If you stop anyone on the street and ask if Americans are obsessed with being thin, the answer will likely be a resounding, “Yes!” Noticing our obsession with thinness is obvious. Just look at magazine covers, billboards, TV commercials, entertainment spots, and, especially, the fashion industry. In response to our bombardment by thin images, some say: “Just don’t let it bother you! It will only affect you if you let it.” But I could not disagree more. A deeper look at American culture will illustrate why.
Volumes have been written debating the definition of “culture.” But in its most basic sense, culture is a generally agreed upon set of symbols and meanings. For example, Christian culture has symbols that other cultures may not understand, but are nonetheless dear to Christians: the cross, the chalice, and the crèche, to name a few. We see these and other Christian symbols repeatedly throughout our lives and, because of the repetition and context of these symbols, they become internalized, carrying meaning and emotional connections for us. They become a part of us. Like all cultures, Christian culture exists in two arenas: external evidence and internal meaning. Bohannan describes this as “inside someone’s head…and in the external environment as act and artifact” (Bohannan, 1995, p. 47).
Now picture yourself in the grocery line, deluged with images of thin, sexy, computer altered photos of the most popular and well-known people in America. These are external evidence of our culture. Is it realistic to say, “just don’t let it bother you”? What we are really saying is “don’t internalize it.” This is easier said than done.
When Western television was introduced to a rural community in Fiji, the ethnic teenage girls reported increased body, weight, and shape preoccupation, as well as increased body criticism (Becker, 2004, p. 533). They began dieting and anorexia appeared for the first time in this population. This is particularly amazing, since the long-held image of female beauty in Fiji was robust. Thinness had long indicated illness and was shunned. In just 3 years of watching American TV, Fijian teenagers internalized the media images, even though those images came from a foreign culture and contradicted their own cultural iconography.
A 50 year old theory of advertising is betting that you, too, won’t turn away from the pictures you see (Butler, April 2001). Link the product with a basic emotional or psychological need and it’s sold. Show us thousands of advertisements a day and we can’t resist (Butler, April, 2001). In America, our symbols display thinness everywhere we look. And the meaning we are expected to get is clear: you have to be thin in order to be successful in love, career, and relationships. By creating discontent with ourselves and a sense of lack in our lives, advertisements create the ‘need’ for what they sell. This is also the precursor to conversion, but more on that later. Indeed, one researcher says that advertising “is the new neo-religious force binding American society together…training generation after generation to be good, consistent, obedient, and hungry consumers” (Butler, April, 2001). Dr. Jean Kilbourne, who has devoted her life to studying the insidious effects of advertising on people’s identities and emotions, suggests that the pervasive, repeated messages of advertising have become a system of public education (Kilbourne, 1999). The average American receives more than 3,000 advertisements per day and spends two years of life watching television ads. The average American child spends more time watching television than in school. One can argue that advertising has therefore become the dominant channel through which messages about normal life in our culture are offered and digested. Kilbourne calls our nation “the United States of Advertising.” Scary assessment, isn’t it?
Thin media images are, of course, part of a sales campaign. By linking these body types with glamour, success, admiration, and love, the images call to our basic human needs. The sociocultural model of body image states that these images are an extremely important factor in a person’s relationship with his/her body and truly change how we view our bodies (Jackson, 2002; Stice, 1998; Halliwell & Dittmar, 2004). Ongoing research has indicated that a woman’s self-esteem and body satisfaction decrease the longer she is exposed to thin media images (Stice, 1998; Halliwell & Dittmar, 2004). Clearly, advertisements remind you how much you are lacking and, voila, you are off to the store to add to the $100 billion appearance industry.
In past years, the ideal body type differed from our thin image of today. During each time period, the sought after body directly related to the cultural meaning attached to that particular shape. The plump (real or padding) body type of the 1800s said wealth and fertility (Fraser, 1998). These attributes gave a woman worth. If my body looks right, then others see those attributes in me. So what does attaining the impossibly thin physique of the media say about you? What are we told by the industry that others will see in us if we look like the media images?
This obsession runs so rampant that clothing sizes have changed to match the sought after lower numbers. Industry sizing used by clothing manufacturers has stayed fairly standard, but the labels have changed. As Consumer Reports stated, “The tags says 8, but the tape says 12” (“Clothing Confusion,” 2005.) The deep human needs that drive us to relationships, move us to seek fulfillment, and ultimately lead us to God’s door are sought after in the sizes on clothing labels! How desperate are we to fill the emptiness within?
