Student Ownership and Application of Body Image Knowledge
By Renee D. Howarton
Although many educators struggle with whether or not their students are learning desired course content or just acquiring a superficial level of understanding, this questioning takes on added significance if the subject matter has long-term life applications. In professional core courses as well as ones that impact the health and holistic development of individuals, educators often feel a desire to make sure students are learning at a level that is reflected in altered ways of thinking and behavior.
While many courses at any university would aptly describe these intentions, I have taught one such course for several years. It is a social psychological clothing course that covers a wide range of topics with special emphasis on the study of media's influence on the development of healthy and distorted body image.
Media Influence on Body Image
Americans' obsession with idealized beauty, disordered eating and extreme sexual objectification of females and males has been and continues to be discussed in a plethora of articles and books (Cortese, 2000; Gustafson, Popovich & Thomsen, 2001; Levine, 2000). Even though information primarily focuses on distorted body image issues and the critical need to change our attitudes and behaviors, there appear to be few signs of this happening. With the pervasive nature of current media, individuals experience hundreds if not thousands of advertising messages each day and many scholars believe that this media deluge directly impacts how they think about and react to body image issues (Posavac, 1998; Rabak-Wagener et al., 1998). If this is true, then desiring that students thoughtfully reflect on how media is impacting their personal body image development possesses benefit beyond the limits of a one-semester course and possibly has meaningful long-term applications.
No where is media's impact more evident than in a classroom setting; simply look at student attire, adornment and behavior and you will witness the latest media trends on display. While everyone's concept of body image is influenced by many complex factors, some students appear to be particularly impacted by media. Retail and apparel design/manufacturing students fall into this category.
Initially, as the instructor of this course, I assumed that my students would eagerly discuss body image topics and their connection to the fashion industry and larger society. Much to my surprise, my topic, visuals and video selections met with mixed responses. After reflecting on student reactions, I concluded that some reluctance could be due to the personalized nature of the subject matter, their specific career choices as well as the desensitizing aspects of media.
Students' prior knowledge of body image issues appeared to be a contributing factor to the way they reacted to the subject matter. Since the development of each person's body image is an unconscious, on-going experience for the most part, many people do not seriously question the process or factors influencing its development. For many, it is not until they find themselves in a situation necessitating that they question body image issues that they begin to contemplate this topic. As a result, some students questioned why I was spending time discussing a "non-issue." They felt that they already possessed an adequate knowledge of body image topics and that only minimal course discussion was necessary.
Relative to career choices, since many of my students have desired to be in the fashion industry for years, asking them to critically think about media's portrayal of females and males was often perceived as threatening to their long-held personal ideology and future careers. For many of them the industry was still glamorous and unscathed. To question whether or not media should be held accountable for their portrayals was perceived by some as paramount to challenging fundamental freedoms of expression and democracy. In addition, many were convinced that American business has the right to use provocative imagery in producing competitive marketing strategies, emphatically acknowledging that "sex sells". The fact that my students graduate with coursework in apparel, retail and business, explains, at least in part, their acceptance of the "profit is the bottom line" mentality even when applied to media imagery. The affluence of American culture and cultural importance placed on materialism also influences their thought processes.
My students also displayed a natural and understandable naivety to the possible impact that visual imagery can have on emotional and psychological development. They frequently suggested that while children should not be exposed to violent or hyper-sexualized imagery, they claimed to be unaffected by what they observed. They appeared to be somewhat desensitized to media and its potential impact, even though most of them were wearing name-brand apparel.
In a society in which advertising specialists are trained to use specific techniques such as camera angles, color, copy, posing and facial expressions to appeal to consumers on varied mental and emotional levels in an effort to solicit desired purchasing behaviors and since few Americans receive media literacy training during their formal education process, it is understandable that my students would become desensitized over time. Few even question what they are seeing. Our nation has now produced several generations of citizens/consumers who have grown up seeing sexualized, degrading and violent images. Asking students to critically assess media imagery is somewhat akin to the old adage that questions a fish's awareness of the watery environment it lives in.
As a professor who is appreciative of my students' intelligence and creativity, I became intrigued by the duality of thinking they displayed relative to my body image lectures and group discussions. On the one hand, they verbalized a genuine concern for females who were being sexually objectified and shown as being dangerously thin while simultaneously expressing acceptance of the media's use of this imagery.
