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The distortion of beauty

self-esteem and body image

Parent Zone has partnered with the Dove Self-Esteem Project to offer parents advice and information to help children and young people build confidence and feel good about themselves.

In this article, we look at how young people, particularly young women, are fed a narrow, manipulated view of what is beautiful by the media

‘Body Image research from MediaSmarts[1], an organisation that focuses on media literacy, found that looking at magazines for just 60 minutes lowers the self-esteem of more than 80% of girls'

The majority of photographic images of women we see in the media are the result of not only clever make-up and lighting at photo shoots, but also careful digital computer manipulation before being published, known as ‘airbrushing’.

It isn’t just spots and blemishes that are airbrushed. Legs and necks are lengthened, breasts are inflated, heads are swapped on to different bodies, nipples are moved, cheekbones enhanced and so on. Often, so much is changed that you wouldn’t recognise the original model in real life.

When you team the airbrushed images with headlines criticising ‘real’ women who don’t match this unrealistic, enhanced image, it’s not difficult to see why girls are aspiring to achieve the fantasy airbrushed look.

Yet when we are left to make up our own mind, we want to look like ourselves.

In its Pretty as a Picture research[2], UK think-tank Credos asked young women to compare four different images of the same model, digitally modified to change her shape.

76% of young women preferred either the natural or lightly retouched images over the heavily airbrushed ones.

Once she realises that media images are frequently manipulated, and rarely representative of reality, your daughter can start to see through them and protect her body confidence when reading, watching and playing with media. She can begin to realise that it’s not worth comparing the way she looks to the unrealistic, fake images she often sees in the media.

How you can help

  1. Look at media with a critical eye: encourage your daughter to scratch beneath the surface of the media she consumes. Get her to come up with reasons why it isn’t worth comparing herself to manipulated images.
  2. Use a healthy of dose of good humour: look at her favourite TV programmes and magazines together and talk about any images that seem particularly unrealistic or that offer a narrow definition of beauty. You might even have a giggle about the ones that look fake and have messages that are overly critical of the way a woman looks.
  3. Use positive examples when you find them: find positive media sources to share with your daughter that focus on the strength and abilities of women, not just their appearance.
  4. Understand the process of image manipulation: talk to your daughter about who might have been involved in creating these ‘looks’, from stylists and make-up artists to photographers. Watch Dove’s Evolution video [below] together to see how radically a woman‘s appearance can be changed using make-up, lighting and digital tools.

Read, download or print the free Uniquely Me parent guide

This downloadable pdf contains expert advice from Dove Self-Esteem Project global experts from the fields of psychology, body image, self-esteem, eating disorders and media representation to create a resource for parents that is focused on advice and action. Click on 'Files: Uniquely Me parent guide.pdf' at the foot of the page to download.

Teachers: for free downloadable teaching resources, go to the Dove Self-Esteem Project area on

These pages are brought to you by Parent Zone and the Dove Self-Esteem Project


The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

First published: March 2017

[1] [2]


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