Barbie dolls, GI Joe dolls and Victoria Secret’s lingerie angels are just a few icons that have shaped the way young women and men should be portrayed. Society depicts beauty as skinny waistlines, big muscles, tan skin, full lips, large breasts and six-pack abs; dismissing the fact that true beauty originates from the inside.

The media spends billions of dollars advertising beauty campaigns such as “easy breezy beautiful Covergirl,” “maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline” and “kiss your thin lips goodbye” to promote the sale of makeup and skin care products to young girls. These household products are widely known among teenage girls in America. Television commercials, female movie actors and fashion magazines teach young adolescents how to dress and portray themselves in society. Beauty is a multi-million dollar industry.

The beauty barrage

The media is a dominant means for transmitting and reinforcing cultural beliefs and values and, while it might not be exclusively responsible for determining the standards for physical attractiveness, it makes escaping frequent exposure to these images and attitudes almost impossible. Advertising, in particular, creates a seductive and toxic mix of messages for men and women.

“Children and teens are exposed to over 25,000 ads in a year, and companies spend over $17 billion a year on marketing toward children and teens,” according to the Center for a New American Dream. The majority of bullying in school is related to physical image. Teasing about being overweight or not pretty enough has lasting and detrimental effects on individuals.

This is not just happening among teenagers in America; many girls throughout the world, including Thailand and India, are going to extreme lengths to lighten their skin with bleaching products because society tells them that dark skin is not beautiful. The open markets in these countries are flooded with all sorts of skin bleaching products to look lighter and resemble a “Western woman.” With the goal of becoming beautiful, young women are altering their bodies through plastic surgery. Tummy tucks, Botox injections, breast augmentation and rhinoplasty are all popular procedures to improve one’s appearance.

The impact on self-image

Adolescents with negative body images are more likely to be depressed, anxious and suicidal than those without intense dissatisfaction over their appearance, even when compared to adolescents with other psychiatric illnesses, according to a 2006 study by researchers at Bradley Hospital, Butler Hospital and Brown Medical School. Impaired body image appears prevalent among adolescents with psychiatric illnesses, according to the study’s author Jennifer Kittler, Ph.D. with Bradley Hospital and Brown Medical School. Even in the absence of an eating disorder, the study finds that body image concerns can be impairing, preoccupying and distressing for teens, taking up a great deal of mental energy and detracting from their quality of life.

Depression and anxiety among teenagers are serious disorders and can lead to a lifetime of psychological illnesses and even to suicide. In fact, more than 10 percent of children will be diagnosed with depression before the age of 18. Depression is actually underdiagnosed in children and teenagers because parents often believe that their son or daughter is just moody and that this moodiness is transient.

Depressed teenagers are more likely to become involved in alcohol and drug use, which can lead to criminal behavior. Children and teenagers often exhibit depressive symptoms differently than adults do. For example, a child or teenager who is depressed might refuse to go to school, isolate himself or herself, exhibit aggressive behavior, sleep more than usual or become involved with alcohol or drugs.

How role models can help

Parents, teachers and adult role models need to take an active role in educating young children and teenagers about self-confidence and the qualities of true beauty: kindness, compassion, patience and sharing. Telling children every day that they are beautiful can help them gain self-confidence. Discussing the role of makeup, hair color and skin treatments with children and prohibiting them from using these products at a young age can help prevent self-image issues in the future.

Unfortunately we cannot escape commercials, beauty magazines and the makeup counters at department stores, but we can teach true inner beauty in hope to prevent psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety, in our future generations.