How do the media affect a teen's body image?

By: Contributors

More than ever, teens are exposed to a dizzying array of media outlets. While parents used to just worry about how much time their teens spent watching television, the Internet, smart phones, magazines, and publicly displayed television (e.g. at school, malls, etc.) increase teens' media exposure exponentially. All these mediums tend to provide very mixed messages about what makes someone physically attractive as opposed to what's healthy, and then add another layer of confusion by promoting often unhealthy behaviors and foods. The result is that teens can often have unrealistic expectations about what their bodies should look like, while being encouraged to try the very things that are unhealthy for their bodies.

A study on fifth graders showed that both boys and girls expressed dissatisfaction after watching a Britney Spears video or an episode of "Friends" [Source: Teen Health]. These types of media display men and women with atypical body types, such as being too muscular or too thin, but often celebrate these body types as the most attractive. Even more damaging to teens' perceptions of their own body image are the magazine images that are retouched by computer programs to erase models' bodily imperfections. The result is that teens are now being told they need to have bodies shaped in ways even the professional models can't achieve in reality!


In addition to simply presenting unrealistic body images, the media also tend to expressly discuss and comment on how people look, raising the perceived level of importance of physical attractiveness to the teens. For example, one study showed that over half the female characters in movies or television had comments made about their appearance, while the commercials being shown during these shows also focused on improving one's physical appearance [Source: Teen Health]. So the message teens get is quite clear -- here is what you should look like and here are the products that will get you there. Such a combination sets up teens for frustration and disappointment, since the standards they set for themselves based on what they see are not really attainable.