Body Image, Media Effect on

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According to Judith Rodin, Lisa Silberstein, and Ruth Striegel-Moore (1984), the concern American women have with weight has become "a normative discontent." Consider the mother, sister, or friend who is perpetually on a diet to lose "those last five pounds." Such widespread concern with body shape (or "body-image disturbance") is a relatively new historical development that mirrors the increasing tendency for media outlets to feature dieting information and images of extremely thin characters and models.

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are less common than body-image disturbances, but they too are increasing in prevalence. Rates of occurrence of eating disorders among females in the United States range from as little as 1 percent (for anorexia) to more than 20 percent (for bulimia). Rates of occurrence of eating disorders among males in the United States are smaller (about one-tenth that for females), but they are growing too. As these numbers increase, the population of people with eating disorders is becoming more diverse. Early research suggested that young, white, upper-middle-class, college-educated women were at highest risk for developing eating disorders, but more recent research shows that eating disorders are quickly becoming an affliction of equal opportunity, affecting women of color, children, men, older people, and, as research by Anne E. Becker (1991) suggests, people in countries that previously had little problem with eating disorders until they began importing American media.

Trends in Media Depictions of the Ideal Body

Some feminist theorists have argued that when women gain ground politically, thinness as a female ideal becomes fashionable because American society is uncomfortable with voluptuous women in powerful positions. This is meant to explain why the long, lean "flapper" style was popular during the women's suffrage movement, why British model Twiggy gained fame during the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and why the "heroin chic" waif look became appealing when the Clinton administration began in the early 1990s.

Whatever the reason for these trends, it is clear that the women depicted in the U.S. media have steadily grown thinner since the 1950s. A 1980 study by David M. Garner, Paul E. Garfinkel, Donald Schwartz, and Michael Thompson reported a significant decrease in the body measurements and weights of Playboy centerfold subjects and Miss America Pageant contestants from 1959 to 1978. Updates of this study show a continued trend toward the slimming of both centerfold subjects and pageant contestants. Dozens of other analyses of magazines, television, and movies show that there are more dieting and exercise articles being published than ever before and that the models and characters—especially females—featured in these media are disproportionately skinny when compared to the population at large.

Media Effects on Body Image

Given that the slimming trend in the media parallels the increasing obsession with thinness in real life, researchers have been compelled to study the effects of exposure to thin-ideal media. Research here is split into two domains: (1) media effects on body image and (2) media effects on disordered eating.

Research generally shows that exposure to the thin-body ideal leads to temporary decreases in self-esteem and increases in body and weight dissatisfaction, depression, and anxiety. But which audience members are most vulnerable? In a 1993 study by Kate Hamilton and Glenn Waller, research participants who did not have eating disorders were not affected by viewing a set of thin-ideal photographs, but when participants who did have eating disorders viewed the photographs, they subsequently overestimated their own body size by an average of 25 percent. These results are echoed in a study by Heidi D. Posavac, Steven S. Posavac, and Emil J. Posavac (1998), which showed that the adverse effects of exposure to thin-ideal media were especially strong for young women who were initially more dissatisfied with their bodies, as compared to women who were less dissatisfied with their bodies.

Much of the research on media effects on bodyimage has been guided by the social comparisontheory of Leon Festinger (1954), which holds thatpeople are driven to evaluate themselves throughcomparison with others. This is a risky business, because unfavorable comparisons can make individuals feel inadequate and worthless. A study by Mary C. Martin and Patricia F. Kennedy (1993)showed that the tendency to compare the self tothin models was strongest for participants whoinitially felt the least personally attractive and whohad the lowest self-esteem. In addition, a study byRenée Botta (1999) showed that the tendency tocompare the self to thin media personalities (atendency she calls "body-image processing") isimportant in predicting internalization of thethin-body ideal. These studies, as well as thosesummarized above, suggest that people who havethe most to lose as a result of comparison are, unfortunately, those most likely to compare themselves to thin-ideal models and characters.

Media Effects on Eating Disorders

Research has shown convincingly that thin-ideal media exposure is related not only to body-image disturbances but also to disordered eating. Kristen Harrison and Joanne Cantor (1997) have shown that this correlation exists even for people who say they have no interest in dieting and fitness as media topics. Like body-image disturbance, disordered eating as an outcome of thin-ideal media exposure is dependent on the audience members' individual differences, such as sex (females exhibit stronger correlations than males) and interpersonal attraction to thin media personalities (people who are attracted to thin media personalities exhibit stronger correlations than people who are attracted to average or heavy media personalities). Several possible mediators of the media-disorder link include negative affect, thin-ideal body stereotype internalization, and body dissatisfaction.

Researchers including Michael P. Levine and Linda Smolak (1998) have been working on media literacy campaigns to arm vulnerable children against the onslaught of thin-ideal messages they encounter through media exposure. It is hoped that these campaigns, informed by continued work on individual differences in vulnerability, will help researchers develop prevention programs that can be tailored to audience members based on their own particular vulnerabilities.

See also:Feminist Scholarship and Communication; Gender and the Media; Nutrition and Media Effects.


Becker, Anne E. (1991). "Body Image in Fiji: The Self in the Body and in the Community." Dissertation Abstracts International 51:2793.

Botta, Renée A. (1999). "Television Images and Adolescent Girls' Body Image Disturbance." Journal of Communication 49:22-41.

Festinger, Leon. (1954). "A Theory of Social Comparison Processes." Human Relations 7:117-140.

Garner, David M.; Garfinkel, Paul E.; Schwartz, Donald; and Thompson, Michael. (1980). "Cultural Expectations of Thinness in Women." Psychological Reports 47:483-491.

Hamilton, Kate, and Waller, Glenn. (1993). "Media Influences on Body Size Estimation in Anorexia and Bulimia: An Experimental Study." British Journal of Psychiatry 162:837-840.

Harrison, Kristen, and Cantor, Joanne. (1997). "The Relationship Between Media Exposure and Eating Disorders." Journal of Communication 47:40-67.

Levine, Michael P., and Smolak, Linda. (1998). "The Mass Media and Disordered Eating: Implications for Primary Prevention." In The Prevention of Eating Disorders, eds. Walter Vandereycken and Greta Noordenbos. New York: New York University Press.

Martin, Mary C., and Kennedy, Patricia F. (1993). "Advertising and Social Comparison: Consequences for Female Preadolescents and Adolescents." Psychology and Marketing 10:513-530.

Posavac, Heidi D.; Posavac, Steven S.; and Posavac, Emil J. (1998). "Exposure to Media Images of Female Attractiveness and Concern with Body Weight among Young Women." Sex Roles 38:187-201.

Rodin, Judith; Silberstein, Lisa; and Striegel-Moore, Ruth. (1984). "Women and Weight: A Normative Discontent." Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 32:267-307.

Kristen Harrison