Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What Pop Culture is Teaching Our Girls*

When my then-seven-year-old daughter came home from daycare singing the sexualized lyrics to T-Pain’s  “Apple Bottom Jeans”, I was reminded how pop culture can reach right past parents’ best intentions and pull their children into its compelling grasp. That song had a great beat and did celebrate the female body … the curvier the better. While that in itself might not be such a horrible message for my daughter, the rest of the lyrics did nothing to promote female empowerment or tell her that her value lies in something outside her body as a sexual object.

Every generation has its own pressures and prescribed standards of beauty and female behavior. Madonna was wearing her bra as outerwear 25 years ago, and many of my favorite ’80s rock music had equally raunchy lyrics that promoted indiscriminate sex and drug abuse. So why does pop culture seem to have a stronger and more negative influence on self-esteem today? Is it the sheer volume of it? Is it the increased pressures also exerted by an ever-growing diet-and-beauty industry?

As reported in the Journal of Adolescence in 1997 as well as in the European Eating Disorders Review in 2003, when college-age women look at fashion magazines, their scores on body image and self-esteem tests plummet. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2003, when preteen girls read those same magazines, they are five times more likely to develop eating disorders within the next five years.

Even without glossy fashion spreads and weight-loss-focused articles, I see girls growing up in a culture saturated with what are impossibly thin images of female ideals. The precocious teenagers who star in children’s television shows, the clothing lines that include thongs, and sexualized T-shirt messages for pre teens all communicate and promote specific values about beauty and gender expectations.  

These are tough messages even for an adult to sift through. Plenty of intelligent, skilled women struggle with their self-esteem and body image against the onslaught of pressures to look and act a certain way.  Midlife women are told to resist aging and aim to look a decade younger, no matter how much time or money it costs them. New mothers are supposed to strive for near-impossible “yummy mommy” status. This translates to a message that all mothers should be fashionable and sexy while disguising all evidence of the honorable work of mothering. None of these messages take into account the inevitable lack of sleep, and the unsexy reality of dirty diapers and spit-up on clothes.

Television plays its role, too. Girl culture, as it is lived out on popular TV shows, promotes an underlying value that it’s what’s outside that really counts. On TV a girl can be mean, vicious or vacuously stupid, but if she is wearing the right clothing or has the prettiest hair, she may still be the most popular. This tactic is constantly repeated in the endless “reality” show competitions that highlight women vying for male attention.

Perhaps the most significant factor that sets current pop culture apart from that of the last generation is new media. Advertising images reach children and teens through video games, the Internet, and their cell phones. While I can appreciate social networking sites as a fantastic tool for self-expression and maintaining relationships, these sites are also fertile ground for bullying and harassment.  Some web sites give girls the tools to post hurtful messages, rank friends, or rate each other’s appearance in photos. Many of their online communications mimic the blunt and often cruel evaluations in gossip blogs or celebrity magazines. 

Girls were sometimes mean on the playgrounds of my childhood, too, but the relational aggression that occurs today is more powerful and potentially damaging to self-esteem. Research shows that if the perpetrator isn’t face to face with her victim, she is less likely to feel remorse or empathy. Down the line, that is not good for her sense of self-worth either.

Who is responsible for the self-esteem of girls and women? Blaming pop culture is easy – and mostly accurate – but we can’t stop there. As adults we choose what we want to consume from the pop culture smorgasbord. We choose where to shop, what companies to support and what magazines we read. I think we should be better role models to the girls in our lives by demonstrating female friendships that are genuine and compassionate and by refusing to be preoccupied with body size, unrealistic images of beauty, and other qualities idealized by the media.

* This post has been edited from one that originally appeared as an editorial for the Dove Self-Esteem Fund in 2008

My next post will offer tips on promoting media literacy & challenging the pop culture messaging at home.


  1. I believe one way woman can help others self-esteem is by being brave enough to share the "ugly" parts of our own stories. Too often we fall into the trap of sharing only our successes...forgetting to let our peers and especially younger girls know that we ALL have "bad hair days." That we have faced discrimination in a myriad of forms at all ages...and that when the thing we thought would kill us happened...we didn't die...we grew stronger, made better friendships, and were able to show our true beauty by continuing to hold our heads high, trust that something bigger than ourselves was there and had our backs. God to be sure...and the army of strong and powerful women who walked this path before us.
    Telling the truth...not the gossip, not bemoaning the cruelty of this world in useless rants...but telling the simple truth, as you dear lil cous' have done here, is a service to all those who follow as hundreds of others read this and nod in agreement.
    God bless

  2. Hello. My cousin, Lori, sent me your blog address yesterday. I look forward to checking in here every so often. I have 2 girls (12 and 10) and want to be consciously raising them to be aware of media and their impact on our body image/self esteem.

    Just today, I saw this article:

    I think it fits well with the conversation you've begun here. A case could be made that the magazine is still trying to 'sell' beauty etc, using a 'larger' model. That said, looking at the photos had an immediate impact on me. My thoughts went something like this, 'Maybe my rolls are sexy too. She looks like me?! She's not so bad. She's got a beautiful body. This makes me feel really great about myself." I have never looked at photos in a magazine and identified with the model. Ever. This was a new experience for me (other than the Dove ads).

  3. thanks for sharing your thoughts Kathie and Monica!

    Kathie.. being brave enough to tell our truth.. absolutely! Women can be powerful role models to girls and other women when we do that.

    Monica.. I am glad you found this blog and I appreciate the post about the plus size model. I've been looking at that today too. I agree that plus size magazines and beauty companies like Dove are still selling something.. but I like that they have figured out how to market their products without making me feel worse about myself. I love that the curvy model ads made you say "maybe my rolls are sexy too!" Imagine if our girls grew up always seeing a diverse range of body shapes and sizes in all the magazines, billboards, TV shows... if it was just normal. Maybe hating their tummies and thighs wouldn't have to be a normal rite of passage for teenage girls.. one that many never recover from.

  4. It was first in my search for "body confidence activities for girls" Yay!! love this one! Benefits of Online counseling


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