We live in a society where people, especially young adults, are constantly striving to be original. Many go so far as to denounce the original, classifying it as ‘mainstream’, while those perpetrating unoriginal acts are deemed as ‘posers’. Whether we like to admit it or not, we live in a society where almost every aspect of our lives is somehow influenced by mass media. One area that is particularly affected by media is self-image. Many people form their own standard of what constitutes beauty and the type of person they would like to be stems from their exposure to media. Young adults are particularly susceptible to this. The affect media has on young adults who are striving to find themselves is generally as negative as the media images the young adult chooses to base themselves on.
For many of us, young adulthood can be a very confusing time. We reach an age in which we’re considered too old to act too childishly, yet we’re not old enough to be taken as seriously as an adult would be. It’s at this point many young adults struggle to find their place between the two. Establishing one’s identity during this period is not easy. “Young adults are striving daily to formulate their identity…Young adults, perhaps more impressionable than they would like to admit, use the media as a major source of identity formation. The media also represents a common ground that young people share. From the media they acquire a set of guidelines to follow, both moral and stylistic” (Ornstein). As Ornstein claims, many young adults establish guidelines for themselves based on what they absorb from media. It can be argued that there are many more sources in which young adults learn from. Deciding what they like and dislike from the morals they have been raised with is how many young adults establish themselves. Not working from the ground up, instead, they make alterations to their already established foundation. However, when it comes to stylistic preferences and values, this is not the case.
There are millions of media images bombarding us these days. In fact, the definition of media has expanded so much in the last decade that the term media seems to be an umbrella term. With all these images, it is practically impossible not to be influenced. As I said earlier, young adults are especially susceptible to the influence of media. Because they are in such a transitional period in their lives, young adults soak up information from anywhere they can get it. Using this information, they ‘try on’ different personas, seeking out what works for them. Aesthetically, this holds a number of possibilities almost as large as the number of media influences available to young adults today. With luck, young adults will model themselves after a worthy role model with an admirable image, leading the young adult to develop into a similarly admirable person. As we all know, however, many times this is not the case. There are many media images that are available to young adults which glamorize otherwise negative physical traits.
There are many ways in which the media images of beauty can negatively affect a young adult. One of the most common instances which this occurs is with body image. Magazines are a typical example of this. According to a study of 104 adults on media use, “Magazines were read for information on current fashions, recipes, and health issues…Reading magazines gave respondents feelings of sexiness, self-esteem, luxury and creativity” (‘Survey Asks Young Adults About Media Use’). One can gather that if young adults are accrediting their self-esteem to reading magazines, that the images in them naturally must be influential. There are a wide variety of images in a magazine targeted toward young adults. Many of these images are advertisements that are geared at selling products to these young adults, many times by young adult celebrities. Couple the controversy surrounding the premature sexualization of young adult celebrities with the survey results that associate sexiness with, it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to believe some of the same things are passed on to young adult readers. These readers go on to adopt the belief that in order to be more like their favorite celebrity and be sexier, they must dress a certain way, wear a certain outfit or a certain kind of makeup, all in the name of achieving this glorious beauty, that realistically only celebrities with full-time makeup artists can achieve. This is a fact that goes unrealized by many, as Robin Givhan points out in her article ‘Glamour, That Certain Something’. Givhan writes: “Hollywood attracts people of glamour – as well as the misguided souls who confuse it with mere good looks – because that is where it is richly rewarded”. The misguided souls in this case are these adolescents who look up to young Hollywood’s biggest celebrities.
Sexualization is not the only way in which young adults are affected by media images. The body image of young adults in relation to the media images that are has also been a topic of concern. Despite the United States being a country riddled by obesity, there are also a dangerous number of young adults suffering from eating disorders. This idea is examined in ‘Media Exposure, Current and Future Body Ideals, and Disordered Eating Among Preadolescent Girls: A Longitudinal Panel Study’, where it was found that “…extreme dieting and exercise aimed at weight loss are done in the service of an internalized thin body ideal that was learned via exposure to social sources espousing that ideal, one of which is the collection of mass media depictions of thinness as the epitome of female attractiveness…implicit in media effects research on body image and eating disorders from a variety of theoretical perspectives, including social comparison theory (e.g., Botta, 1999), social learning theory (e.g., Harrison and Cantor, 1997), and self-discrepancy theory (e.g., Harrison, 2001)”.
If all of these psychological processes have proved that young adults are ruining their self-esteem by consuming these media images, then what has been done to stop it? The answer is unfortunate: not much. In recent years, however, this very issue has come to the attention of many throughout the country. “There's a definite trend going on in society and the marketplace of self-acceptance and being comfortable in your own skin, said Glamour VP-Publisher William Wackerman (Thomaselli). This refers to recent campaigns, such as those of Dove and Nike and most recently Seventeen Magazine, which are embracing real girls and women with real bodies.
No one person or group can be held accountable for the media images that are being put out there. If we expect change, however, we must consider certain things. The companies putting out harmful media images are not the only ones to blame. As consumers, we are responsible for holding the companies that we buy from to a certain standard. If we simply choose not to feed into the glorification of the overly sexed and underweight, the images will be replaced by others that we will instead consume. Keeping this in mind, we are not entirely to blame either. As Givhan puts it in her article, “Glamour taps into a universal fairy tale… it celebrates the surface gloss. And sometimes, a little shimmer can be hard to resist”.
We also must remember that young adults make mistakes as part of the learning process. While they might not choose the right role models, it is important not to denounce every idea they have in building their own persona. We must allow them to build their own identities, make mistakes, and learn from them. While we must monitor and make sure a mistake does not go so far as to be physically or emotionally harmful, we also must allow young adults to grow up. An integral part of the process is making these mistakes and learning lessons from them.
Having reviewed all the negative effects of eating disorders on young adults, we must look ahead. What can we as a society do to break this seemingly endless chain? It is important that as a society, we emphasize to young adults the importance of choosing positive role models. It is also important to find a way to do this without threatening or compromising the young adults’ quest to find their own identity. By arming these young adults with the tools necessary to choose positive role models, we won’t have to worry about negative media effects, as they will be filtering these out themselves and deeming them unfavorable. While it is impossible to entirely rule out negative media effects entirely, we can help young adults make better choices that will allow them to make better decisions through this transitory time in their lives.