UMPI senior urges media literacy in health class

Posted Feb. 24, 2011, at 11:23 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Women — thin, gorgeous women — are tapped to sell everything from cars to cleaning solutions. Heavier celebrities sometimes make it onto magazine covers, but mainly to show the public how much weight they have gained.

Like most women in the United States, University of Maine at Presque Isle social work major Keren Morin knew that portrayals of flawless, size 6 or smaller females in the media negatively affected young girls’ concept of body image. But how badly did it affect them, the senior student wondered, and what could schools in the state do to counteract it?

Those questions were what led the 2010-11 Maine Policy Scholar to throw herself into a yearlong research project to come up with some answers. Morin, who is now close to finishing the project, said Wednesday that she is convinced that adding a media literacy component to the health curriculum for students in grades six through eight in Maine schools is the right way to go.

Each year, one student from each campus of the University of Maine system is selected as a Maine Policy Scholar. Those who are chosen pursue a yearlong program of applied research in an area of Maine public policy.

Morin said her research project was particularly close to her heart because of her internship with the Caribou School Department.

“I heard female students saying every day how the media impacts them,” she said. “You have 12-year-old girls thinking they are fat, thinking that they would have more friends or a boyfriend if they were prettier or taller or had better hair. It is heartbreaking. It just brings tears to your eyes.

“I wanted to choose a project that I was passionate about on a personal level but also one which was going to challenge me on a professional level,” she said.

Morin said there was a vast amount of research out there to assist her, and a lot of what she learned was familiar to her. According to the Media Awareness Network, a nonprofit organization that strives to equip adults to help young people understand how the media works and may affect their lifestyle choices, media images of female beauty are unattainable for all but a very small number of women.

As part of a study, researchers generated a computer model of a woman with Barbie-doll proportions. They found that her back would be too weak to support the weight of her upper body and that her body would be too narrow to contain more than a few vital organs. Mattel, the company that manufactures the Barbie doll, estimates that 99 percent of girls ages 3 to 10 own at least one Barbie doll.

Researchers also have found that women’s magazines have 10½ times more ads and articles promoting weight loss than men’s magazines, and more than three-quarters of the covers of women’s magazines include at least one message about how to change a woman’s bodily appearance by diet, exercise or cosmetic surgery.

“What I found is that the more media a child consumes, the higher the rate of eating disorders and body image problems,” Morin said. “There was a plethora of information out there pointing to how the media impacts male and female adolescents, but the missing piece was the programming in Maine schools to educate students about this. I recognized that and feel we need to do something about it.”

Morin will produce a final report in the form of a memo to the governor or appropriate policymaker that outlines the issue and the data available and includes her recommended policy solutions. In the late spring, she will present the report in the form of a briefing to a panel of policymakers.

She said Wednesday that she would recommend a media literacy component be added to the health curriculum for students in grades six through eight in Maine schools. No such curriculum now exists, except one offered by Hardy Girls Healthy Women, a Waterville-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the health and well-being of girls and women.

“I think that this is something that could be easily added to the health curriculum in Maine schools,” she said. “Health classes exist to educate students about healthy eating and exercising and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I think that we should add to it.”

Morin said she was “very surprised” to learn how big a problem the media are in negatively influencing adolescent body image.

“I didn’t realize how big a problem it was until I got deeply into the research,” she said.

Morin said she would like to advocate for policy change on a deeper level if possible and said that she could see herself going further with the research once she establishes herself in a career.

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