The Media's Mixed Messages About Health

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson you'll be analyzing the media's mixed messages when it comes to health. We'll specifically get into messages around body image, sexuality, drug use, and violence. By the end of the lesson you'll have strategies to identify and analyze these types of advertisements.

What Are Media Messages?

Have you ever been reading a magazine and come across an add for perfume? Most likely it contained a thin, white woman with large breasts and a tiny waist. Yet, on the next page an article about body positivity takes the stage. Billboards advertise fitness centers, and buses are shrink wrapped with the next latest crazy in alcohol. Everyday we are bombarded with media messages about how to look, how to act, and what to purchase to make us happy. Although we like to think we are enlightened, as the educated students we are, no one is exempt from the constant harassment of the media. Today, we'll be looking at some of the mixed messages the media sends around emotionally charged topics, like body image, sexuality, drugs and alcohol and violence.

Body Image

Jamie comments to a friend about a colleague: 'Well, she got fat this summer.'

In another room, Karen comments on how skinny Linera got. 'Is she anorexic now?'

Two women complain at the gym: 'I hate my thighs.'

It seems no woman can win. There's always a shape that's too thin, or too thick, or too muscular. A positive body image, or the way we relate to our bodies, is a very hard thing to hold on to.

Mixed messages in the media lead to impossible body standards
body image

From the moment women enter the world, the media sends messages that no matter what their body size, it's not the right one. Look in any fashion magazine and you can see an article about body positivity written by a 'plus-size' woman right next to an advertisement for the latest fitness fad. How is a girl supposed to know what to do? To start, focus on loving what your body can do. Don't buy into ads that say you need to look or feel a certain way. Does your doctor tell you you're healthy? Can you enjoy the activities you like to do? You're the boss of your body, not messages from the media. Focus on your achievements and other important aspects of your life. You are more than your outward appearance.


Dual standards for sexuality, especially for women, also run rampant in the media. Today, some rape cases are making national news. This has resulted in an explosion in social media around victim blaming, or the process of criticizing the victim and making the crime their fault. For example, the victim shouldn't have been wearing a particular outfit, or shouldn't have been drinking.

Yet, in the media everyday we see half naked women posing with various products. Women are deemed too sexually active if they engage with multiple partners, yet men are encouraged to do this in television, film, and advertisements. Women are supposed to be sexy, yet not too sexy.

Clothing advertisements overly sexualize women
fashion ad

For all the sexual images portrayed in the media, very few send positive messages about sexual health. Doctors, nurses, and medical facilities giving factual information in the media are rare. Although you are in charge of your own sexuality, it's important to stay healthy and gather facts from medical professionals.

Drugs and Alcohol

Beer, alcohol, and wine companies all sell a fun, enjoyable life. Many show pictures of attractive men and women having a great time. However, medical practitioners warn against including too much alcohol in your life, and many recommend abstaining all together, especially if you have preexisting medical conditions. Like sexual messages, the media criticizes alcohol use when it goes too far, yet advertising sells alcohol throughout many media outlets.

Drug use is no different. Television glorifies drug use in dramas, where certain individuals make lots of money with little consequences selling drugs, or people party on without consequence.

Drug and alcohol use is glorified in the media
drug use

Yet, although these media outlets make light of drug use, drug charges are harshly prosecuted in the United States, with some states sentencing people to years in jail for small amounts of possession.

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