Gerber: Body by the media: a legacy of pain and humiliation

I remember sitting in health class in middle school listening to my teacher rant about the highly idealized body images presented in media. The guys in class tuned her out, probably believing what many people do: Boys don't get body image disorders, they don't ever binge or purge or spend ridiculous amounts of time in the gym trying to lose weight or gain muscle.

The girls glanced around the room, each wondering to herself who among them is within the 5-7 percent of American females that will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives? Which of them might be the one American female in 100 who is anorexic? How many are part of the 6 percent of U.S. girls aged 13-19 thought to be bulimic? Well, all the girls except for the 12-year-old girl reading Cosmopolitan about the eight different ways to make her guy … you get the picture.

While eating disorders, body image issues and emphasized sexuality cannot be attributed to the media alone, it is impossible to argue that they don't have a significant effect. The 12-year-old girl reading about how to improve her sexual technique, the class full of girls always wondering if they're pretty or thin enough – all these girls read some magazine or go online and find articles telling them how to be better at sex, how to dress or wear makeup, how to lose five pounds in two weeks.

We've all heard about the dangers of media, and specifically the harm inflicted by the idealized images they showcase. There are countless news articles in mental health magazines crying out for parents to monitor which magazine their child reads, to watch out not just for age-inappropriate content but for pictures of models that are over-sexualized, highly eroticized and impossibly aesthetically admirable. Our health teachers warn us of exaggerated body ideals and the dangers of going too far in trying to achieve them. There are hundreds of diets, pills, foods and workout programs aimed at losing weight. Society and the media are practically screaming their message: look this way, weigh this much, act like this.

The connection between magazines and these weight loss plans? Recent studies offer evidence that teens will look at overly thin, overly muscular, idealized models for longer if the pictures are positioned next to an article or advertisement regarding improvements in appearance than they will if the pictures are standalone.

Apparently, seeing the models next to advertisements and articles that encourage bodily improvement makes readers feel as though such physical ideals are actually attainable, as opposed to just viewing Photoshop-altered images and knowing that a real person can never look like that. Whether you believe this research or not, the point is this: Please take everything you see or read in a magazine with a grain of salt. Not everyone is a 100-pound, highly sensual beach babe or a sweaty, muscular gym stud – and no one should feel like they have to try to be.