wear shoes that will result in ugly bunions and back pain by the time she is forty. And by the way, her posture is wrong and should be corrected. Her clothing is all wrong and out of style and she is wearing the wrong colors. Getting her period will cause her agonizing pain and also make her sort of crazy for about a week.

So yes, I’d say that the media have an effect on women’s perception of their own looks–and everything else about them.

There is a solution for this: don’t read these magazines and don’t give them to your daughters and if you find your daughters reading them, laugh at how transparently wrong they are. And if you see this stuff on TV, change the channel. Unfortunately a huge number of women get taken in by all this BS and spend fortunes trying to achieve the unattainable. Too bad. Lester Bangs said it best: Fashion is fascism. Style is originality.

I have a theory (and, as usual, it is based on my opinions and a life-time of observations and conversations) that women are affected more strongly by media distortions of body image because there is still a strong drive in most women to attract a man by physical means. I believe this is reinforced by the way men act; paying more attention to prettier women, and ignoring the more average-looking ones. The media is aware of this, of course, and exploits this tendency in women that is linked to a very basic, very strong drive to find a partner for company and reproduction.
Men are not as strongly affected by body image distortion because they can probably attract a woman by showing that they would be a good provider for her and her potential children.

Before every feminist on the boards feels the need to rip me a new one, let me say that this is my theory; I don’t like it, and I try very hard not to participate in it, but I believe this kind of thinking is still very much alive and well in the 22nd century.

(make that “21st century” please - my brain had a bubble)

I don’t think feminists deny your theory so much as decry it.