Lori M. Irving, PhD
My research on the use of media literacy and activism to prevent weight and shape preoccupation evolved largely out of classroom experiences that taught the power of media literacy (1). More specifically, my work was influenced by my experience showing Jean Kilbourne’s 1987 film “Still Killing Us Softly” to college students (2). Each time that I show this film, it elicits a strong emotional response and increased interest in critically evaluating media. Students borrow the film to show it to family or friends. In some cases, the film has led to enduring behavior change. For example, after watching the film, one student in her forties disclosed that Kilbourne’s film made her realize that she had begun to dye her hair because of her shame about looking “old.” Stunned and angered by this realization, this student stopped dyeing her hair. This experience, and others like it, suggested to me that, regardless of their age, people can be taught to think critically about the media, and thinking critically about the media can produce behavior change.
During the 1996–1997 school year, my students and I empirically tested the hypothesis that media literacy produces attitude and behavior change. We developed and evaluated a media literacy program designed to teach high school females to be more critical consumers of appearance-related media (3). The program was implemented in a group format and led by a female high school junior. The group leader led a short discussion regarding the standard of beauty portrayed in the media and showed a 15-minute excerpt from Jean Kilbourne’s 1995 film “Slim Hopes: Advertising and the Obsession with Thinness” (4).
The excerpt revealed tricks used by the media to make fashion models look flawless and slender, including how airbrushing is used to transform women’s bodies to the waif look that is so popular today. After the video, participants discussed their reactions and engaged in a structured discussion regarding the realism of media images, how individuals think and behave in ways that reinforce media images, what individuals can do personally and politically to challenge unrealistic images, and the importance of basing self-esteem on factors other than comparison to an artificial, unrealistic standard of beauty. The guided discussion included equipping participants with tools for critically evaluating and “de-constructing” media images of women.
Participants in the media literacy group (n = 24) were compared with students in a no-intervention control group (n = 17) on measures of critical thinking about media (5) and satisfaction with appearance (6,7). Compared with participants in the control group, girls in the media literacy group reported attitudes consistent with being a more critical consumer of media (i.e., less internalization/acceptance of the thin standard of beauty and less perceived realism of images of fashion models). Although the program was effective in making students more critical of appearance-related media, it did not lead to greater body satisfaction and less anxiety about physical appearance.
In additional studies with teen girls (8) and college women (9), my students and I have replicated the finding that a brief media literacy program increases skepticism about media but does not impact body satisfaction. Although it is rewarding to teach young women to be critical consumers of media, I have come to realize that changes in weight and shape preoccupation require more comprehensive intervention. This is one reason that I am excited about and involved with more intensive, highly interactive programs such as GO GIRLS! (discussed elsewhere in this issue).
In addition to my experience with media literacy and the energy and emotion that media literacy can evoke in consumers, my commitment to media activism is borne of my strong feminist beliefs (i.e., knowledge is power, personal experience is political) and involvement in studying the benefits of a hopeful, goal- directed, dispositional style and respect for hopeful persistence in pursuit of goals (10–12). In addition, activism sustains my own process of recovery by redirecting my self-critical, “eating disorder” voice into anger about ads or social policies that promote self- criticism and inhibit wellness. Activism challenges me to be a role model and advocate for students, colleagues, and community members. Finally, activism motivates me to help create a culture that promotes acceptance of oneself and diversity in general and prevents girls and women from feeling ashamed of who they are and what they look like.
