The answer, in short, is that body-shaming and media representations of unrealistic beauty ideals create a toxic environment for girls- and constant exposure to such images have long-lasting impacts on women's psychological and physical well-being.
I'm not alone in this assertion. According to research conducted by Hayley K. Dohnt and Marika Tiggemann:
It was found that by 6 years of age, a large number of girls desired a thinner ideal figure... Watching music television shows and reading appearance-focused magazines predicted dieting awareness. In particular, girls who looked at magazines aimed at adult women had greater dissatisfaction with their appearance. Thus, the present study highlights that girls aged 5–8 years of age are already living in an appearance culture in which both peers and the media influence body image and dieting awareness.So, through exposure to media, our children are inundated with appearance-focused presentations of women, and the more exposure kids have to this appearance culture, the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with their own appearance. As Dohnt and Tiggemann point out:
...comprehensive literature reviews have implicated this preadolescent body dissatisfaction as a risk factor for subsequent lower self-esteem, decreased psychological well-being, increased eating disorder symptomatology, dieting behaviours, obesity and depression.Concern trolls take note: fashion magazines, TV programs, and video games that objectify women don't 'help girls by encouraging them to diet' - they put kids at risk of eating disorders and depression. And since "...studies of women and adolescent girls have reported positive relationships between television viewing and magazine exposure with weight concerns and eating disorder symptomatology," media matters.
While this particular research focused on how young girls are impacted by media depictions of women, it isn't just our children who are at risk. Dohnt and Tiggemann are quick to point out that "...the desire for thinness is so prevalent among women that it has been identified as a ‘normative discontent.’" Normative discontent - we have created a culture in which so many women suffer from self-hate, that discontent with our appearance is considered normal.
So, what can we do? We can try to protect our kids from toxic media by thinking critically about the TV they watch, the magazines they read, and the games they play. We can try to protect ourselves by avoiding those things we know to be toxic. Since peer influences have also been shown to highly impact girls' body-awareness, we can also help by not belying any self-hate we might feel while in the presence of young women. We can refrain from being too critical of our own figures or other women's. And we can continue to call-out irresponsible media, even if it means braving some insults. Hopefully, raising awareness, acknowledging that sexism is dangerous, and holding companies accountable will encourage a change - the type of change that will make our society a happier place for women.
Thanks, Holly, Mighty Ponygirl, and Liss for not being cowed into silence.