Shaping girls’ identities: How the media tries to be a candle and gets it all wrong

I was appalled to see on TV recently a female teenager who was going to Thailand for a “cosmetic holiday”.

That wasn’t the appalling part. I’m not morally opposed to plastic surgery. She said she wanted a new set of DD breasts to give her self-esteem a boost. It’s unfair and sad that she has to go through a painful and expensive procedure to feel confident in her own body,  but good on her for taking steps to feel better, right?

I was thinking “fair enough” until I heard the next words out of her mouth.

“Maybe if I had bigger boobs I’d be able to keep a boyfriend.”

You see, a boy had recently broken up with her. And instead of wondering whether she had treated him well enough, been a good person- or, even better, if he could actually be to blame for her low self-esteem- she decided that she needed to change herself (drastically, permanently and in a potentially life-threatening way) in order to be attractive to men.

This girl went on to say that she wanted a “nice rack”. And I could do nothing more than shake my head and thank my lucky stars that young, impressionable little girls would likely be in bed sleeping soundly rather than hearing this teen refer to a part of her glorious, beautiful body- a body that can literally house and then bring into the world a human life- in such a derogatory way. (For more on negative self-talk, read this)

Those sleeping little girls who listen to their Mums talk about dieting and then refuse to eat their sandwich out of fear they’ll get fat.

They’re sleeping little girls who start experimenting with mascara and lip gloss in primary school.

Sleeping little girls who turn up to discos in skimpy outfits because of peer pressure and the unrealistic body shape ideals that are plastered  all over the Internet.

As though their worth can be deciphered by one glance at their bra size.

It is particularly disappointing, and dangerous, that disparaging body references was repeated throughout the show. Kervin, Jones & Mantei (2012) assert a notion that many of us have already conjectured: “children learn behaviours and have their value systems shaped by the media, including by the promotion of inappropriate gender stereotypes” (p 69)


plastic-surgery-0902-01 by madelineyoki on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

There are many messages that the media sells them- including that being “Like a girl” is an insult:

“Always #LikeAGirl”

In order to influence girls to spend money on their products, big industries thrive by making girls feel insecure and inadequate.

Even popular culture plays its part. Movie characters teach girls to be demure and submissive. And that thigh gaps are more worthy of our attention than pay gaps.


For Girls Worried About Thigh Gaps by Post Memes on Flickr under CC BY 2.0

From what I saw on that show, they seem to have succeeded.

But now let’s for a second imagine a different world. A world where all of the time and headspace that is usually devoted to worrying about weight, or body hair, or breast size-  was instead directed towards being kinder, more compassionate, more talented?

Candles need to light the way for students to think deeply about popular culture; to challenge and empower them to stop reinforcing the status quo (Hall, 2011).

Toy companies are beginning to do this, with female superhero action figures and dolls based on real life female role models.

Tonnes of books are also inspiring girls to be strong and mighty.

For more inspiration on how to “Dare to be brave in this world” read this.

Beach & O’Brien surmise: “Youth both use and are used by popular culture- working this tension, rather than simply avoiding it, is the job of educators.” (p 776)

But who am I kidding? They’d never air that on prime time TV.


If you’d like to receive every new blog post straight into your email inbox each morning, click FOLLOW below 👇


Beach, R & O’Brien, D. (2008). Teaching popular culture texts in the classroom. In D. Leu, J. Coiro, M. Knobel, C. Lankshear )Eds.). Handbook of research on new literacies (pp. 775-804). London: Routledge.

Hall, L. (2011). How popular culture texts inform and shape students’ discussions of social studies texts. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 55(4), 296-305)

Kervin, L., Jones, S., Mantei, J. (2012). Online advertising: Examining the content and messages within websites targeted at children. E-Learning and Digital Media. 9(1), 69-82



  1. Interesting post. Body modification surgery has always been an interesting topic for me. As you state early on, on the one side people should feel empowered and able to control their bodies and present them however makes them comfortable. On the other hand if what is making them uncomfortable are societal views that are often unrealistic , unfair and sexist, obviously that is highly problematic. But trying to ascertain which is the driving factor, and indeed if there really is a difference between how people, and particularly young women, choose to view themselves and how society chooses to portray them.

    Interestingly this has recently come up as an issue around selfies. We tell women they should look a certain way, but should also be proud of their bodies, then society mocks the way in which young women are choosing to control their images and post multiple selfies to social media sites. There should be applause as women choose to take control of their self-image and take pride in it, instead we mock them as vain and self-absorbed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t believe they would show this on TV. I hope other girls don’t think having ‘a nice rack’ will boost their self-esteem or make them more likeable. This is covering up some fundamental issues with beliefs about yourself and not feeling confident. I do like to see strong female characters on TV who are confident and smart. Feeling good about yourself is knowing that your thoughts do matter, you have something valuable to contribute in the way of skills and knowledge and you are worthy of respect for your brains and heart. I hope this young girl starts to realise that she deserves respect for who she is and notices more positive female role models in her life and popular culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great blog! What do you think of this as a part response to this big problem.
    Aunties, uncles and grandparents.
    I have seen in our family what a powerful influence for good the oldies in the family network can have during the formative years of children when parental input is so easily discounted.
    It seems to me that the initial sturdy robust sense of self is established in a multitude of attentive, loving responses from those in our immediate environment and the community beyond.
    I know a number of young people who can name the teacher who spent time responding to them and allowed them to feel worthwhile for the first time.
    As a teacher it must be exciting to think that you may save a young person from going down the futile cosmetic surgery pathway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, Freckle2015. I was talking to a fellow teaching friend recently about how many attitudes, values and skills that formerly would have been taught in the home are now being appearing in the school curriculum. You’ve made me think long and hard about the role of communities and the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”. Stay tuned for a post on this topic soon 📡📰


  4. Sandra, I love your idea of putting an “old head on young shoulders”. Your comment made me think of those people who say “By the time you realise your Mum was right, you’ll have a child who thinks you’re dead wrong”.
    But is it true that we really can’t change their minds? And that social media is to blame? There’s a great blog post here about social media being used for good:


    • There are always two sides to every coin and it depends which side they decide to listen to. Today’s teenagers are more educated thanks to social media however again it depends on which ideology they are listening to. Influences still come from all directions, not all teenagers are equally savvy to propaganda. All we can do as teachers and parents is steer them in the right direction and hope they will come out the other end as reasonably well-adjusted young adults.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Savvy is a great choice of words, Sandra. With the freedom now for anyone to publish to the world, those with bad intentions get just as much of a voice as those with good. At least on Facebook you can unfriend, unfollow and (soon!) unlike.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. What is the rush with trying to grow up so fast these days? Why can’t kids focus on play instead of body image? In years to come that poor girl will wish she had a nice petite “B” cup and wonder what on earth she was thinking, but you cant put an old head on young shoulders any more than we can change the medias portrayal of the “perfect body image.” It doesn’t matter how many people speak out about photo shopping magazine covers, Instagram shots etc, as long as social media exists, so too will stereotyping.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s