The Real Way the Media Promotes Fat Shaming (and every other kind of shaming)

NBC’s Today Show is doing a week-long “Love Your Selfie” with the extremely attractive personalities admitting their self-image insecurities and appearing without makeup. The men look pretty much like themselves and the women just look plain around their eyes. Everyone is still their media-quality good-looking selves. We’ve been treated to the team’s dorkiest teenage photos as if we’re supposed to feel bad that they went through an awkward phase but still grew up with the self-confidence, talent, and good fortune to become highly-paid network television personalities. It was downright ridiculous when Carson Daly made a big deal out of having a group of Olympic athletes use facial wipes to remove their stage makeup. Because the public is so used to seeing athletes in makeup? And because Olympic athletes suffer low self-esteem and a high sense of physical awkwardness? I’m sure as the week goes on, fat shaming will be extensively discussed when the focus is put on Al Roker. Yes, he did grow up black, fat, and his name is Albert. Hey, hey, hey, I’m sure he got picked on at school.

I find this kind of thing a non-story and I believe that it does more harm than good. In some ways, I think it is a kind of exploitation of emotions and feelings. A segment opened with images of Marilyn Monroe with a comparison to today’s much thinner models. What’s different today?

Decades ago, no one did research into the effects of media portrayals and body image. But every era defines its own standards of beauty and its own portrayals of aesthetic ideals. Every generation feels pressured to conform to those beauty standards and social ideals. What’s changed is that today we put so much focus on media images that if you were not already dissatisfied with your body and your looks, television and the Internet will tell you that statistically, you should be.

Did the media have no influence back when Marilyn Monroe was the most photographed woman? She was portrayed as the most fabulously beautiful, glamorous, and desirable woman of her day. Regardless of her actual weight, do you think young women did not compare themselves with her and her completely unachievable and unrealistic media image?

This is Dovima. She was one of the top models of the 1950s. Years before Twiggy, Dovima had a 19″ waist.

Dovima 1950s model

Dovima was hailed as the most sophisticated look of her era but she was portrayed as empty-headed in her only film performance in the Audrey Hepburn vehicle, Funny Face in 1957, a film about fashion models.

Lisa Fonssagrives was married to Irving Penn, one of the most influential fashion photographers of all time. Her career fit the definition of what we’d today call a supermodel. Her image was as pervasive back then as any one model could have been. American women would not have been able to pick up a magazine without seeing photographs of Fonssagrives.


The 1950s media told women that they had to be slim and polished and they should aspire to maintain a well-run home for a husband and family. Girls were not encouraged to go to college. And in the 1940s, women got to compare themselves to this:

Jane Russell - by George Hurrell 1943.

Media images will always dictate widely-held body image perceptions and opinions. The Today Show announced the statistic that 85% of teenage girls are unhappy with their appearance and would like to lose weight. Oh really? I call that being a teenage girl. I believe we have an advantage today. We can know just how manipulated images are. Adobe Photoshop was introduced nearly 25 years ago but before it existed, photographic techniques in the studio and the darkroom produced heavily manipulated images. Technology has made it possible to create wholly artificial images that appear amazingly real. Can we all finally agree that we’re aware that photographic and video images today are manipulated in a vast array of ways and a huge percentage of what we all see is not realistic? Even children know how to use image editing software. Can image manipulation STOP being news??

What I think we should be more concerned about is our “motivational” culture that tells everyone they can accomplish anything, be anything, have anything. “If I can do it, you can do it” sends the message that we are all on level ground with equal abilities, equal access, and equal good fortune. It tells us that if those former fat folks in People magazine can lose hundreds of pounds, when are you going to quit being lazy and get inspired by them?. If the homeless woman can get herself into Harvard, why don’t you have an Ivy League degree? If the single mom turned her simple idea into a multi-million dollar business, why aren’t you rich? If the high school dropout is the CEO, why haven’t you gotten a promotion? If the wounded vet got himself out of a wheelchair and runs five miles every day, why are you on the couch? If millions of other people are getting rich, happy, healthy, thin, perfectly-organized, and smarter, having more sex and sleeping better, why haven’t you changed the way you think and started living your authentic best life? Do you need more motivational sayings in your Facebook news feed?

