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Is Average the New Ugly?

While Ferrera represents average young women better than most actresses, one has to wonder if girls unfamiliar with the show's deeper message aren't secretly wondering, "If she's ugly, what does that make me?" Judging from data tying media to teens' self-image, girls everywhere are ingesting the poisonous message that average is, in fact, ugly. They're profoundly shaped by the nonstop parade of beautiful people in magazines, TV shows and music videos. And it's not just young women. Increasingly, teen boys are getting swept into the "average is ugly" vortex as well.

Playing to a New Stereotype
If we think children aren't internalizing pop culture's ideas about physical attractiveness, consider this trenchant analysis by a 10-year-old girl: "It is better to be pretty, which means thin and mean, than to be ugly, which means fat and nice. That's just how it is." Ouch.

That telltale statement appears in Courtney E. Martin's book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. Elsewhere in that tome Martin says, "If you are beautiful, we have concluded you can construct the perfect life—even if you are not brilliant, well educated or courageous—because the world will offer itself up to you. By contrast, if you are overweight—even if you are brilliant, dynamic, funny and dedicated—you have no chance for the perfect life."

Martin believes the media plays a huge role in shaping a girl's identity: "Girls understand their own bodies and their power in the world through a strange and complicated mix of influences—television, radio, magazines, movies, health class, their mothers, their fathers, their siblings, their boyfriends, their genetics, the Olympics, porn, the prom, et cetera. Television reflects this culture, from I Want a Famous Face on MTV to the constant references to size and shape on talk shows and sitcoms."

Invasion of the Beauty Snatchers
A mountain of evidence reveals just how the media distorts reality and perpetuates an unnatural, largely unreachable standard:

Models. According to the National Women's Health Information Center, the average model weighs 23 percent less than the average woman. On the runway, she'll stand 5 feet 10 inches tall and weigh in at 107-110 pounds soaking wet. A more typical woman is shorter and rounder at 5 feet 4 inches tall and 143-145 pounds.

Television. Research out of Canada indicates that 75 percent of female characters on TV sitcoms are underweight, while only one in 20 is of above-average size. As you may have noticed, those heavier actresses are more commonly joked about. Youth culture expert Walt Mueller said, "Let's face it, ugly and overweight people don't make it on TV unless they're cast as ugly and overweight people."

Magazines. Girls Inc. cites a study stating that the covers of 75 percent of the leading women's magazines had at least one message about how to alter appearance, either through diet, exercise or cosmetic surgery. Such editorial teases often appear alongside digitally polished photos of svelte starlets.

Music videos. A study out of England's University of Sussex found that as little as 10 minutes watching music videos starring super-slinky acts such as the Pussycat Dolls had an immediate negative impact on 16- to 18-year-olds' body image.

Advertising. Researchers estimate that, by her 17th birthday, the average girl in North America has been bombarded by more than 250,000 commercial messages. And since women's magazines average 10.5 times more ads for weight-loss products than do men's magazines, you get a sense of the advertising avalanche continuously rolling over girls' psyches.

Striving for the Perfect Look
Given such influences, is it any wonder children try to conform to what they see? In 2003, Teen magazine noted that 35 percent of girls 6 to 12 years old have been on at least one diet. That's unwise, says Gilmore Girls co-star Alexis Bledel: "When I was 14, my modeling agency told me I needed to lose weight. That's so wrong—I don't think you can tell a 14-year-old girl to do that, because you don't really have control over how you're changing at that age."

For some, the desire to conform to Hollywood standards gets twisted into dangerous behavior, such as anorexia or bulimia. "The 7 million women and girls currently suffering from diagnosed eating disorders are just the tip of the iceberg," Martin said. "More women who are harder to diagnose [also] show evidence of widespread shame, guilt, self-hate, obsession and deprivation. … See [this trend] for what it is—not a normal part of being a girl, not an acceptable way of moving through the world, but a destructive pathology."

And the misconceptions girls develop in their youth can stick as they become adults. A statistic quoted by the Media Education Foundation suggests that 75 percent of American women in their normal weight range believe they're too heavy.

Plastic surgery is another extreme means of living up to cultural expectations. Elective cosmetic procedures have become so common that many high school seniors are asking for breast implants or nose jobs as graduation presents. Courtney Powers, 18, says of her implants, "[The surgery] has made me feel better. Now I have more self-confidence. … I feel like I can look at myself and say, 'I'm really pretty.'" According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the number of cosmetic procedures performed on 13- to 19-year-olds in the United States nearly doubled between 2002 and 2006.

Boys Are Struggling Too
While teen girls seek breast enlargement, a surprising number of boys want to reduce theirs. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that nearly 14,000 boys ages 13 to 19 sought breast reduction surgery in 2006, an increase of 21 percent from 2005. Obesity tends to be the primary motivation, according to Dr. Roxanne Guy, a plastic surgeon and president of the ASPS. She noted, "Boys these days are much more in tune with trying to look like the models on the covers of fitness magazines. … In this sense [their attitudes toward their bodies] are beginning to resemble [those of] teenage girls."

Boys also use steroids to achieve rippling abs and pecs. The most recent data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse indicates that a half-million 8th-10th graders use anabolic steroids. Dr. Harrison G. Pope Jr., a contributor to the book The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession, identifies the media as a major factor: "Images of these steroid-pumped bodies have propagated into advertising, television, soap operas, professional wrestling shows, movies and magazine covers. … From early childhood, boys are assaulted with thousands of images of steroid-sized bodies, all conveying the subtle message that this is how an ideal man should look."

An Eternal Perspective
Parents can give teens a healthier focus by dissecting body-image messages in the media just as they discuss distorted sexuality, drug use, violence or language. Look for opportunities to ask simple questions such as, "How did that TV show (or movie, music video, magazine, etc.) make you feel about yourself? Do you think those images are realistic? Are they healthy?"

Second, affirmation will bolster your teen's self-image. Just ask American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. "I've learned that I'm not ever going to be a size 2," she said without apology, noting in a separate interview, "My mom and dad were always saying, 'You're beautiful, Jordin.'"

Third, don't overemphasize body image yourself. Set a good example of diet and exercise, but don't obsess over appearance. Even moms with Proverbs 31:30 priorities can model counterproductive attitudes that daughters can't help but pick up. Dr. Susan S. Bartell writes, "If your daughter hears you complain about the way you look, she will feel it's appropriate to dislike her own body as well."

Similarly, fathers' negative comments about a daughter's looks or weight—even if well intended—can be deeply damaging. Dads also have a special responsibility to help their sons understand that real manhood transcends one's physique.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, help teens understand that their bodies are a gift from God. Not only are we to be stewards of them as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20; Eph. 2:21-22), but we must remember that we are made in the Lord's image (Gen. 1:26). Our bodies are His design. They're His idea. Through them we live, serve and worship God. Our bodies should be His temple, not something to be despised or worshipped by anyone … including the person in the mirror.

Published June 2007