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Body image: taming the beast with media literacy

In 2008, a Victorian government document titled Because Mental Health Matters Consultation Paper argued for ‘further development of positive body image programs, in conjunction with healthy eating programs’ as a priority activity within the ‘early childhood and school’ setting.

ssearch into body image pre-dates even Susan Orbach’s widely-read Fat is a Feminist Issue, but as media channels threaten to saturate every conscious moment in a teen’s existence, the stakes are now somewhat higher. 

The Australian Institute of Family Studies released results on ‘screen time’ from The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children in September 2016. Institute Director, Anne Hollonds said by the age of 12 to 13 years, Australian children spent an average of three hours per week-day and almost four hours per weekend day using screens, or around 20 percent of their waking time on weekdays and 30 percent on weekends.

With this volume of exposure to tantalising marketing messages promising high rewards for embodying perfection, is it any wonder that schools are hard at it, trying to short-circuit the constant onslaught of the media’s subliminal assault on their students’ self-esteem?  

The ability to ‘read’ or decode messages of this kind can mean that instead of‘ ‘girls should look like this or they are not normal’, with training in critical thinking, the message could read ‘I want you to buy this, so I will use this airbrushed model to subliminally associate this product with this image of perfection’. Media literacy drags the negative reaction to the surface, and with awareness, it can be put into perspective. Awareness can neutralise it.

Literacy is a two-way skill; it’s about messages in, and messages out. Education concerning what messages to release into the world wide web  is also vital.

Students need to understand that whatever they send out, stays there, and as soon as they press send or post, they have lost control of the content, the way people use it and how they respond to it.

Teachers everywhere have been creatively using Facebook to illustrate the viral nature of social media, by posting photos of themselves holding up signs reading: ‘Please share this and post your location so my class can see how far social media reaches’ or similar.

With wide-spread awareness of the risks, governments, and research teams have been developing programs and resources. Once such resource is the SeeMe Media Literacy site, developed by the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre Trust to promote positive body image and tackle the impact of young people’s internalisation of idealised media portrayals of beauty and gender stereotypes. The curriculum aligned program includes useful resources such as a ‘principles for teaching about body image’ section. More information at:

Professor Susan Paxton developed a MindMatters program called Happy Being Me Co-Educational program, which is a school-based body image prevention program for boys and girls in years seven and eight. In an article published on, Professor Paxton also referred to this concept of “media literacy”, and that achieving it could protect vulnerable young people from the negative impact of viewing these messages”.

The program also raises awareness in students about ‘the negative impact of making comparisons between themselves and these unrealistic images – as well as appearance comparisons with peers’.

Professor Paxton sent the following comments via email to School News. “Our classroom intervention for grade seven students aims to help students critically evaluate the idealised media images they see and to be alert to the messages behind the image frequently designed to sell a product.”  She explained that the program “extends to boys because they are also vulnerable to body image concerns, and are also objectified in media”.

The co-educational setting also places the body image considerations in context.  According to Professor Paxton, boys “make up an important aspect of the environment for girls and if they understand issues for girls, that is likely to be positive”. She added that the same was true in the reverse. The program discusses the presentation of males and females in the media and “how a person looks becomes the most important thing rather than other qualities”.

While the program is designed with both sexes in mind, “single sex delivery for girls has been shown to be helpful so Happy Being Me can be implemented in either environment,” she concluded.

Information on states that the peer-based program is designed to help young adolescents deal with some of the social pressures around body image. It attempts to create a positive friendship environment and peer culture, supporting the prevention of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating within individual participants – and across their broader peer environment.

In a fascinating 2012 Guardian article called ‘Uncomfortable in our skin: the body-image report’, Karyn Franklin, who co-initiated All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, which encourages diversity in fashion, shed some light on how we came to value the stick-thin body. She told The Guardian that the catwalk used to be more of a factory space, where fashion-buyers were the audience.

Seeing the clothes on “tall, bony models” was helpful because it was a shape that is as close to a clothes hanger as possible, with no hips, or “breasts to bother the line of the shirt”. “Since catwalk imagery has gone mainstream (due to digital technology), these model shapes have drifted into the public subconscious,” she continued.

So the secret is out: our unattainable standard of beauty is actually modelled on a clothes hanger. 

The internet age is upon us, more to the point, it is on our young people, and it is they who face the unprecedented challenge that entails. The assault on self-esteem we are witnessing is caused by the tyranny of degree – a degree of exposure, and the utter saturation of messages is not going anywhere.

While there has been movement towards improving the standards of behaviour of media outlets and the fashion industry, social media proves hard to control. There is mild mitigation possible, of course, but the problem would seem much larger than that which cursory moderation can resolve.

In research and programs concerning body image education, I perceived a common thread, which I will attempt to summarise: teach young people how to decode and defuse the bombardment of messages.

After all, the inconvenient truth is that they love multimedia and social media. It’s a powerful tool; it can’t be vanquished. They can be extremely creative with it, and will one day inherit it. Perhaps we had better help them tame it instead, but to do so, they must be media literate. 

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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