Visual portrayals of women in the media tend to emphasize idealized standards of thinness and beauty that are beyond the reach of most women. The systematic analysis of the body type of fashion models (Silverstein et al. 1986) provide convincing evidence that women portrayed in glamorous roles in the popular media are thinner than the average woman. Moreover, these studies report that the normative standards of thinness have increased in the last few decades.
The increasing glamorization of thinness in the media is in stark contrast to epidemiological evidence, which points to an overweight and obesity epidemic in the population. Critics argue that the idealized thinness and digitally enhanced beauty portrayed in the media are beyond the reach of most women.
Idealized portrayals of women can be traced to the Renaissance artists and Venus sculptures by the Greeks. The interesting difference, however, is that these portrayals were not intended to serve as models of attractiveness for the average woman. Venus represented ethereal beauty, depicting godly standards, which women were not urged to imitate. In contrast, in popular culture, the fashion model is presented as someone to emulate, whose thinness and attractiveness can be achieved through discipline, diet, exercise, and the consumption of fashion and beauty products.
Evidence From Research
Exposure to the thin media ideal is not without consequence. Body image distortion (Botta 1999), body dissatisfaction, body esteem, mood and eating disorder symptoms (Harrison 2001) are correlated to exposure to media ideals. The case for the effect of media on body image is built upon research that includes media criticism, content analysis, surveys, and controlled laboratory experiments. The findings from these different research traditions point to a significant association between exposure to media and body dissatisfaction, particularly among women with certain vulnerabilities. Even though it is difficult to demonstrate a clear causal link, the associational evidence between media variables and body dissatisfaction is quite compelling.
Early research focused on the scientific analysis of media content. In these studies, researchers found that fashion models were becoming increasingly thinner and that the standards portrayed by these ideals were drastically different from the shape and size of the average woman. At the time these findings were being reported, a surge in diagnosed cases of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, were also reported in the media. The increase in portrayals of thinness and a concurrent increase in eating disorders in the population led to the examination of the link between media and body image.
With data from content analysis, media critics argued that unrealistic portrayals of thinness and attractiveness were in part responsible for body dissatisfaction among women, which in some extreme cases led to clinical outcomes, such as eating disorders. Further, some critics argued that the body dissatisfaction created by advertisers was not just incidental, but a strategic effort to create body dissatisfaction that could be exploited to market beauty and weight management products.
Even as these content-based arguments began to emerge, social scientists began to examine individual differences that explained body image effects. It appeared that despite the broad reach of the media, only some women were affected by body image distortions. Researchers began to examine what makes some women vulnerable (Stice et al. 1994). Two key variables emerged out of this research: social comparisons with media portrayals (Heinberg & Thompson 1992; Tiggeman & McGill 2004) and internalization of thinness norms (Thompson et al. 2004). Using in-depth interviews, focus groups, and surveys, it was found that women who compared themselves to bodies of fashion models had higher levels of body dissatisfaction and eating disorder symptoms. Later research suggested that social comparisons provided only a partial explanation of body dissatisfaction and it was the internalization of thinness norms that were more critical. Through a series of studies, researchers built the argument that although body dissatisfaction was widely prevalent in young women, those who internalized comparisons with media ideals were more at risk for clinical disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
The study of body image media effects also focused on media genres and their differential impacts. Among different media, the use of fashion magazines was found to be a significant predictor of body dissatisfaction (Thomsen et al. 2002). Given that fashion magazines are filled with how-to tips to improve body image, the strong tie between fashion magazine use and body dissatisfaction is not surprising. In the same vein, certain types of television programs that emphasize thinness have been found to be related to body dissatisfaction. However, these findings rest entirely on correlational evidence that does not explain whether these types of media create body dissatisfaction or whether women with high dissatisfaction are drawn to these types of media. In other words, although findings from survey research suggest a relationship between media use and body dissatisfaction, these findings do not establish media as a causal factor.
To address the causal effects of media use and body image dissatisfaction, researchers have used a variety of creative laboratory experiments with some common characteristics. In the typical body image experiment, participants are asked to provide a baseline assessment of body image. Then respondents are assigned randomly to a control condition or to one of the treatment conditions. In the control condition, participants are shown images of inanimate objects or normal-sized models, whereas in the treatment condition, participants are shown images of thin fashion models or celebrities. Usually the images of fashion models are placed within a magazine or television program to hide the intent of the study. After exposure, study participants are asked to repeat body image assessments using the same pre-test scale. The pre-and posttest difference in body image is compared between participants in the control condition and the thinness-emphasized condition.
A review of findings from such experiments suggests that even after controlling for the effects of baseline body image, dissatisfaction is greater among participants in the treatment condition than in the control condition (Groesz et al. 2002). Moreover, body image dissatisfaction from the experimental treatment is not distributed uniformly among participants. Participants with a higher drive for thinness and higher propensity to internalize are affected more by the experimental treatment. The findings from these controlled experiments, together with corroborating findings from content analysis and surveys, set the stage for a persuasive argument that the media indeed contribute to body dissatisfaction among women.
Other Factors That Affect Body Image
The media are only one of a constellation of variables that could explain body dissatisfaction. Researchers advocate a biopsychosocial model that takes into account biological, psychological, and social factors (Polivy & Herman 2002). Biological factors, such as body mass index or age of maturation, could play a role. Similarly, individual differences could explain the endorsement and internalization of the ultra-thin ideal, resulting in a strong drive for thinness.