We are not doomed, though. The first step in advocating for ourselves is education. Jesus told us to “be clever as snakes and innocent as doves” (Mt. 10:16). Being aware that advertisements try to attack the very needs that draw us to God, knowing that we are inundated with these images, and knowing that the images are altered are the beginnings of protective education. There are many excellent resources online for what is known as “media literacy.” Here’s a simple beginning: Hold a thin model’s picture upside down and you will see the mistakes. Our mind completes the gestalt when the picture is right side up, concealing the airbrush mistakes to our eye so that the picture makes sense to our brain. Try it. This is one of many tools to expose the deception, to help us “be children no longer, tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine that originates in human trickery and skill in proposing error” (Ephesians 4:14).
The Apostle Paul continues, “Rather, let us profess the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Education to protect ourselves from the effects of thin media images is just the first step. We live in community. Perhaps you will “profess the truth in love” through letter writing to fashion magazines, or boycotting certain products and telling people why. Perhaps you will help to protect others by speaking at your church or school, or actively supporting legislation that requires ethical consumer practices.
We can go further in our personal lives. We can make efforts to avoid the symbols our thinness-obsessed culture. We can choose what TV shows and movies to watch and which magazines to read. In short, we can work to reduce our exposure to the worst aspects of our culture. And we can also expose ourselves to different images by proactively seeking healthy influences from alternative subcultures, including the Christian world.
These actions spring from a transformed self. The deeper spiritual change of true acceptance of who I am in Christ is the ultimate protection against the effects of advertising persuasiveness. The Psalmist reminds us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139: 14). Do you see yourself as a “good work?” Do you feel awe about the way God made you? Do you know about the beauty and love with which and for which you were made? From these truths we can affect the culture around us, because after all, we are the culture. Remember, “a little yeast can affect the entire dough” (Galatians 5:9).
Dr. Deborah Newman (2002) outlines various ways to heal one’s body image. For example, “Seven Lies the World Tells Us about our Bodies” exposes even more of the deceptions used to make us want to fix our bodies with their products (Newman, 2002, p.88-100). We are really trying to fix a deeper wound. How simple it sounds from the thin-obsessed culture: change your appearance to match me and you’ll have everything you want. Our deepest protection from this advertising persuasiveness stems from the very factors they try to manipulate. They tell us over and over that we are lacking. And, indeed we are. But, a thin body will not satisfy that emptiness. A transformation in Christ offers the foundation from which to confront the media culture of impossibly thin, and even dangerous, images. As I “live and move and have my being” (Acts 17:28) in Him, the emptiness they target and prey upon is filled with His spirit and strength.
This awareness of our true nature in Christ is not a quick fix. It is the foundation and we have to continue to build on this awareness. We remember the truth when we are in the grocery line, see a TV commercial, notice an article about another thin celebrity, or listen to our friends lament their weight struggles. We confront materialism and the trappings of this world in which we exist but do not abide. We speak the truth in love about this temple—our bodies—where the living God has chosen to dwell (2 Corinthians 6:16).
Becker, A. (2004). Television, disordered eating, and young women in Fiji: Negotiating body image and identity in rapid social change. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 29(4), 533-559.
Bohannan, P. (1995). How Culture Works. NY, NY: Free Press.
Butler, S. R. (April, 2001). Subliminal advertising: Return of the hidden persuaders. Retrieved July 12, 2006, from Disinformation
Web site: http:/_/_www.disinfo.com/_archive/_pages/_dossier/_id321/_pg1
Clothing confusion: The tag says 8, but the tape says 12. (2005, May). Consumer Reports.
Fraser, L. (1998). Losing it: False hopes and fat profits in the diet industry. NY, NY: Plume/Penguin Group.
Halliwell, E., & Dittmar, H. (2004). Does size matter? The impact of model’s body size on women’s body focused anxiety and advertising effectiveness. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(1), 104-122.
Jackson, L. (2002). Physical attractiveness: A sociocultural perspective. In Body image: A handbook of theory, research and clinical practice (pp. 13-21). NY, NY: The Guilford Press.
Kilbourne, J. (1999). Can’t buy my love. New York: Touchstone.
The New American Bible. (1969). NY, NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Newman, D. (2002). Loving your body: Embracing your true beauty in Christ. Wheaton, IL: Tynedale House Publishers.
Stice, E. (1998). Predictors of adolescent dieting behaviors: A longitudinal study. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 12(3), 195-205.