Cyndi Frisby is a mother and an instructor at a dance studio, but she’s also an MU professor, an author and a researcher on sex and race in the media.
In 2010, Frisby got a first-hand look at how the media operates when she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to participate in an episode focused on “makeunders.”
Several of Frisby’s former students had became producers at the show, and were helping look for subjects for the piece. Winfrey wanted to find an African-American woman who didn’t fit stereotypes. Frisby’s former students remembered her elaborate fingernails and fashion sense and suggested her.
The show portrays her as a woman who wears outrageous outfits to teach classes and is not respected at work, but Frisby said that does not reflect reality.
Her look, though, wasn’t enough for the show.
“They came here, and they didn’t find a whole lot of evidence,” she said. “Nails don’t sell viewers.”
So to interest their audience, the show did some creative editing. One outfit presented as something Frisby wore to work as being a nightgown.
When it came time for the makeunder, Oprah’s team cut Frisby’s nails, her hair and gave her a new, more “professional” outfit.
“I probably kept it for maybe a month,” Frisby said of her new look.
The hairstyle was too difficult to maintain without a team of hairstylists and she missed her nails, which are currently long and painted with Valentine’s Day-themed designs.
“I think the biggest lesson was what they do behind the scenes,” she said. “It was artificial.”
Frisby studies images of women in the media, and for the most part, the picture is bleak. She has done research on impossible standards of beauty and physical attractiveness, how media consumption affects teenagers’ ideas about sexual and relationship violence, and the gap between news stories that focus on male athletes as champions and those that portray female athletes as sexual objects.
For black women like Frisby, the media landscape is even worse.
“We don’t see very many idealized images of minority women,” Frisby said.
For young girls and women, the consequences can include low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression and what researchers call “self-objectification,” or dressing and acting artificially sexual to gain self-worth.
“My personal passion is to see what we can do in advertising and (public relations) to change those problems,” Frisby said.
The culture of strategic communication professionals, though, isn’t often interested.
“Advertisers are ultimately interested in selling a product,” Frisby said. “Advertisers want to take the safe route.”
Taking risks, she said, doesn’t always pay off. After Dove began its Campaign for Real Beauty to showcase women with a range of body types, Frisby and a colleague conducted research on women’s reactions. Some were hostile to the ads, saying that if they wanted to see cellulite, they’d just look in a mirror.
That is why Frisby does not see advertising as the only important cause of self-esteem issues or the only way to fix them.
“A lot of it is going to come from other media messaging,” Frisby said. “With my kids, a lot of it is (with their) peers.”
Frisby has been an unconventional source of self-esteem. In her Cross-Cultural Journalism class, she focuses a lecture on beauty standards. She’s heard numerous horror stories from her female students, many of whom have told her their parents pressured them to stay thin or even get plastic surgery.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience, having that discussion. They have more confidence now than they ever did growing up,” she said of some students, whom she encourages to remember that there’s more to beauty than what what is seen on the outside.
Frisby also teaches dance at Dancearts of Columbia, a studio for all ages. When she was a young woman, an instructor told her that she didn’t have the body to become a professional dancer. As an instructor, she tries to emphasize the opposite.
“To me, that doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s that they get the steps right.”
For her students, some as young as 3, Frisby thinks dancing has helped them “cultivate confidence.” Another instructor, Ken Braso, helps boost the self-esteem of older women by teaching them ballet for the first time.
Positive media messaging can help, though. A recent ad she said she appreciated was a Cheerios commercial that stirred a controversy by featuring an interracial couple and child. Frisby said the commercial opened up a revealing conversation about race.
“There should be more ads like that,” she said.
She said even the negative reactions were important to hear because they demonstrated that “we have a long way to go.”