Changing Lives Through Media Literacy

headshot of Kim Bissell

A Discussion with Dean Kim Bissell

Please briefly describe your research. How did you decide to focus on this particular area? How is it important to you?

Sitting in a library with a group of 20 fourth grade girls, I asked them to respond to the following statements: “One thing I like about myself is ...” and “One thing I would change about myself is ...” These fourth grade girls wrote, “I am nice” or “I am smart,” and many mentioned wanting to change things like their ears or feet. 

The questions were repeated for a group of sixth grade girls. About half left “One thing I like about myself ...” blank. About 75% identified some aspect of their body shape or physical appearance they wanted to change: to be thinner, to be prettier, to change their waist size. 

I repeated this again with 20 eighth grade girls. Not a single student listed anything they liked about themselves. Not one. Nineteen of the 20 wanted to change something about themselves that reflected a desire to conform to idealized perceptions of beauty and thinness. This struck a very powerful chord with me, and I knew I’d have a lifetime of research to do. 

Very broadly, my research examines the social effects of media specific to health outcomes or health communication. I started doing research in the area of media and body image because I have two daughters, and I knew the crippling effect all types of media can have on young girls’ feelings of self-worth, self-esteem and body image. 

The conversation with the fourth - eighth grade girls only further reinforced what I already knew—girls’ sense of body image is overwhelmingly negative, and that translates into challenges interpersonally, academically and, certainly, personally. I thought if I could better understand the complex factors related to how the general sense of body image and self-perception are developed, I could help my daughters and, hopefully, other women and girls. 

This sent me down a path of studying the varying types of media (traditional and social) and different groups—young girls and boys, adolescent girls and boys, collegiate women, collegiate athletes, elite athletes and women in general. With each study, I learned more about how self-perception develops and what factors are more influential in shaping that self-perception. 

While negative body image is a societal problem, I knew it was critical to start at the individual level, also considering societal and cultural influences. However, when I was doing research in schools with younger children, I realized I was looking at a group of kids who were overweight, some even obese. I was trying to gauge when negative body image started, but it was challenging to watch these children view idealized images of other children and then ask them how it made them feel. I shifted my research more into the realm of health education and the role media can play in helping children become more media and health literate. 

This topic is important because the problem is not going away; it’s evolving as media platforms are evolving, but I believe that now, more than any other time, is when we must take a deeper look at the intersection of influential factors on an individual’s feelings of self-worth and body image. 

What impacts have you seen from your research? How have these impacts shaped your career?

Several years ago, I developed an iPad app, Track My Plate. The idea was to have this app on all iPads in schools through Alabama, so that kids could become more aware of the quantity and quality of the foods they ate. I knew that equipped with this knowledge, these students would develop agency, which might help them make better decisions about their diet. 

But there were other factors to consider. Self-awareness is a critical part of understanding how we can have control over our lives and our health, and children are a product of their environments—home, school and family. After gathering more data through qualitative interviews and focus groups, I developed a media and health literacy program that would allow them to feel empowered, not ashamed. I taught them about nutrition, how to read food labels, how to identify when food ads were trying to manipulate them, and how to exercise at home without equipment. 

When I returned to the schools where I was doing the longitudinal research, kids would run up to me, showing me the waist band of their pants or shorts: “Dr. Bissell! Look! I am eating healthy foods and exercising!” That was all I needed. I knew that my research was having a positive and meaningful effect on others. Mission accomplished. 

How does your research relate to LSU’s Scholarship First Agenda? How can mass communication, and the Manship School of Mass Communication in particular, impact and serve Louisiana? 

At the core of who we are is our health—good, bad or somewhere in the middle. What we can do in our work and home lives and the ways we can contribute to improving the lives of others is a direct byproduct of our own health. 

Overweight and obesity are more prevalent in Louisiana than other states. I hope that through my research and that of other health communication scholars at the Manship School, we can adapt health and media literacy programs that help others have agency of their own health and well-being. 

Through knowledge comes power, and it is in this way that my work and that of other Manship School faculty tie into LSU’s Scholarship First Agenda. There are many pathways to improving the health of Louisiana’s citizens, and I believe it starts with children, as they begin learning about health and well-being from younger ages. This information can change their lives moving forward. 

Every day, we are exposed to mediated messages about food and health, and this means it is critical to better understand not only the negative effects of this type of messaging but how media can be used in more positive ways to shape human lives. To that end, my research has come full circle from the early days of studying negative body images to doing more comprehensive studies to better discern how media can be used in powerful ways in a health communication context.