New Ways to Teach Body image Topics
After many years of passionately teaching these concepts only to observe minimal engagement by my students, I felt that it was time to convey these topics in a new way, but asking the proverbial "how" produced more questions than answers. Then I came across a very creative solution. Approximately three years ago, a colleague demonstrated a visual-oriented music CD that her students had produced for a women's studies course. Both the project format and the content deeply resonated with me and I knew that this was a method that would produce increased student engagement. However, if I was going to significantly change course attitudes and project requirements, I wanted to verify that actual student learning was occurring. This led to my enrollment in a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning project and the eventual design and development of a research study that explored how students' knowledge of body image issues could be assessed, enhanced and whether or not they could be influenced to take ownership of information and apply it to their personal lives.
During the 2005 spring semester, a variety of teaching and evaluation methods were used to encourage deeper learning in my students. While previously used methods including videos produced by leading body image experts, teacher-driven PowerPoint lectures, the reading of magazine articles, group discussion and a written reflection paper were incorporated into the learning experience, a hands-on student assignment involving the creation and demonstration of music CDs and pre-and-post questionnaires were utilized as well. Preparation of the CD required student groups to select a body image issue and to create a dynamic sensory experience that combined PowerPoint presentation techniques with supportive visuals and music. It may be compared to producing a MTV music video but instead of video photography, the CDs used still images, text and music that were embedded into a PowerPoint format. Selection of the PowerPoint format offered students a rich set of capabilities including the use of sophisticated animation techniques. A final project requirement was that the music CD be self-running once inserted into a laptop. Instructions for how to produce the music CD were written and approved by the university media specialist. This was helpful in reducing student frustration and making the project doable for a range of technological skill levels.
Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Research Study
The following research questions were developed and used to guide the creation of pre-and-post questionnaires. The pre-survey was administered prior to any body image content being shared and the post-questionnaires were distributed upon completion of the course lectures and media presentations. Both the pre-and-post questionnaires were anonymous in an effort to elicit honest, reflective responses.
1. What prior knowledge of body image issues do students enrolled in social psychological clothing course possess that will influence their receptiveness to the existing course content?
2. Which teaching methods will students identify as being most effective in expanding their current understanding of body image issues?
3. Which specific subject matter will most meaningfully impact students and result in the synthesizing, personalizing, and applying of course content to their own lives?
Key Findings and Evidence of Student Learning
Research Question #1
A questionnaire was distributed to students enrolled in the course during spring 2005 and thirty-three students responded to it. Survey questions examined how students rated their personal level of body image knowledge; how they felt about their own body image; and which resources had been most helpful in providing them with meaningful body image information. Resource options ranged from parents and peers to books, movies, magazines and/or educational videos. In another section, students were asked to indicate on a Likert scale whether this variety of informational sources impacted their lives in positive or negative ways. Additional information was sought regarding how concerned the students were about body image issues such as eating disorders, self-esteem, and/or media's objectification of females and males and what they had previously done to apply the body image knowledge they possess. Throughout the questionnaire, students were asked to mark multiple options that applied to them where appropriate. All research findings were a reflection of my students' perceptions and the self-reporting of their opinions and experiences.
Questionnaire results supported the fact that the development of an individual's body image is influenced by many factors including parents, peers, media and societal events. This increases the complexity of the topic, making it more challenging to teach. Second, most of the students (60%) felt that they were at least somewhat knowledgeable about body image topics and aware of their own body image issues. This finding reinforces the fact that students are not blank slates waiting to absorb knowledge. Instead, they bring assumptions and a knowledge base that creates a lens through which they interpret body image information presented in the course. This background knowledge can cause them to be open to learning more or close-minded to the course content. Third, students were able to effectively identify which sources had impacted the development of their personal body image and whether that influence had been positive or negative. The majority of students felt that peers/friends (93%) and books, magazines or educational videos (82%) had the most significant influence on their body image. However, when they were asked to rank the positive or negative impact of each individual source, parents (73%) and peers (70%) were identified as being the most positive or somewhat positive influencer. Finally the fourth finding suggested that many of them had already made a basic mental connection between the role of media and its influence on eating disorders or its significance in the fashion industry. Survey responses indicated that over half of the students (58%) felt that their body image had been somewhat negatively impacted by books, magazines or videos while 55% of them believed that popular movies had had a somewhat to very negative affect on them. Only 36% responded that books, magazines or videos had a very to somewhat positive influence on them. Popular movies were identified as a source of positive influence by even fewer students (30%). Understanding this helped the instructor in preparing and presenting information at a level that complimented and enhanced the students' base knowledge.
