Persuasion is a means of social influence used to affect attitudes and beliefs. When persuasion permeates thinking, people adjust opinions, ideas, attitudes and then actions. This concept has been studied in depth for decades. Persuasion enables peace treaties, compels individuals to take part in everything from safe sex to wearing seatbelts and now, more than ever, it is planting images of the way in which people, women in particular, should look in order to receive maximum approval. Approval, after all, is the most basic criterion in molding how people think, and subsequently how they behave.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point,” mass media has become viral. In other words, the images and information that are constantly bombarding an audience become settled opinions, creating the norm. Generally, viral marketing has been linked to word-of-mouth and to the Internet. It successfully provides a means of expanding brand awareness, duplicating ideas and spreading ideals to a broader audience.

As you sit back in your La-Z-Boy and turn on the television, you are exposing yourself to advertisements, television shows and movies. With one flick of the remote, you are setting yourself up to be persuaded whether you realize it or not. Typically, people realize that advertisements are attempting to persuade consumers to purchase certain products. But television shows and movies aren’t generally regarded as forms of persuasion. After all, “it’s just a story.” But exposure to these programs has definite effects on values and ideals and, therefore, on one’s level of self-confidence and consciousness as a prospective purchaser.

Take “Transformers” for example. The trilogy gained some favorable reviews, and became the talk of the town. But has anyone taken the time to point out how women are being exploited? The first and second movies star Megan Fox who, in 2007 and 2009 when the first two movies were released, was voted “sexiest woman alive” by FHM and Maxim. Then, in the third film, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley was the star and she was ranked “sexiest woman alive” in 2011, although Shia Labeouf, the protagonist of the film, has never been among the top 10 “sexiest men.” Why is it necessary to have beautiful women, perfectly sculpted and airbrushed, and only average-looking men in a film about a comic? There’s only one answer: Sex sells, primarily if women are the ones who are sexually exposed.

Average-looking men watching this film find hope — whether they acknowledge it or not — that they too can score a hot babe. Kudos to those whose confidence levels and hormones are boosted throughout the film. Contrastingly, does anyone think about how women’s levels of self-confidence may fall as a result of observing impossibly sculpted, carefully coiffed, precisely made up and manicured idealizations?

Since the 1920s, it has become acceptable for women to reveal increasingly more skin. Perhaps women feel the need to expose themselves because they feel like that’s the only way to capture male attention and to steer men away from staring at the impossible perfection that Hollywood portrays.

This obsession with image inevitably leads to discontent. In 2011, 91 percent of college females attempted to diet and anorexia is now ranked as the third most-common chronic illness among female adolescents. The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15 to 24 four years old. Meanwhile, men compose only 10 to 15 percent of all anorexia nervosa cases.

Movies and television shows alone do a great deal of harm to the self-confidence of women, and when we consider the additional media of magazines and billboards, we begin to become conscious of a landscape rife with anxiety-generating, impossible embodiments. Not only do “grown up” women constantly think they need to be more skinny and pretty, school girls have also been infected by these ideas — and not only those in high school. Forty-two percent of first- to third-grade girls want to be thinner; sixty-nine percent of girls in fifth to 12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape; and 47 percent of girls in fifth to 12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures.

Some people may think that it is farfetched to state that women are exploited in mass media while men are not. In response to that idea, one must examine the film industry over the past decade to see how few are the movies that do not exploit women. This will be an extremely difficult task considering that even chick flicks now have female nudity. Is exposure necessary to make a film popular? I say such exposure is demeaning. If women generally feel they need to expose themselves in order to be rewarded with cheers of approval, then our society is especially troubling, for it appears that women have become primarily objects of erotic spectacle. Men are not, for they are the spectators and the audience for which films are made.

In an article by Robert Gass and John Seiter, which trumpets the benefits of persuasion, it is stated that very little of the good that we see in the world could be accomplished without persuasion. However, persuasion in the mass media has a powerful and compelling ability to alter the way in which people see themselves, which may be good for the short term goals of profitable capitalism, but potentially damaging to our bodies and minds. The solution ultimately will be for an enlightened citizenry to find direction within themselves rather than from the manipulation the media insistently offers.