I am not exaggerating when I say that Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is one of my all-time favorite people in the universe. We’ve hung out a grand total of three times in about five years of knowing each other, but we’re pretty well convinced we were sisters in a past life. Or really, really chummy cousins. She is INCREDIBLY smart and insightful, and examines some of the most complex issues surrounding modern womanhood with skill and delicacy, while also being brutally honest about her own confusion and frustration with unknowns. So, naturally, I was over the moon when I heard she’d secured a book deal.
And as you can see below, everyone else who’s read Face Value is pretty over-the-moon about it, too. I’ve bought three copies already to pass along to my girlfriends, and am recommending it to everyone I meet. (Complete strangers are borderline alarmed by random book recommendations, but I am undeterred.) I asked Autumn to write a guest post on any topic related to her book, and she ended up musing on media literacy. Read on to hear from her, and don’t forget to pick up a copy of her beautifully written book, Face Value!
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When I first started writing about beauty in 2011, I considered myself on The Good Side. I’d been working in women’s and teen magazines for more than a decade before I started blogging independently, and while I didn’t see women’s magazines as being in opposition to feminism, I understood the problems within the industry. Chief among those problems was the thing all my feminist friends asked me about when I joined the ladymag ranks: the images. The airbrushing! The painfully thin models! The lack of size diversity, racial diversity, ability diversity, completely at odds with the rich complexity of the human race. The unrealistic beauty—the unrealistic life—shown on the pages. And above all, the implication that if you didn’t match those images, you weren’t good enough.
I’ve never considered myself a media literacy educator per se—someone who actively helps people understand, critique, and eventually dismantle the deluge of media messages each of us receive every day—but in some ways, I’m exactly that. Everything I wrote about independently was colored by my perspective within mainstream media, which meant that while I wasn’t doing active educational work of the sort executed by National Eating Disorders Association and About-Face, I was quietly participating in the feminist tradition of media literacy. Which, in my mind, meant I was firmly on the side of good.
I’d still like to think I’m on the side of good—on the side that helps women be at our most free. But the more I learn, the less sure I am about what exactly that side entails. In researching my book Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, one of my most surprising findings was that media literacy has a mixed legacy when it comes to women’s body image. For starters, the easiest way to educate women about problematic images is to show them problematic images…which increases exposure to those images. Then there’s research showing that there’s only a tenuous connection between the knowledge that an image is unrealistic and feeling more satisfied with one’s looks. It’s a claim backed up by a study showing that women versed in counterarguments to idealized images were just as likely as other women to feel harmful effects of media images. Add to that blend the unsteady sales pattern from companies that have tried their own versions of media literacy—Aerie’s no-Photoshop campaign may have had a hand in its first-quarter sales jump, but the buzz following Glamour’s famous plus-size model initiative only led to a sales drop—and all of a sudden I’m not really sure if there’s even a “Good Side” to be on here.
As a researcher, I was surprised that there wasn’t a clear trajectory between understanding how the sausage is made and developing a preference for chicken. But as a person who has been in a media literacy program titled my entire life, it made intuitive sense. I’d felt dissatisfied with my appearance at times, and after I read The Beauty Myth in college I began to understand that there was a connection between that dissatisfaction and the glut of idealized images we were all exposed to. Of course I didn’t love how I looked all the time; I didn’t look like Christy Turlington, and that’s what I was being told from every angle was beautiful. So I wrote paper after paper in college about harmful media images, learned about how Photoshop was used, and earnestly devoted myself to critiquing the images I was surrounded by every day. (And I do mean every day—walking to my desk at work meant strolling down a hallway lined with gigantic posters of professional beauties.) Meanwhile, my self-image fluctuated as wildly as ever, feeling completely fine one day—even beautiful, on some—and then feeling like a hobbit the next. The answer wasn’t educating myself. But I didn’t know what the answer might be.
Certainly the studies I looked at are as flawed as any study, and certainly there’s also ample research that media literacy programs can have a positive effect. And certainly I don’t believe that this crucial work should stop, either organized programs like the wonderful Beauty Redefined—which consciously keeps the number of visuals to a minimum in presentations, because its creators fully understand their power—or just the media literacy we collectively create every time we do something like watch brilliant documentaries on the matter, or even simply share a link about photo retouching. Education is important even without considering its direct effects on body image: It enables us to be more critical consumers, to organize our own creative responses to the beauty ideal, and gives us a vocabulary for information-sharing. Knowledge is power.
But within this good fight I don’t want us to forget this: Understanding what goes into the images we see is not the same as changing our response to them. You can’t just decide to feel differently when you see an image; you can’t just reason yourself into not being bothered by a magazine cover if your instinctive response is to be bothered. It turns out there are two main ways people process images of other people: comparison, and identification. If you’re a comparer, you’ll look at an image and compare yourself against it and see where you stand; if you’re an identifier, you’ll look at an image and align yourself with it. (Incidentally, this is true both of idealized images and of regular images too—if you’re someone who identifies with an image and you see an image of a conventionally unattractive person, you may well start to feel not-so-hot yourself, whereas a person with a comparison response might feel better because they’re measuring themselves up against a “lower” standard.)
Trouble is, there’s not a whole lot you can do to shift your mind-set. Identification and comparison responses are both linked to fixed personality factors, so trying to turn yourself into one or the other is like trying to make yourself an extrovert if you’re an introvert, or vice versa. You can temporarily induce an identification or comparison mind-set in yourself and others—if you’re blatantly asked to compare yourself to an image, you’ll do just that, even if that’s not your default setting—but your baseline is more or less unchangeable. Which, given that we live in a society where we’re constantly being told to take charge of our own destinies, can feel disempowering, particularly if you’re coming from a place of shaky self-image. (Of course, there’s also plenty of evidence that women’s self-image isn’t in as much peril as it’s often reported to be—that Dove survey, for example, the one that gives us all those dismal statistics in their ads about how much women hate themselves? It actually found that 71 percent of respondents were satisfied with how they look. But that’s another post.) Those of us in the body-positivity movement often urge self-acceptance. One mode of that acceptance may be accepting the way you respond to images, and selecting your media accordingly—which leads us right back to media literacy. (See? I told you I wasn’t entirely skeptical of the concept.)
But are we just left to the mercy of our personal wiring? Not necessarily. One factor jumped out at me in my research: Consistently, even in studies that amped up my skepticism of how helpful critical processing really is, I saw that women who had a strong sense of bodily appreciation were more resilient in regards to idealized images. Even women who had strongly internalized the thin ideal felt okay if they appreciated their own body—including women who weren’t thin at all. We’re not talking about women who were enthralled with their bodies; “body love” wasn’t the question here. Appreciation: If there’s a key here to walking through the world and seeing images as images and not as reflections of yourself, it just may be that. You don’t have to walk around with psychic armor; you don’t need to talk yourself into a love affair with your thighs. But appreciating your body? We can all do that.
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Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is the author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Her writing has appeared in Marie Claire, Glamour, Salon, Jezebel, The Guardian, and more. She created The Beheld, a blog examining questions behind personal appearance. Her work on the ways beauty shapes women’s lives has been covered by The New York Times and the Today show. She lives in Astoria, Queens, and will tell you her beauty secrets if you tell her yours.
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