This week I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the film Miss Representation, a documentary about the way women are portrayed in the media. I highly recommend watching it, especially with your daughters. Like all activist documentaries, it’s full of shocking statistics that are completely decontextualized and un-cited, but the overall argument of the film is one that would be pretty hard not to agree with, at least to some degree. One doesn’t really need statistics to notice that there are problems with the way women are portrayed in the media, and that those portrayals are going to have some negative affects on women, especially adolescent girls.
After the film, there was a panel discussion during which one of the panelists offhandedly mentioned something that peaked my curiosity: a study that had been done on how the introduction of television to a rural Fijian area had affected the way adolescent girls thought about their bodies and eating habits. I did some searching when I got home, and found the original study, as well as a followup article that delved more deeply into the links between television and body image.
It turns out that Fiji is a perfect place to investigate this. Unlike Europeans and Americans, Fijians traditionally encouraged and celebrated what the primary author describes as “robust appetites and body shapes” (Becker et al, 2002: 509). A bit of girth was conventionally associated with strength and hard work, not laziness, and attempts to purposely reshape one’s body through dieting or exercise were typically discouraged. Prior to the introduction of television, there had been only one reported case of anorexia in all of Fiji, and other kinds of eating disorders were almost non-existent.
Given this kind of cultural foundation, the researchers asked, what kind of influence would television have? Would Fijian women and girls become increasingly body conscious and develop eating disorders like their Americans and European counterparts? Or would they retain their traditional body aesthetic and eating habits?
I should also note at this point that it wasn’t just the general technology of television that was being introduced to Fiji—it was also television shows and advertisements created in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. With the exception of a short local newscast, all the programming came from cultures where the definition of a beautiful body was thin, tall, and fit. The popular shows in Fiji were ones that many of us have also seen or at least heard of: Xena, Warrior Princess; Beverly Hills 90210; Melrose Place; and the Australian dramatic series Shortland Street. All of them starred men and women who had a distinctly different body type than the typical Fijian. And interspersed throughout these shows were advertisements, most of which featured…you guessed it…exercise equipment and diet formulas.
The researchers conducted two studies of adolescent Fijian girls, one in 1995 just after television was introduced, and one three years later. In addition to capturing basic body measurements and TV watching behavior, the participants also responded to an “eating attitudes test” that included questions about binging and purging. Those who indicated that they had binged or purged were then interviewed to learn more about why they did it, and wether exposure to these TV programs may have played a role.
The results are pretty shocking. In those short three years, the percentage of families with a TV rose from 41% to 70%, and the percentage of girls who had unhealthy scores on the eating attitudes test had also risen from about 12% to nearly 30%. The use of self-induced vomiting, which none had admitted to in the first study, had risen to just over 11%. A feeling that one should eat less was also significantly higher, and 74% of the girls reported that they now felt like they were “too fat.”
Now, we should also temper this with all the caveats, most of which are noted in the original study. The number of participants was relatively low, just over 60, and not exactly the same between the two measurements. The participants were also self-reporting, which can often skew results. Not all forms of disordered eating behaviors rose (the use of laxatives and diuretics did not change, nor did incidents of binge eating). Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the introduction of television was not the only aspect of Fijian culture that was changing during this period. Fiji, like most places in the world, was rapidly changing due to globalization, and Fijian girls had already been exposed to American culture via magazine and other print media long before TV arrived.
Nevertheless, these rapid and significant changes in eating habits certainly require explanation, and this is where the in-depth interviews with girls who reported binging or purging came into play. It is pretty clear from the quotes highlighted in the second article that many of the girls were trying to loose weight because they wanted to emulate the characters they saw on TV, primarily because those characters seemed so powerful, successful, and confident. The girls assumed that these qualities naturally flowed from the actresses’ tall, thin, and fit body shapes, and that reshaping their own bodies to match would be necessary in order to be competitive and ultimately successful in a quickly globalizing economy.
Of particular interest was the girls’ desire to be more like Xena, who they saw as a strong and powerful woman who could successfully compete in a man’s world. In this sense, Xena provided a powerful feminist role model, but again the assumption was that her power came from her thin, athletic body, and not from her intelligence or integrity.
So what should we take away from all of this? Should we blame the medium of television for these rather sudden changes in eating habit and body image? Or could that medium have been used to convey shows featuring other types of body shapes? For example, would the results have been different if the programming shown had been made in Polynesia or the UK? Or does television, as a predominantly visual medium, naturally favor actors who resemble the producing culture’s ideal body shape, and thus end up determining the content that comes across it?
Regardless of how you answer these questions for yourself, I encourage you to watch the film Miss Representation and talk about it with your daughters, nieces, and friends. We need to help young women see through the impossible standard of beauty that is paraded constantly before them, and find other kinds of powerful, confident women that they can turn to for role models.