Research Question #2
Choosing from a list of different teaching methods that included videos, instructor-created Power Points presentations, group discussions and student-created body image music CDs, students identified which teaching methods were most effective in promoting personal learning relative to any subject matter, not just body image information. The largest number of students (78%) felt that watching videos was the best way for them to learn. The second most meaningful learning practices were group discussion (61%) and participation in hands-on projects (58%).
In the post-survey, the following question was asked: Which of the actual course experiences were most helpful and personally meaningful to students in expanding their knowledge of body image issues? Watching videos developed by leading body image experts (100%) and creating body image music CDs (85%) were ranked as the first and second most productive way to increase their knowledge. Relative to the creation of the body image music CDs, student comments expressed in a follow-up reflection paper indicated that requiring them to research body image topics and then combine that information with carefully selected music lyrics and powerfully descriptive visuals resulted in an eye-opening, cathartic experience for many of them. The mental, physical and emotional involvement required to create the CDs fostered a level of engagement that encouraged student questioning and analysis of body image issues. Even the tactile experience of producing the CDs provided a stimulating educational opportunity not commonly found in more traditional teaching strategies. Due to the very hands-on nature of the activity, several student reflection papers shared personal struggles with eating disorders, poor self-concept or other forms of distorted body image. There was overall agreement that production of the CDs increased greater understanding of body image topics and for many, even respect and sensitivity towards this issue. Three students shared the following comments.
I thought that the music CD was a great opportunity to learn about the trivialization of women in media and use my creativity to express my feelings on it. I never really thought much about the topic so researching it both in facts and visuals really helped me comprehend the situation. The experience was enjoyable, I not only learned about the topic that I was working on but it was also a fun way to learn about other people topics as well.
Making the CD was extremely moving for me. I always knew weight issues were big in the
I thought the idea of making a music CD was a very good one. . . I never realized how much of a problem advertising was until I did this project. Making this CD really made me open my eyes not only to violence against women but also to how horribly advertisers degrade and dehumanize women. I learned a lot making my project and watching other people's projects.
Research Question #3
In the post-survey, students were asked to rate their level of body image knowledge after having completed required course activities. They were asked which body image topics were most meaningful and effective in expanding their previous level of knowledge and what, if anything, would they do to apply the body image knowledge that they possessed after completing the course.
Students (91%) reported that their knowledge of body image issues did expand after participating in the various teaching methods used in the course. Four issues in particular appeared to garner their interest the most: ideal standards of beauty in the US (85%), media's presentation of weight and eating disorders (70%), sexual objectification of females (70%), and media's role in perpetuating crime and violence in American society (64%). Second, they did internalize the information being taught, synthesized it and actually planned to apply it to their personal lives as well as their children's lives. Ninety-seven percent of the students indicated that they would apply what they had learned to the raising of their future children while 91% planned to use the knowledge to improve their own personal lives. In addition, 67% answered that they desired to talk with family members or friends about body image issues.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
The results of the pre-and-post questionnaires coupled with the reflection paper suggested a lessening of some of the original misperceptions and resistance demonstrated by my students. For example, they appeared more comfortable in critically analyzing and discussing body image issues within the classroom setting and were quick to acknowledge the complexity and depth of the subject. Most importantly, students indicated a sincere desire to apply the information learned to their personal lives as well as share it with friends and family members. They frequently acknowledged that they would never "look at advertisements in the same way again."
While perhaps understandable, one area that remained a challenge was that my students still viewed media and specifically the apparel industry's use of thin models and sexually objectified imagery as a codification of "business as usual." My design students especially appeared to be torn between the dualistic thinking that I originally noted. On the one hand, they were frustrated by the imagery and dehumanization of the models but on the other they were quick to acknowledge that their garments looked best on thin bodies.
In conclusion, findings answered each of the three research questions. The SoTL research project was very valuable in expanding my understanding of where my students were coming from relative to their attitudes towards body image topics and course activities. However, the experience was personally humbling because it made me realize that much of my previous teaching efforts probably produced interesting course information and experiences but limited in-depth learning. Having designed a more sensory experience that required my students to actively produce music CDs, engaged them in a thought process not previously achieved in traditional teaching methods.
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Levine, M. (2000). Mass media and body image: A brief review of the research[Electronic Version]. Healthy Weight Journal, 14, 84-86.
Posavac, H., Posavac, S. & Posavac, E. (1998). Exposure to media images of female attractiveness and concern with body weight among young women [Electronic Version]. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research.
Rabak-Wagener, J., Eickhoff-Shemek, J. & Kelly-Vance, L. (1998). The effect of
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Renee D. Howarton, Ph.D. is Associate Professor at UW Stout.