Tips for becoming a critical viewer of the media

This image comparison was made famous by the Dove Real Beauty Campaign film titled "Evolution." This film can be viewed at the end of this post. On the left-hand side, a woman's image after being manipulated by the media; on the right-hand side, the same woman's actual image before being manipulated by the media.

"Media messages about body shape and size affect the way we feel about ourselves and our bodies only if we let them.  One of the ways we can protect our self-esteem and body image from the media’s often narrow definitions of beauty and acceptability is to become critical viewers of the media messages we are bombarded with each day. When we effectively recognize and analyze the media messages that influence us, we remember that the media’s definitions of beauty and success do not have to define our self-image or potential. "

 -- National Eating Disorder Association                                                                                                                   


I have recently been reminded of the importance of being a critical viewer of media messages. A couple of weeks ago, I received a “health” newsletter article in my inbox from a women’s health and wellness website (the website shall remain nameless – my aim of this post is not to call out the website).  This particular article was a tipping point for me, as I had received many similar articles before, which I found did not promote women's health. Instead, I found them to encourage body dissatisfaction, the drive for thinness, thin ideal internalization, dieting, and, ultimately, disordered eating.

My initial emotional response was anger and frustration. I allowed room for these feelings, as they were communicating something to me - I work very hard to combat these social and psychological issues (i.e., the drive for thinness, dieting behaviors, etc.) that this website is promoting with their “health” articles. I knew I wanted to reach out to the website and convey my message that these articles are more harmful than helpful in a thoughtful, rational way.

Despite my initial PO'd reaction (now, that wouldn’t be effective, would it?), I was able to access my wise mind. I wrote a detailed letter to the website stating my concerns and referred to specific articles on their website (6 to be exact) to provide examples of how their “health” articles could be harmful rather than helpful to their readers.

I ended the letter with this: “My goal with this letter is not to berate the [website name] team, instead my hope is that this letter draws attention to who your audience is and how your content, particularly in the health-focused articles, can be harmful rather than helpful to them. These messages are like many others in the media – ones that encourage women’s body dissatisfaction, the drive for thinness, thin ideal internalization, dieting, and disordered eating.” I left the door open for them to contact me and invited them to a conversation about these topics.

I even did so much as to leave them with relevant resources to help the website learn more about my message (I thought you may be interested, too):

So, why am I telling you all of this?

Well, my letter went unanswered (surprise)! And when I posted it to the website’s Facebook page, it was taken down a few hours later and I was blocked from leaving comments or messages on their wall. I then informed the National Eating Disorder Association’s (NEDA’s) Media Watchdog group, yet nothing has come of it.

I am still going to continue to reach out to the website and NEDA’s Media Watchdog group, but this has also reminded me that teaching others to be critical viewers of the media is important. Being critical viewers of the media is a balance of acceptance and change – we have to radically accept that, in the end, it is the media’s decision on what messages they promote. Yes, we can do our best to influence and put pressure on the media (in fact, I encourage you to do this; check out NEDA’s Media Watchdog page), but the reality is that our efforts may fail to change the media. Therefore, we must also teach ourselves to be critical viewers of the media. In other words, while we can continue to work to change the messages in the media, we absolutely must change how we interpret these messages.

Here are some helpful tips from NEDA on how to become a critical viewer of the media:


  • All media images and messages are constructions.  They are NOT reflections of reality.  Advertisements and other media messages have been carefully crafted with an intent to send a very specific message.
  • Advertisements are created to do one thing: convince you to buy or support a specific product or service.
  • To convince you to buy a specific product or service, advertisers will often construct an emotional experience that looks like reality.  Remember, you are only seeing what advertisers want you to see.
  • Advertisers create their message based on what they think you will want to see and what they think will affect you and compel you to buy their product.  Just because they think their approach will work with people like you doesn’t mean it has to work with you as an individual.
  • As individuals, we decide how to experience the media messages we encounter.  We can choose to use a filter that helps us understand what the advertiser wants us to think or believe and then choose whether we want to think about or believe that message.  We can choose a filter that protects our self-esteem and body image.

Help Promote Healthier Body Image Messages in the Media

  • Talk back to the TV when you see an ad or hear a message that makes you feel bad about yourself or your body.
  • Write a letter to advertisers you think are sending positive, inspiring messages that recognize and celebrate the natural diversity of human body shapes, looks, and sizes.  Commend them for their courage in sending positive, affirming messages.
  • Make a list of companies that consistently send negative body image messages and make a conscious effort to avoid buying their products.  Write them a letter explaining why you are using your “buying power” to protest their messages. Tear out the pages of your magazines that contain advertisements or articles that glorify or degrade one type of look [and throw them in the trash].  Enjoy your magazine free of negative media messages about your body.
  • Talk to your friends about media messages and their impact on you.  Ask yourself if you are inadvertently reinforcing negative media messages through the ways you talk to yourself (and the mirror), the comments you make to children or friends, or the types of pictures you have on the refrigerator or around the office.

- Chelsea

"Evolution," a film by Dove. This popular ad for Dove sheds light on the way in which the media constructs unrealistic definitions of beauty.