The Fetish [cologne] story describes a chain of events that illustrate the empowering consequences of activism. In October 1997, I was visited by Doug Baker, a professor in the Business Department at Washington State University, Vancouver. Doug had in his hand a copy of React for Teens: The News Magazine that Raises Voices, which appears in each Tuesday’s edition of The Oregonian, the Portland newspaper. As a father of a young daughter, Doug was extremely upset about an ad for “Fetish” cologne that had appeared in React on this particular day. In the ad, a thin, jaundiced-appearing adolescent woman wearing an orange bikini top and heavy, pink eye make-up had a vial of “Fetish” cologne clipped to the center of her bikini top. The text written across her chest read, “Fetish #16: Apply generously to your neck so he can smell the scent as you shake your head ‘no.’” The ad’s promotion of a “heroin-chic” look and its false, dangerous message that girls/women mean “yes” when they say “no” were utterly appalling. Doug asked whether, given my area of research and my community involvement, there was something that I could or would do about this.
I agreed that the ad was offensive, but I was reluctant to take the time to write a letter to the editor or the advertiser. I was about to say that I was too busy to take on the project when I remembered that the organizing committee of the Columbia River Eating Disorder Network (CR-EDN) a local community organization that promotes education about eating disorders and their prevention, was meeting that night. Speaking with other CR-EDN members fueled my motivation to do something. Consequently, we composed a letter, and 12 people signed it. We sent the letter to The Oregonian and to Dana Perfumes, the manufacturer of Fetish. When there was no response, we sent the letter again. After the second letter, the president of The Oregonian called me personally to inform me that he had received my letters and forwarded them to the publishers of React. After our second letter, React agreed to pull the ad entirely! I called our local paper to see if they would be interested in covering the story. I was surprised and delighted when they put it on the front page (13). This experience left me more convinced than ever that activism works and that consumers and citizens wield more power than they assume. I also realized that, had it not been for my involvement with my community group, I may not have had the motivation or courage to voice my concerns.
I feel privileged to be able to do the work that I do, weaving together my personal and professional goals with my philosophical and political beliefs. This approach has led me to ask more interesting questions and develop more appropriate methods for coming up with meaningful answers. Finally, and importantly, the approach that I take has allowed me to experience personally the implications of the work that I do. I invite readers to join me in this process.
Lori Irving, PhD, is Associate Professor of Psychology at Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington. She has authored numerous and edited volumes, is Associate Editor for the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, and is the Coordinator for the Columbia River Eating Disorder Network.
1. Irving LM. A bolder model of prevention: research, teaching, and activism. In: Piran N, Levine MP, Steiner- Adair C, eds. Preventing eating disorders in the 21st century: a handbook of interventions and special challenges. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1999:63–83.
2. Kilbourne J. Still killing us softly: advertising’s image of women [film]. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 1987.
3. Irving LM, DuPen J, Berel LS. A media literacy program for high school females. Eat Disord J Treat Prev 1998; 6:119–131.
4. Kilbourne J. Slim hopes: advertising and the obsession with thinness [film]. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 1995.
5. Heinberg L, Thompson JK, Stormer SL. Development and validation of the sociocultural attitudes towards appearance questionnaire. Int J Eat Disord 1995; 17:81–89.
6. Garner DM. Eating Disorder Inventory—2: professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources, 1991.
7. Reed DL, Thompson JK, Brannick MT, Sacco LWP. Development and validation of the physical appearance state and trait anxiety scale (PASTAS). J Anxiety Disord 1991; 5:323–332.
8. Irving LM, DuPen J, Green D, Cody C. A media literacy program for high school females. Poster presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco, CA, August 1998.
9. Berel S, Irving LM. Comparison of media-literacy programs to strengthen college women’s resistance to media images. Unpublished manuscript, 2000.
10. Irving LM, Seidner AL, Burling TA, et al. Hope and recovery from drug/alcohol dependence in homeless veterans. J Soc Clin Psychol 1998; 17:389–406.
11. Irving LM, Snyder CR, Crowson JJ. Hope and coping with cancer by college women. J Pers 1998; 66:195–213.
12. Irving LM, Telfer L, Blake D. Hope, coping, and social support in combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. J Traumat Stress 1997; 10:463–477.
13. Vogt T. On the scent: group that fights eating disorders takes aim at “Fetish” perfume ad. The Columbian December 4, 1997:A1, A7L.