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By Yrsa Daley-Ward


Wednesday, February 4, 2009.


We never stop asking questions about ourselves. We wonder if we make enough money, if we're independent, successful or attractive enough and the state of our lives in terms of work, social, family and love are always open to our own relentless and unforgiving scrutiny. We do it to ourselves often, perhaps to an extent that we don't even realise. But how can we possibly begin to answer these questions?


For the individual and society as a whole it is very easy to take for granted just how much our self-identity has been constructed from the inexplicably powerful influences of mass media. How else are we able to measure success, beauty and power?


Self-perception of the individual is directly related to society's self-perception. Our behaviours and the attitudes that cause them can often be based on what is deemed acceptable. We begin to see aspects of ourselves through filters - standards and rules based on general public opinion. Unfortunately, these are often heavily flawed and misconceptions lead to the harbouring of unhealthy ideals.


Each day, the average person is exposed to hundreds and hundreds of advertisements, audio, visual or printed. That's hundreds and hundreds of product placements of all types, promoting unhealthy body shapes and sexually charged images in adverts for fashion, cosmetics, food and drink. We are sold over-sexualised themes in music videos and advertising and women are influenced from a very early age to objectify their bodies.


Some of the messages coming through even seem to imply that sexual empowerment equals personal empowerment and that by being considered sexually attractive a woman suddenly becomes more successful and powerful. In today's world this is no longer primarily an issue with women; the same messages are also being communicated to men.


Fashion and lifestyle magazines are culprits too. The clue is in the name... these magazines are cleverly aimed to sell someone a lifestyle. We are told how we should dress and how and where to eat, drink and socialise. We read columns about how much people drink, smoke, take drugs and have affairs and suddenly it doesn't seem so much of an issue, because everyone is doing it.


In the same way, television and film have a lot to answer for. They reflect what is happening in society, and vice versa. It works both ways. A couple of decades ago mainstream media didn't feature teenagers having sex and dealing with class A drugs. Nowadays cult series aimed at young adults are rife with these references. In newspapers and magazines we are exposed to so many photographs of famous people under the influence of drugs, alcohol or both, that we become desensitised.


In today's celebrity-obsessed culture, unrealistic desires in terms of money, fame and perceived physical perfection are common. We see women who are successful music and television personalities having children and balancing demanding careers, seemingly without so much as breaking a sweat. Of course, this is unrealistic. It's not as if we really believe that they potty train and feed young children, stay up all night changing nappies and then appear on the television set looking flawless.


Do we?


You can walk into a salon and ask for a hairstyle like Angeline Jolie's. But while using celebrities as bench marks, what are we buying in to? And why are we straining to achieve impossible ideals? Women may put themselves under pressure, deciding that they have to become a working 'super mum' to be an upstanding and respectable member of society. Plainly and simply, the very idea is deceptive.


With this is mind it would be tempting to view the media as an evil machine, force-feeding us impossible ideals and making drugs users seem like fashionable and sexy risk takers who live on the edge, but then we cant forget the many positive aspects of media too. Media messages, though plentiful, are mixed. It will always remain up to the individual to draw what they will from the compelling influences transmitted to and around them. After all, have they really robbed us of our own free will and thoughts? Surely they cannot be blamed for every self-esteem problem, or unsound perception of self.


As our media changes, so does society. The same rules that we build for ourselves are always being broken. We have breakthroughs. The world is ever-changing and new and wonderful things are discovered all the time. We no longer feel as though we always need to subscribe to what has been expected of us.


Thanks to popular psychology and self-help we now more readily challenge the way in which we think and act. New ways in which we can build on our self efficacy and confidence are suggested to us day by day if we look in the right places. On the whole, it feels more possible to make changes to our lives. Behavioural counseling and therapies are more widely discussed and then of course more widely applied as a result. There is not so much of a stigma applied to mental health issues. Well known TV and music personalities speak openly about issues such as depression, addictions and compulsions.0


In this way, our own sense of self-identity is something that is always being challenged and worked upon, because we know that it can be changed. Talk shows and radio phone-ins encourage people to speak more openly about issues that would previously have been seen as taboo and appear to give us an idea of light at the end of the tunnel.


Vast amounts of information are there for the taking. A wealth of knowledge that we just would never have had access to, previously. It all lies at our fingertips, and it's empowering. Media can be manipulated and we can unite and connect more freely with each other. We can be up to date on current issues in the push of a button and work towards arming ourselves with facts and new ideas and advocating change. This is sure to change our self-efficacy for the better.


As a society, perhaps we feel more in control, clued up about what is going on. We could always choose to overdose on information, as opposed to anything else. Tune in or tune out. Who's choice is it? Yours. If it all gets too much, fold away the newspaper and turn off the television and the radio. Close the book. Shut down the computer. Shut it all out. See if you can.


With thanks to the award-winning Rice’n’Peas Magazine, where this piece first appeared.


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