Media Literacy: Images in Advertising and the Unattainable Standard

Media Literacy: Images in Advertising and the Unattainable Standard

By Amanda Grossman-Scott

This article is the second of a series about media literacy and how to teach your children to look and think critically about the media they view.

I grew up in the 90’s reading a fashion magazine geared toward young teens. It was my bible. I developed many a misguided opinion and fashion sense from those pages. Looking back, it was pretty mild stuff compared to now: embarrassing stories about first menstrual periods and how to catch your crush’s eye. Then there were the articles that made me spend long hours looking in the mirror. Sure, some had good intentions: warning pieces on the dangers of eating disorders and STDs. But those were overwhelmingly outnumbered by articles featuring make up tips, what bathing suit I should wear and what clothes would be chic next fall. Worse were the ads: Super thin models in tiny bikinis, girls with flawless skin selling the newest acne treatment, women with perfect hair selling me a shampoo that would change my life. I’d cut out these pictures and cover my bedroom walls with them. I thought if I only looked at them enough long I could become them. What I didn’t know, what no one bothered to tell we impressionable young girls, is that it was all a lie.

Unattainable Beauty

Most of those images are achieved through hours of make-up, camera angles and lighting; all before being enhanced digitally. The people we see in ads might as well be cartoon characters for all of the reality they represent. Dr. Jean Kilbourne, pioneer in media and gender studies says of these models “…She never has any lines or wrinkles, she certainly has no scars or blemishes, indeed she has no pores. And the most important aspect of this flawlessness is that it cannot be achieved, no one looks like this including her; and this is the truth, no one looks like this.” (Jhally, “Killing Us Softly 4”) Let’s not forget that young boys are exposed to impossible standards as well. “…boys are searching out means to bring their bodies into conformity with the muscular ideal.” (Cruz, 2014) Our solution lies with this empowering knowledge: no one looks like the people in advertisements! Point out to your child that the models in advertisements don’t have any human flaws, so they can’t possibly be real images of people. Emphasize that real people have freckles, dimples, moles and other “imperfections” that make them individuals.

More Than One Kind of Beauty

Activist and film maker Jennifer Siebel Newsom says, “The ultimate goal is to empower individuals as consumers and citizens to do something about the disparaging and limited portrayals of women and hyper-masculine notions of men that exist in the media.” (Brownley, 2011) Advertisers tend to focus on just a few body and image types. Remind your children that you know many different kinds of people who don’t appear on billboards. Ask them why that might be. The important thing is to get your child thinking and questioning the images around him.

Next Article: Ads Sell More Than Products

Curious to learn more? Check out our books, 30 Days of Sex Talks; How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography, which is also available in Spanish; and 30 Days to a Stronger Child.

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Brownley, T. (2011, October 7). 5 Questions for Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Heads and Tales at Marin Academy. Retrieved June 14, 2014, from

Jhally, S. (Director) Kilbourne, J., Ed.D. (2010). Killing Us Softly 4 : Media Education Foundation.

Cruz, J. (2014, March 10). Body-Image Pressure Increasingly Affects Boys. The Atlantic. Retrieved June 14, 2014, from