The Lack of Diversity in the Media & its Effects on Women's Mental Health
Guest blogger Valentine Babey on the far reaching impact of the lack of representation
Last year, I was sitting in a lecture about marketing management. My lecturer commenced her class by explaining that we, as consumers, expect certain things out of advertisements. When talking about the representation of women’s bodies in the media, she demonstrated through different studies that women were more attracted to products showcased by the “perfect-woman”, or by models, than if they were put in the spotlight by women who looked like them. At this point, there was only one thing that came to my mind, and I asked her: “Do you think we want women who look like a certain type of body, or have we all been trained to think we want it?”
The fashion industry has set standards – those of a “perfect woman”. She is white, tall, skinny and tanned, and she does not indulge in a little McDonald’s once in a while. This lack of diversity – and this is scientific facts – damages women’s mental health. In fact, research shows1 that many mental illnesses stem from the way we are falsely represented in the media. There is a gap between reality and the way things look on TV – but one that perpetuates misconception and gives the population the sense that they don’t belong, that they are othered or less-worthy. The industry of fashion is very much guilty of that – many designers refused, for a very long time, to have women in their shows that were non-white. While this is slowly evolving, backstage, the reality is a little more complicated – some Black models have to face the fact that make-up artists and hair dressers are sometimes not trained to work with their skin and hair – they’ll end up doing their own beauty look.
Nothing will be as transparent as a personal perspective however. Growing up with a size 12 in the French Riviera was challenging, as you can imagine, but I tried to make it work. The way that girls looked in the media and in my surroundings (may I remind you that in this part of the world, it is bikini season 6 months a year?) led me to believe that life was not made for those who were not over 5”6 and under 50 kilos. At that point, not only did I start resenting the way I looked and myself, I started developing this hatred towards anyone who was overweight. I internalized comments about those who struggled with eating disorders as I was hearing them all over the media, and didn’t take my health seriously because all I wanted was to be skinnier, to fit in. In some of my friends, I have seen this lead to body dysmorphia. In fact, while reading about the subject for the article, I found my thought seconded as I discovered that in 1980, Jennings-Walstedt & Brown were already explaining that women who followed gender stereotypical TV had a tendency to conform and were less likely to show confidence in public speaking. On the contrary, watching advertisements and programmes that were gender breaking had the adverse effect.
Let me bring a more concrete example of this that you’ll all have had an experience with. Have you ever tried buying a pair of jeans? Of course you have. Now, can you tell me that you are the same size in all the shops? Can you tell me that they always fit you? Can you tell me that they fit you most the time? If your answer to these questions was yes, you are one of the few lucky ones. It took me years to figure out which brand never lets me down in terms of jean sizing, and that is because they are made for one type of body (or maybe 2 if we are lucky). If you don’t fit within those, well you better be ready to pop the wallet from your pocket, because you’ll either have to resize the amazing jeans or go to the high-end brands that do have different cuts for different shapes.
Diversity is essential to making every single woman feel like she is an integral part of society. It brings women together, and lets them understand that they are beautiful and powerful the way they are. Now you may think this isn’t of prior importance, but think about all that you’ve achieved on a day where you felt empowered. Isn’t the goal to feel like this every day? To give women the opportunity to thrive without shooting them in the foot every time they watch TV or see yet another billboard on the road to work that showcases a photoshopped Gigi Hadid? The time has come. We need more diversity.
1Mental Disorders Stigma in the Media: Review of Studies on Production, Content, and Influences, Anat Klin & Dafta Lemish