Can I tell you something embarrassing? Like, really embarrassing.
I watch a lot of reality television.
Phew. There, I said it. It feels good to get that off my chest.
And, mind you, I don’t watch good reality television, if there even is such a thing. I watch the worst reality television I can lay my eyes on.
When I was in college, my roommates and I would build our weekly schedules around Flavor of Love and Charm School. Now, my husband and I plop ourselves in front of the couch each Wednesday (or, at least we did until last week’s finale episode) to agonize over the goings-on in America’s Next Top Model. Pleh.
The results of me and my roommates consuming the former were mind-numbing at best, character-damaging at worst. If I was lucky, I’d turn off the TV after watching those shows and feel moderately entertained and then I’d walk my happy self to my bedroom to finish studying or doing homework or any other productive activity. On the flip side, if I wasn’t so fortunate, I’d find myself audibly judging the people on TV as if I knew them in real life and really hated them.
I can’t speak for Dan, but the result of me watching ANTM is equally as disappointing — either I turn off the TV and silently vow to never eat again until I can score a modeling career before I turn 27 because “Dominique did it and has two kids and STILL looks better than me! I’m such a failure!” or I yell at the screen about how “stupid/annoying/ugly/lame/obnoxious” the girls are and, sometimes, even about how much I actually loathe them. (Sorry, Alexandria. You got the brunt of my hate. Oh, and Lisa? Girlfriend, no one wanted you to win. Sorry. Everyone wanted Allison to win. It’s alright, boo. Keep those obnoxiously reflective hater blockers on and tell us all to shove it.)
I didn’t see the problem before, but now, it’s painfully obvious and makes me cringe.
Because Dan and I will be parents one day, I’ve started really thinking about the types of media we consume. Not only reality television, but all the TV we choose to watch. And the movies. And the music we listen to. The video games we play. The magazines we read. Everything. Could it possibly be harmful to us? Or, an even more disturbing thought, could us consuming this stuff be harmful to our children? (Of course not in a “drinking a bottle of wine each night when you’re pregnant” way, but in a “Sorry sweetie, Mommy can’t tuck you in tonight because the finale for ANTM is on and I’m pretty sure there are going to be girls crying and fighting and cussing at the producers and you know I love seeing pretty and skinny girls in anguish, yippee!” way.)
But wait! Some good news! A close friend of mine sent me this article from the Discovery Channel which states that, according to a recent study, reality TV isn’t as harmful to people, particularly to young girls, as I had previously thought. Here are some interesting nuggets from the article:
Seventy-five percent of surveyed girls said the programs have inspired conversations with their parents and friends. Some girls even said they take inspiration from the shows, with 68 percent agreeing with the statement that the shows “make me think I can achieve anything in life,” while 62 percent said the shows have “raised their awareness of social issues and causes.”
Besides the suprising findings on the positive influence of reality TV, the survey found image may not be as critical in teen girls’ minds as expected.
The majority of girls in both groups reported that they did not think a girl’s value is based on how she looks. Sixty-two percent of reality TV viewers (and 72 percent of nonviewers) responded “No” to a question asking, “Do you think a girl’s value is based on how she looks?”
Thus only 28 percent of nonviewers (which represents most teens) say a girl’s value is based on how she looks, and (perhaps even more surprisingly given appearance-oriented reality TV shows) only 38 percent of reality TV viewers endorse that “beauty myth” idea. That most girls reject the idea that their value is based on their appearance is encouraging news.
Now, as excited as that news makes me, I don’t know that I’m completely sold. In my own personal life, I feel as though reality TV has damaged my character somewhat, even despite my acknowledgment of its poor value. I’m curious to know what the girls would have said if the question on the survey was, “Do you think SOCIETY values girls because of their looks?” It’s true that the fact that these girls don’t think their value lies within their appearances is undoubtedly encouraging. But I thought that at one point too and, at the same time I also thought, “But, even still, society will never find me beautiful and so it doesn’t really matter what I think.”
Despite the findings of this survey, young girls (and boys!) are being diagnosed with eating disorders younger and younger each year (see this story on CNN) while the consumption of all media (not just reality television, though that is certainly included) is steadily on the rise. So, while the article makes some hopeful points, I have to consider the source. Not only does Discovery Channel have its very own set of reality programming, it is also owned by Discovery Communications. DC also owns several other networks, most notably TLC, which showcases such gems as Say Yes to the Dress and, my personal favorite, Say Yes to the Dress: Big Bliss.
I’m not saying I think the study is totally bogus. I have a lot of faith in people and trust pretty much everything I read, hear, or see. (It’s what got me into this mess in the first place, I reckon.) But I do believe it offers up some good points about how to put these programs into perspective and have real, honest conversations about them with people, especially young children. And that is supremely valuable.
How do you feel about reality television and girls’ self images?