Maybe if the media would stop telling us how screwed up we all are and how perfect we’re supposed to be, we could all stop stressing over it. Minnie Driver was on the Today Show this morning and she was asked her opinion on media images. She had a very simple response. “Don’t compare yourself to anyone.”



    • JoAnn on February 27, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    If Minnie Driver has advice on how to do that, I’d listen!

    Seriously, I don’t necessarily compare myself to others. Maybe that’s what age does for you. I tend to compare myself to versions (and visions of myself). Lately I’ve been liking what I see in the mirror which is pretty nice and represents significant progress, yet when I took a bunch of pictures this week I was completely discouraged. All the flaws seemed to be magnifed. The vision of what I see in the mirror was not the same as what I saw on the screen. A friend calls it the evil freeze frame.

    On Valentine’s Day I wore a red dress that made me feel great and earned me appreciative compliments from my husband. In the picture, not so much. Kind of kicked my confidence to the curb. Thankfully I have kind friends who told me that if I felt good in it, it must have looked good.

    To prove a point to myself and to refuse to be defeated by some digital blip, I wore it yesterday. Lots of compliments from co-workers but more importantly, I could see it for myself. Miraculously, I took another look at the pictures and there were a lot good ones. Pretty powerful stuff.

    I can’t deny how I’ve transformed and I can’t deny that it might not be “perfect.” Being good with that is the ultimate challenge.

    1. Maybe I have sort of bad news for you. It’s been years and I STILL feel like I look “different.” I still feel that I “changed.” I think part of it could be the timing—losing weight during the years I was going to start looking different anyway, my late forties.

    • Anna Naomi on June 2, 2014 at 11:26 pm

    I think the point of this isn’t totally clear. What I think the point you’re trying to make is: Although NBC tried to make up for shaming in the media by revealing past insecurities, they ended up encouraging more shaming by implying the message that no matter who or where you are, you can become as ‘perfect’ as they.

    Which is definitely an interesting point to make. and it is refreshing that you expand this to be not just about the “disordered eating/negative body image epidemic”, but the way we can destructively compare ourselves to every aspect of ‘perfect’ people in the media, as well. I think many articles can heavily place focus on just the disordered eating/body image aspect of how media degenerates self-worths. I can relate the “but they got there, so so can I” vortex of thought to not only my disordered eating/body image problems, but to other ways I feel about myself, as well.

    And it is definitely important to acknowledge that specific standards exist in every era… I think that the problem with ours, though, is that it really promotes disordered eating and other forms of self-hate. If you can argue that the Marilyn Monroe era promoted ‘overeating’, you can argue that our era promotes ‘undereating’, and when it comes down to it, overeating is always the healthier route to undereating. Our bodies are just meant to handle it better. And you said that we have an advantage now that we are more aware of PhotoShop, which is very true… But at the same time, it still shouldn’t be so abused. :/ Heavily photoshopped or not, billions of people will subconsciously compare themselves to that perfectly perfect magazine cover. And I would argue that the realer the image, the healthier the comparison is (though no comparison of two unique human beings is really healthy),

    But a part I must say I disagree with: “…85% of teenage girls are unhappy with their appearance and would like to lose weight. Oh really? I call that being a teenage girl.” I do not think that teenage girls have to live feeling that way about themselves! The fact that the general population views weight loss as a positive and as a solution to problems is disordered. We are not meant to have that much thought and control over our weight.

    So anyways those are some of my thoughts. Some things that hit me the wrong way, but overall good article. c: It was different and I enjoyed reading it.

    (Also, sorry if this is too critical; I’m not used to doing these things!! I really did like the article.)

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