Race, ethnicity, and nationality also shape perceptions of attractiveness and thinness. Within the United States, researchers have examined differences in body image satisfaction among Caucasians, African-Americans, and other ethnic groups (David et al. 2002). Findings suggest that Caucasians express a stronger drive for thinness than other ethnic groups, although other groups are not immune from the pressure to be thin.
The effect of media on body dissatisfaction is not limited to women in developed countries. These days, supermodels and multinational advertising campaigns have a global audience, including women in developing countries where hunger and poverty are still prevalent. Even in these countries, women from the more affluent segments of society report body dissatisfaction. To make matters worse, when images of western supermodels are exported to developing countries, they set unrealistic norms not only in shape, size, and attractiveness, but also in skin tone.
Although much of the body image research has focused on women, recent efforts show that men are also susceptible to these effects. Surveys and laboratory experiments demonstrate that the media can induce body dissatisfaction about muscularity or fitness, leading to dysphoria. Given the widespread reach of the media, it is not surprising that men, too, are subject to some of the same pressures as women, although women are subjected to more exacting standards of youth and attractiveness.
Furthermore, much of the research on body image media effects are based on convenience samples of college-age women primarily from the United States, Australia, and Europe. For a fuller understanding, it is necessary to examine media effects in diverse populations with women from different age groups and socio-economic backgrounds.
Some Strategies To Counteract Body Image Media Effects
To counteract the influences of body image media effects, a number of initiatives are being explored. Various groups are pursuing media advocacy to persuade advertisers to exercise more responsible advertising. As a result of these advocacy efforts, advertisers face increasing pressure to present fashion models with body types that are closer to that of the average woman. Another advocacy objective has been to discourage advertisers from using the super-thin, waif-like fashion models. Although these advocacy efforts have had some success, perhaps the best form of defense is training and instruction in media literacy.
Media literacy efforts focus on educating the audience about digital manipulation techniques used to achieve the air-brushed glamorous look that we are accustomed to seeing on billboards and in fashion magazines. Literacy training educates the population on how advertisers simulate glamour through digital manipulation. Integrating such literacy training in school curricula could help adolescents understand that the body image ideals presented in the media are simply artificial constructions of attractiveness and thinness that even movie stars and supermodels can only aspire for.
Both media advocacy and media literacy are centered on approaches to thwart the negative effects of the media. Other approaches involve using the media to create positive outcomes, such as encouraging young women to be physically active (Thompson & Heinberg 1999). One of the positive trends in advertising and media portrayals is the increasing use of the athletic body type as an ideal. Although the athletic ideal could be equally unrealistic (Bissell & Zhou 2004), in light of the overweight and obesity crisis, it is possible that media portrayals that encourage physical activity and wellness may be beneficial. The potential positive media effects of such portrayals are being examined by researchers.
- Bissell, K. L., & Zhou, P. (2004). Must-see TV or ESPN: Entertainment and sports media exposure and body image distortion in college women. Journal of Communication, 54(1), 5 –21.
- Botta, R. A. (1999). Television images and adolescent girls’ body image disturbance. Journal of Communication, 49(2), 22 – 41.
- David, P., Morrison, G., Johnson, M. A., & Ross, F. (2002). Body image, race and fashion models: Social distance and social identification in third-person effects. Communication Research, 29(3), 270 –294.
- Groesz, L. M., Levine, M. P., & Murnen, S. K. (2002). The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31(1), 1–16.
- Harrison, K. (2001). Ourselves, our bodies: Thin-ideal media, self-discrepancies, and eating disorder symptomatology in adolescents. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 20(3), 289 –323.
- Heinberg, L. J., & Thompson, J. K. (1992). Social comparison: Gender, target importance ratings, and relation to body image disturbance. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 7(2), 335 –344.
- Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (2002). Causes of eating disorders. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 187–213.
- Silverstein, B., Perdue, L., Peterson, B., & Kelly, E. (1986). The role of the mass media in promoting a thin standard of attractiveness for women. Sex Roles, 14(9), 519 –532.
- Stice, E., Schupak-Neuberg, E., Shaw, H. E., & Stein, R. I. (1994). Relation of media exposure to eating disorder symptomatology: An examination of mediating mechanisms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103(4), 836 – 840.
- Thompson, J. K., & Heinberg, L. J. (1999). The media’s influence on body image disturbance and eating disorders: We’ve reviled them, now can we rehabilitate them? Journal of Social Issues, 55(2), 339 –353.
- Thompson, J. K., van den Berg, P., Roehrig, M., Guarda, A. S., & Heinberg, L. J. (2004). The sociocultural attitudes towards appearance scale-3 (SATAQ-3): Development and validation. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 35(3), 293 –304.
- Thomsen, S. R., McCoy, J. K., Gustafson, R. L., & Williams, M. (2002). Motivations for reading beauty and fashion magazines and anorexic risk in college-age women. Media Psychology, 4, 113 – 135.
- Tiggemann, M., & McGill, B. (2004). The role of social comparison in the effect of magazine advertisements on women’s mood and body dissatisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(1), 23 – 44.