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Erin Moore

Final Research Paper


Implications of Women Portrayals in the Media

Media today influences a variety of audiences through many outlets such as film,

television, advertisements, and much more. Many times, these media sources can have

a great effect in how social norms are formed and pushed onto large populations of

people. Gender roles are areas where these narratives of what is and is not acceptable

for males and females are extremely highlighted countless times in the media. These

gender roles created are extremely restricting to many individuals. Women especially

are held to a certain set of portrayals of how they should appear physically. Many of

these advertisements reach out to young females. Having a certain set of standards for

females leaves many individuals who do not fit these standards feeling like they are not

adequate enough in society’s eyes. This in turn then leads to many females, specifically

those who are younger and of a Caucasian background, to develop eating disorders in

an attempt to fit these images of what is socially acceptable. These eating disorders

create a cycle of having the norm for this group of women to have a certain appearance,

including size, weight, and height. However, this is not the only major issue with the

advertisements focusing in on females that is apparent. Assumptions about what is

desirable by all men as well as what all women, regardless of racial background, strive

to be seen as by society.
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When analyzing this topic, it is extremely important to consider that there are

different social norms for those with different racial backgrounds. Not every racial

community has the same norms, however those that are portrayed in the media directly

target that of white females for the most part. The standards set for those of white

women specifically are to have a very slender and petite body shape ( Lise Leigh

Osvold, Gargi Roysircar Sodowsky, 1993). Many research programs have found that

the young white females are the biggest population that are affected and suffer from

these media advertisements of female bodies. These findings play directly into the idea

of intersectionality previously discussed numerous times in class. The identity of being

both a woman and of Caucasian decent overlap immensely when considering the

factors that lead to this particular group being largest one that make up the eating

disorders in young women. Even when advertisements portray minorities in the media,

these women are presented to conform to the standard white perception of how the

female body should appear, even going so far as to only show minorities that have a

lighter skin tone (Osvold, Sodowsky, 1993). This could be easily taken as that those

with light skin tones want to conform to these societal expectations. This also gives the

impression that all minorities wish to have the same characteristics of those of white

women. This is extremely problematic because it could also give the impression that if

all races wish to be like the women portrayed in media, then it is completely normal

across all racial groups.

Another major issue with the advertising of women in this way is the effect it has

on the male population and the stigma it then creates around heterosexual women not

looking a certain way. This is easily shown through advertisements that are angled at
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dieting tips and how to lose weight fast being much more apparent in women’s

magazines than those for men (Kristen Harrison, Joanne Cantor, 1997). This creates a

huge dilemma for those that identify as white heterosexual male or female. The males

become emerged into a societal belief that all females who are of their background,

both identifying as white and straight, should look a certain way with certain

characteristics. Seeing advertisements surrounding being slim and in shape only in

women’s magazines hold an enormous double standard in today’s society. Many times

women are labeled to have either beauty or brains, and not able to have both. Going

along with this, women are socialized to get their self-esteem from their physical

appearance in ways that males are not (Osvold, Sodowsky, 1993). Both of these

socially taught points make it apparent that being labeled as beautiful is a huge

requirement for females.

Another point of an intersection identity that is important in analyzing eating

disorders is the identity of heterosexual women. This is easily connected back to a

reading assigned for class, “Performance Acts”, by Judith Bulter. Bulter makes a major

point that gender is the stylized repetition of acts (519). It is arguable that the constant

policing of women’s bodies by society and also the women themselves are one example

of the stylized repetition that leads to the normalized gender of women being formed.

The fear of not being classified as an ideal woman by society overpowers what the

young females consider acceptable themselves. This then leads to unhealthy dieting

methods that also become repetitive acts that are typically associated with women.

Aside from the advertisements for how to lose weight, there are also many portrayals of

actresses who are concerned with their body weight, such as the movie “Mean Girls”,
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where one of the main characters, Regina George, is extremely concerned with losing

weight. Examples such as this one build onto the stigma that heterosexual white young

females are supposed to conform to a certain set of standards set up by society. This

specific example is one that is supposed to reach out to an audience of girls who are

around the same age of the actresses and actors in the movie. Observing an actress

who is concerned about her weight at such a young age teaches the audience it

reaches that this is a normal worry.

Going off of the idea that gender is built off certain actions, the consequences for

not fitting these standards could be great for these young women. Bulter then continues

to go on and state in her writing, “…those who fail to do gender right are regularly

punished” (522). This is extremely true when it comes to those who are racially and

sexually similar to the females that are used in media outlets, as well as those are not

similar to them. The pressure to fit these ideas are extremely high for females with a

similar background. The increasing number of prevalence of eating disorders in this

population is a huge signifier of this. The fear of becoming an outcast or labeled as

undesirable by society keeps these young females targeted by this propaganda

continuing their life-threatening habits. However, those who do not fit this image also

face obstacles. Misrepresentation in the media of minorities is a concerning factor in

this. Only showing light skinned individuals completely overlooks the fact that there are

many who do not have this light of skin. Also, the image that all women want to fit into

this western idea of white, straight, socially appealing females is very unrealistic. One of

the main ideas behind these representations of white, assumed to be cisgender straight
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women, is that one of the main things in live they are looking for is to be pleasing to

men, both physically and sexually.

Overall, the usage of media to keep societal normative expectations apparent in

everyday depictions of what standards women are held to is very strong. Whether it is

targeting those who do fit these guidelines and keeping them in this box, or shaming

those who do not fit these ideals, the outlets create an extremely negative effect. These

effects, which include the onset of eating disorders and inaccurate stereotyping, are so

great the numbers of those who are affected are climbing. Not only are they reaching a

female audience, they are also reaching a male audience as well. Stigmatizing these

women in media advertisements, who are mostly all very light skinned, petite, and very

thin, to be the everyday woman creates a false perspective for everyone, including

males. Women then will face pressure from not only the media, but also that of men and

women glorifying the thinness that is supposed to be natural and everywhere (Harrison,

Cantor, 1997). This is tremendously challenging for women, especially for those who

identify as heterosexual when it comes to the male population having a false

perspective. It also highlights the fact that minorities, whether racial or one with a

different sexual orientation, are not considered when it comes to setting norms for

females. The portrayals of women in the media ties directly into many topics covered in

class such as intersectionality, gender roles, and Judith Butler’s piece, “Performance

Acts”. It is essential to consider all of these aspects when examining the effects of these

portrayals. Each of these topics open up a new point of discussion with media. Without

these aspects, the intensity and full effect of what happens when these images are

released would not be able to be measured.

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Works Cited

Cantor, Joanne. Harrison, Kristen. “The Relationship Between Media Consumption and

Eating Disorders”. Journal of Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, March 1997, pp. 40-


Osvold, Lise Leigh and Gargi Roysircar Sodowsky. "Eating Disorders of White

American, Racial and Ethnic Minority American, and International

Women." Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, vol. 21, no. 3,

July 1993, pp. 143-154.

Bulter, Judith. “Performative Acts”. Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, Dec. 1988, pp. 519-