The problems with female portrayal in the media

Written by Sophie Chennell, 22.

What causes women today to be dissatisfied with their bodies? Could it be in part because of the idealistic representations proposed in every magazine, website and social media profile we see? The media is promoting perfect examples of the female body which are unachievable without a degree of digital retouching, plastic surgery, or a mask of makeup. Self-esteem issues, depression and health conditions such as eating disorders still occur because women view themselves negatively.  This article will explore the impact of the media and society today, how from the moment you are born you are consistently drawn into the ideology of what perfection is. Everything from the way your parents act and bring you up, to the perfectionism of the female body represented in national media - it all dictates how you see 'the perfect body' and impacts your self-esteem later in life. No one can look like the idealised form, that’s the magic of computer retouching. 

I touched upon these topics in University and wanted to use my academic knowledge for this area of writing. I am extremely passionate about these important topics and will also be including my own photographic work that I produced for University units in addition to written work.

So, for the women reading this article, if I asked you to describe yourself, what would you say? Our body image is hugely affected by many factors, the main one being the media. We are so bombarded with unattainable standards of beauty, that we undervalue the true beauty of ourselves. This judgement from other people and ourselves has happened throughout history.

Heinz Kohut ‘The Psychology of Self’

Heinz Kohut’s formulation in the ‘Psychology of Self’ proposes that we have a bipolar self - two systems of narcissistic perfection: a system of ambitions and a system of ideals. According to Kohut, these poles of self-represented natural progressions are fundamental in the psychic development of infants and toddlers. However, he proposed that changes in the structure of ideals occurred when the child suffered chronic and excessive disappointment over the failings of early idealised figures. “Everything from your upbringing, from your social interactions to the love of your parents influences and impacts who you are as an adult and how you self-represent yourself in a later stage.”

Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly Series

Jean Kilbourne’s, ‘Killing me Softly’ Series 4, looks into how advertising displays distortion and destroys ideals of femininity. Kilbourne explains how from a young age women are told to waste time, money and energy in becoming this ideal perfection that the media persists you must be. “Advertisements tell us that women in adverts have always been dependent on how they look.” (Kilbourne, 2012)

So, not only from a young age are we influenced by our upbringing, but we are always presented these advertisements of women’s bodies that are idealised and made into objects. 

Kilbourne references a Kate Winslet quote from an interview with GQ magazine which offers a great insight into what it's like to have your body manipulated by the media. Talking about a distorted photograph of her, Winslet said, I don’t look like that and I don’t desire to look like that. I can tell you they’ve reduced my leg size to about a third.” (Kilbourne, 2012) Celebrities are openly starting to speak out about the ways in which our bodies are being exploited to an idealistic perfection for the media. The obsession with thinness and society's insistence that an ideal female body directly relates to what we see in the media is a form of violence against women's bodies. It is a public issue which has always been there and is dangerous - it must be addressed.


Celebrities such as Stacey Solomon are showing awareness for the danger of body morphing using Instagram.

The photograph that she uploaded on her social media feed above showed two very different body types. One was her ‘natural’ self, the other was a retouched image to show the media’s digitised form of perfection.

Solomon explained to her followers that “all bodies should be celebrated no matter what shape or size.” (Solomon, 2018) Many celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner Photoshop their selfies before uploading on their Instagram feed, bringing a false sense of hope to young women that everyone looks like this when celebrities themselves aren’t even close.

Dove, Real Beauty Sketches Campaign

In 2013, Dove released another self-aware advert called ‘Real Beauty Sketches.’ They asked women to describe themselves to an FBI artist from behind a curtain and he drew them based on their description and then a stranger’s perception of them too.

The two results were very different, in that the stranger’s perception is unbiased. They are seeing the model visually whereas the model’s perception is based on her own judgement that is being influenced by the media, which tells her how she should look.

Stuart Hall, The Sociological Subject

The sociological subject by Stuart Hall states that “identity is formed in the interaction between self and society.” (Hall, 1996, p597) Therefore, it can be argued that when young girls see these ideal conceptions of beauty all over their social media feeds their self-esteem lowers and they instantly want to become like them. Young people begin to mould their appearance and personality to suit an ambiguous image of a person which doesn’t really exist. They become a removed version of themselves – an unknown identity.

Laura Mulvey, The Male Gaze

Laura Mulvey who is prominently known for her term ‘The Male Gaze’ states, “we live in a patriarchal society in which men set the majority of the rules and construct and represent the ideal visions, roles and male dominance over women.” (Timothy, 2013, p12) As a passive audience, in today’s media, people are representing hyper reality as reality and therefore being influenced by an idealised, constructed representation of women. We are constantly seeing women represented as this idealised perfection. The magic of computer retouching is being repeated in the media, therefore informing young women that this is how you should be or act. One day, everyone will turn into robots of idealistic perfection if we insist on showing this perception of women’s bodies. 

Regina Jose Galindo’s work, Piedra

Women photographers today such as Regina Jose Galindo are producing work that stands against the stereotype of women in the media and the violence against women’s bodies.

Galindos work ‘Piedra’ shows a voyeuristic approach, ultimately displaying her exposed body to a crowd of strangers to see how they will act to her performance. Her work is in a sense a drastic way of approaching awareness for the violence against women’s bodies. Her natural self is presented as inherently exploitable and disposable as both male and females purposefully urinate on her coal-covered body as part of the art piece.

Laura Pannack’s work, Digital Self-Esteem

Looking at Laura Pannacks ‘Digital Self Esteem’ the way young women confront and accept their appearance is explored in this context without anyone else’s opinions around or how many likes they get on their photographs on Instagram. Something that is so rare today. Due to how many likes you get determines your self-worth and either increases or decreases your self-esteem based on the number. Account of this is according to Laura Sherman’s study on thirteen to eighteen-year olds who stated in the Association for Psychological Science Journal “When the teens saw their own photos with a large number of likes, we saw activity across a wide variety of regions in the brain.”(Sherman, 2016).

An area that they found active is a part of the corpus striatum, which is part of the brain’s reward circuitry. This reward circuitry is thought to be particularly sensitive during puberty. They found that when the teenagers saw their photographs with high number of likes, activation took place in parts of the brain known as the social brain which they found to link to visual attention. It’s a reward cycle, you get a squirt of dopamine every time you receive a like or positive responses on social media. 

For the women reading this, if I asked you now to describe yourself, what would you say? Now, from telling you the manipulation behind the media’s construction of the female body, would your perception of yourself change from when I asked you at the start?

If you want to read further about any of the works, I have spoken about in this article please find the links below:

Dove Real Beauty Sketches – You’re more beautiful thank you think. 2013.

Regina Jose Galindo – Piedra. 2013.

Stuart Hall – The Sociological Subject. 2018.

Jean Kilbourne – Killing Us Softly Series 4. 2012.

Heinz Kohut – Psychology of Self. 2018.

Laura Pannack – Digital Self Esteem. 2018.

Laura Sherman – Social Media ‘likes’ Impact Teen’s Brains and Behaviour. 2016.

Jemima Stehli – Strip. 2016.

This contribution was written by Sophie Chennell, 22. Visit her profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.