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Why teach media literacy to teen girls? (part 2)

Part 2: Myth versus reality

In my last post, I laid out how girls* are still objectified, judged, and put in boxes by our toxic media culture. We looked at the reasons that social media encourages girls to judge themselves and each other harshly. All of this points to an urgent need for media education for girls and teens. But a lot of folks still don’t get it. 

What makes me say that? Let me run through some of the common myths I’ve been hearing about girls today. And then, watch as I take them down.

MYTH: Advertising has become less sexist, and teen girls are more savvy than their mothers were.

REALITY: Girls often know what they’re supposed to say about the ads surrounding them (“It’s fake!” or “They’re just trying to sell sex.” or “No one really looks like that!”) because they hear adults say those things. But they don’t yet know how to think critically for themselves. I went digging, and found some answers in developmental psychology. 

Here’s the thing: Children aged 6 to 12 are just learning how to think concretely, forming their ideas based only on objects and events they can see in the physical world. With only concrete thinking, they can’t analyze the abstract issues underlying media and social media. It’s only from ages 12 to 18 that teens begin to acquire the abstract thinking that lets them assess media critically for themselves. Abstraction includes awareness of differing opinions and points of view; it lets girls form independent ideas by asking and answering questions like: 

  • What is the motive behind this ad or piece of media? 
  • Who gains and who loses when I believe my hair, lips, teeth, skin, body, or clothes aren’t good enough? 
  • Who gets to tell me how a girl “is supposed to act”? 
  • What emotion does this media-maker want me to feel so I’ll buy, or buy into, what I’m seeing?
  • How do corporations use every click I make on the internet to determine what ads, people, and stories I’ll see next time?

MYTH: Media literacy is only important for girls because of media’s effect on their body image and the dangers of eating disorders. 

REALITY: Yes, this was what I thought back in the 90s and early 00s. About-Face got our start by criticizing the use of emaciated models, and soon, the studies and media reports came out confirming how harmful it is for women and girls to see those bodies as ideal. There was more to it, though, and I had to expand my thinking.

Don’t get me wrong: Girls’ feelings about their bodies are incredibly important. And when it comes to body image, rigid, unrealistic ideas about beauty and gender appearance still dominate for girls. Take the compulsion to be thin: Common Sense Research reported in 2015 that more than half of girls ages 6 to 8 believe that an ideal body is thinner than their current body size. An astonishing one in four children has already tried dieting by the age of seven. (I’ll wait a minute so you can stop screaming.) 

But there are so many ways for girls to feel like they are “not good enough” beyond the shape and size of their bodies. Sure, big business still prescribes almost every aspect of girls’ appearance, but don’t forget the messages it sends about how they should behave and how they should act.

For example, according to a large 2012 study, entertainment culture disdains educational achievement for youth, especially girls. It’s still ‘uncool’ to be smart in subjects like math or science. Girls are basically being told that their peers won’t like them (or want to date them) if they are smart. And I know I don’t need to list every racial, ethnic, or class stereotype perpetuated by media and social media.

That’s why it’s so important that girls learn how to question all of our culture’s dominant narratives — the ideas about what’s good (or bad) made by people with money and power. Self-worth is the best gift we can give teen girls.

Then there’s the impact that the media’s version of sexuality and oversexualization has on teen girls. Already, we constantly see versions of womanhood that only emphasize being “hot” to cisgender, straight men, and don’t focus on the woman’s pleasure at all. Often there’s no representation of sexual consent or positive health behaviors like contraception or STD protection.

Bring porn into the picture — available everywhere, all the time online —  with all the expectations it puts on girls with male partners to act out porn, and we’ve got a recipe for a version of female sexuality that can cause damage for many years to come.   

We need to use media literacy to do so much more than help girls feel good about the way their bodies look. Let’s counter those messages so they can feel good about their creativity, bravery, generosity, intelligence, resilience, humor, and so much more!

Photo: Leon Siebert via Unsplash

MYTH: Social media is empowering, because girls can make their own images and choose their own role models.

REALITY: Social media also continuously teaches teen girls to compare themselves — not only to celebrities but also to each other.

Girls routinely tell us that they can feel empowered by social media. And of course, that can be true.

But they also say that often, social media is an insidious comparison tool. Online, even a girl’s friends can make her feel inadequate because social images are highly curated to make the person posting look great. Take the “#nofilter lie” on Instagram. Researchers found that 12% of posts tagged #nofilter do, in fact, have filters, in an attempt to make them even more #awesome and #perfect. That’s roughly 30 million posts that hide the truth.

Our own interns demonstrated this in our #NoFilter action, where they showed the “good” and “ugly” of their social media posts and copped to often showing only the happy pics:

Another lie related to Instagram filters gets imposed by the app on its unsuspecting users. The so-called “beauty filters,” introduced in 2015, appear to put a flower crown on a girl’s head or give her a rosy hue. Innocent enough, right? But perceptive women of color discovered that “beauty filters” also lighten skin tone and eye color, narrow lips and noses, and add a blush to cheeks that does not occur naturally for Black and Brown girls. (Want more time for screaming?) 

So what do we do? How do we make sure girls can get truly woke and have the power to turn awareness into action? We’ll talk about that more in my next post. As always, I welcome your comments below! Or share them on IG or Facebook.

Jennifer Berger is the Executive Director of About-Face.

* About-Face welcomes and includes gender-expansive youth. To us, “girls” means self-identified girls, trans girls, gender-expansive youth, gender non-conforming, and non-binary youth.

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