Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gender Issues, part 4 - Picture Perfect

I've been using Common Sense Media's Gender and Digital Life Toolkit with my 3rd graders this year. We spent a couple of weeks studying a unit called "Selling Stereotypes," where we looked at advertising specifically marketed to either girls or boys. You can read the full story here, but the gist of it was that the kids spotted the stereotypes fairly easily. The interesting part came in trying to figure out how we feel about it and why it happens in the first place. The Lego lesson resources were brilliant in this regard because it was so easy to spot the stereotypes in them.  But where else are our children "sold" an image of something that requires a critical eye?

Real or fake?
The second lesson in the unit, called "Picture Perfect," asks the essential question, How can photos be changed on the computer, and how can that affect our feelings about the way we look? The second half of that question is much deeper and more abstract, so before we got into that part, we started by simply looking at an image.

Take a look at the lemon on the right.  While it was projected on the screen, I asked the kids, "Is it real or fake? How can you tell?" This discussion actually took a little longer than I thought it would. Though it probably looks like a complete fake to most of us, not everyone was convinced. I showed it to the kids two ways, first without the caption underneath and then I revealed the caption to see if that changed anyone's mind. The words definitely made a difference in whether or not we felt like we were being manipulated, and the conclusion many drew was that we should try it ourselves to test whether or not it is even possible. Hilarious results below...

What I loved about this exercise was that we started with an image that was altered for artistic purposes--not a person, just a pretty lemon. It's a beautiful picture, isn't it? The initial response from kids was, "That's cool!" Photos can be altered to create things that could otherwise exist only in our imagination.

Once the caption was revealed, however, the skepticism creeped in. Is that really possible with food coloring? We became motivated to test it ourselves. My Results = Yikes! I withstood a few accusations of "I really think you could have been more careful, Ms. Gerla," but after this, we felt pretty comfortable with our conclusion that the Colorful Lemon Visual was fake. It's still a cool picture all by itself, but reading the caption made us feel manipulated.

Now it was time to turn to advertising and the photo manipulation that occurs all the time. Altered images are commonplace, in fact the norm, in visual advertising, and this can range from simple touch ups to extensive alteration. So, if we spend all of our time looking at people who don't actually exist in real life, how does that make us feel about the way we look? Or how we should look? The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has been going on for several years now, and you may have recently seen the viral video where they had a forensic artist draw portraits of women from their own descriptions of themselves and then from someone else's description of them. I suppose this represents the end result of distorted views on beauty...women highlight all their flaws and don't see themselves as beautiful. But I'm dealing with 8 and 9 year olds here, who hopefully don't care too much about that yet. So we watched the original "Evolution" video (which we also share with our 8th graders every year when they're about to start their Photoshop unit in Art class).

Interestingly, before I showed them the video, I was walking around holding my papers for this unit and they spotted the photo below on the back, so I projected it:
They had NO IDEA that the girl in Photo 1 was the same person in Photo 2. Of course that is the point of the whole exercise, so we were definitely on the right track. Simply making them aware of the alterations is an important first step in being a critical consumer of media. How often are we being sold something that isn't real? What is the billboard at the end of the video even advertising? If I buy the beauty products being sold here, will I look like this model? Once her neck got digitally stretched out and her eyes reached inhuman proportions, most of the kids thought she looked pretty creepy. I agree. One student even noticed that once the digital alterations were done, her ears were in the completely wrong place (I had never noticed that in 5 years of viewing this video). So where do beauty ideals come from? Why is this done to someone who looked just fine in the first place? Does it happen to men, too? 

[I should note here that there is a corresponding video of a male model, but it's longer (about 4 minutes) and he appears shirtless, so I opted not to use it in the elementary classroom.]

real life
magazine cover
cover vs. real life
We then looked at images of magazine covers compared to images of the people featured in real-life. Singer Kelly Clarkson was featured, as well as tennis star Andy Roddick. In pairs, the kids compared these images and answered a few questions about the type of products they might expect to see advertised in these magazines, what kind of messages the magazine covers send about how men/boys and women/girls should look, and how they might feel about themselves after looking at these magazines. The first two questions were challenging, but doable. I'm not sure they were ready for that last question, however. Answers varied, and may have been written down AFTER a group discussion to share ideas and help clarify, but here are two samples.

One pair of boys struggled to answer "How might a boy or a man feel about himself after looking at this magazine?" It really is hard to conceptualize and imagine how others feel, so I changed the question a litte bit.  "How do you think Andy Roddick felt when he saw that picture of himself?"  I mean, here you have a world-class athlete in the best physical shape a person can be in, yet they had to bulk him up for the magazine cover. The boys responded at the same exact time, "I bet he didn't like it/I bet he felt awesome!" 

In fact, here's what Andy Roddick thought:
The tennis player Andy Roddick apparently thought that his biceps had been enlarged so conspicuously in the photograph of himself on the cover of Men’s Fitness that he mocked it on his blog, In an entry posted Tuesday, Mr. Roddick wrote that he was “pretty sure I’m not as fit as the Men’s Fitness cover suggests” and “little did I know I have 22-inch guns,” referring to his biceps. He also noted that a prominent birthmark on his right arm had been erased. (NYTimes)
 Meanwhile, for Kelly Clarkson, Self editors said they altered her image to make her "look her personal best." Well, one reader responded:
"Taking out red eye and airbrushing a pimple would be making her look her personal best. You completely changed the way her body looked. Why even bother asking Kelly Clarkson to pose in your magazine if you didn't think her body fit into your idea of what was best?" (People)
I don't know precisely what impact all the airbrushing and altering has on kids who see these things everywhere.  It has certainly influenced my own thoughts on "beauty" and what is "ideal" in our culture. The lesson itself is designed to point out the correlation between what we are shown constantly and the impact it can have on our self-image. While that concept might be beyond a 3rd grader's understanding, I at least want to help them learn to look at things with a more critical eye. And not just images! Our 4th graders are currently debating whether or not chocolate milk is good for you, as they tackle a writing unit on argument essays. They are seeing/hearing/reading so many conflicting opinions, distorted facts, and biased arguments made on both sides. Through articles, radio broadcasts, and videos, we are asking them to wade through several different resources. How do they know what's real? How do we get them to the point of considering the source of information and the motivation behind it? This idea of being critical is imperative to their processing and research. And it is a skill that will serve them well far beyond the walls of school.

For now, I'm excited to share the latest "altered image" controversy with my students in a few days. Disney is elevating Merida, from the movie "Brave," to official princess status. So she got a makeover. UGH. Why, Disney, WHY?? Was this really necessary? (petition to "Keep Our Hero Brave" already underway at

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