They say comparison is the thief of joy, and there is maybe no place this is truer than inside the minds of teenage girls. The TODAY/AOL Body Image survey asked teen girls about how images in the media make them feel about themselves. The answer: Not great!
Eighty percent of the teenage girls we surveyed said they compare themselves to the images they see of celebrities, and almost half of those girls said it makes them feel dissatisfied with their own appearance. Also: Teenage girls are wise to Photoshopping shenanigans, and they’re not into it: The majority of the girls surveyed said they want the practice to stop entirely.
However, nothing is going to stop teenage girls—or boys, or grownups of either gender, for that matter—from comparing themselves to celebrities, models, athletes, or even each other. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, experts say.
“Automatically, we compare ourselves to those around us, whether it’s the in media or real life,” says Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “And that’s a biological instinct, because we need to know how to navigate our social world. We don’t just compare our bodies; we compare all sorts of things.
“It’s when we’re looking at a lot of artificial images; they’re unrealistic. And so it puts an undue pressure on people, if they feel like that’s part of the scale, and they don’t measure up,” Rutledge says.
There is a bright side here, however, and it’s that teens seem to be getting better at sniffing out media fakery, particularly airbrushing and Photoshop, she says. Jezebel, for example, brought the inherent duplicity of airbrushing to the mainstream back in 2007, when they published unretouched photos of Faith Hill’s Redbook cover; more recently, the site published unretouched photos of Lena Dunham from her Vogue cover shoot. (Though that retouching actually ended up being pretty minimal, and the Jezebel stunt earned a few eye rolls -- including from Dunham herself.)
“Will Photoshop go away? I don’t think so,” says Vivian Diller, a psychologist who has written about Photoshop and body image. “I think it’s like, good lighting and good makeup is part of the fashion and beauty industry. But I think it’s gone overboard. So there’s been a reaction against it.”
Just last month, Aerie, the lingerie line from American Eagle, launched a new ad campaign promising “no retouching” and “no supermodels.” This, of course, is after a decade of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign. Body image is being talked about in the media, and if advertisers have caught on—well, at least teenage girls seem to have, too.
“I mean, that’s kind of a new development, compared to before, when people weren’t quite so aware, and they had them as more like, goddesses on pedestals. Now, there’s this shift into saying, we want them to look like real people, because we’re real people, too,” Rutledge says.
Some parental lessons in media literacy can go a long way in helping teenage girls discern what’s unrealistic or unattainable, experts say.
“I think it’s up to parents, not just the media industry, to clarify for their children that the media is presenting imagery that is unrealistic and unattainable,” Diller says.
Parents can take advertisements, or magazine covers, or the Oscar red carpet this weekend, and turn them into teaching opportunities. “Try to ask questions that allow a teen to explore that a little bit, like, ‘Do you think they’re trying to talk you into something, or sell you something?’ Where you can empower them to stop and think. Because at some very basic level, nobody likes to be tricked,” Rutledge says.
“It won’t take away the urge to compare,” she says, “but it will allow them to look at those images with a more critical eye.”
(You can find more about the methodology of the TODAY/AOL Ideal to Real Body Image Survey here.)
All week, TODAY is exploring the issues we all face with body image on a daily basis, hoping to help you change the way you see yourself. Everyone from Cameron Diaz to Michelle Obama will weigh in. Follow the series at TODAY.com/LoveYourSelfie.