Relationship between female's body image and the mass media


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Relationship between Female's Body Image and the Mass Media

Sarah Durkin

Sociocultural pressures are thought to play a very influential role in the prevalence of body dissatisfaction in contemporary Western society1-4. An increasing incidence of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders has coincided with changes in sociocultural norms for females over the last few decades. In contemporary society the ideal female body is thin, tall and long legged, and there is a pervasive belief among women that you need to fit this "ideal" to be successful4-6. These messages about the ideal female form are transmitted by a variety of means, including the family, peers and by the mass media2,7-9. The ubiquitous nature of the mass media makes it a particularly powerful force for influencing social attitudes. With a moderate level of body dissatisfaction now believed to be normal among females10, many researchers have looked toward this far reaching medium as a driving force for the dissemination of notions that a slender body is desirable3,7,11-15.

The Changing Representation of the Female Body in the Media

Media content analyses have indicated that the mass media tend to portray the female form as much thinner than the average body size in the population, particularly in the last twenty years16,17. This shift toward a thinner ideal was first documented by Garner and associates (1980) where they found a significant decrease in the body measurements and weights of Playboy centrefolds and Miss America Pageant contestants from 1959 to 1978. This decrease was combined with a significant increase in the number of diet articles in popular women's magazines over the same period16. In an update of this study, Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, and Ahrens (1992) reported a continuance of the slide downward in the weight of models in popular women's magazines from 1979 to 198817. In a more recent analysis, 21 popular women's magazines throughout 1996 were examined, and on 78% of the covers there was a message regarding bodily appearance18. In 1985, Gonzalez-Lavin and Smolak found that 94% of the female characters on television shows favoured by young females were below average in weight19. This trend toward an increasingly slimmer ideal in the media over the last few decades has coincided with larger average body weight in women in Western societies20. Thus, this depiction of the female body shape in magazines and on television is hugely distorted and fails to represent the real diversity of female body shapes. The ideal female body that is represented in the media is unattainable for most women without resorting to extreme dieting or exercise behaviours.

Exposure to Media and Self Comparisons

Most females in Western society are regularly exposed to idealised images of the female body and often negative comparisons are made. In the U.S. researchers have found that over the course of a typical year, children and adolescents spend more time watching television than any other activity except sleeping21. In an Australian study, female adolescents were found to watch an average of 22.72 hours of television in one week, with an average of 5.43 hours of soaps or serials, and an average of 1.62 hours of music videos in the week under study15. Studies also indicate that many college women frequently read fashion magazines as a leisure activity22,23. A recent study found that the number of hours spent watching music videos was related to adolescent girl's weight concerns24.

Some studies have indicated that females often compare themselves with idealised images presented in media22,25. This tendency to self-compare is another possible factor that makes women vulnerable to the negative impact of media exposure. Fifty percent of the women in one study reported comparing themselves with the models in advertisements 'about half the time' or more, and that these advertisements made them feel dissatisfied with the way they look22. The majority of females in another study thought about comparing oneself to the models when reading magazines and they associated negative self-evaluations with the process of reading magazines23. However, studies that indicate that negative comparisons are made do not demonstrate that the media causes negative body image in females. Therefore, researchers have utilised more controlled experimental techniques to examine the relationship between media exposure and body dissatisfaction.

Effects of Media Exposure

It has often been assumed that the frequent exposure to images of slenderness portrayed in the media have a universally negative impact on the body satisfaction of young girls and women26-29. However, experimental studies which have examined whether exposure to slender images of females in the media cause body dissatisfaction, have produced often contradictory and confusing results. Some studies found that media exposure had no direct effect on body image satisfaction25,30, while others found that 'ideal' compared to 'neutral' or 'non-ideal' image exposure predicted body dissatisfaction and negative self-evaluations 31-35. Another study found that university aged women exposed to thin models had greater body dissatisfaction compared to those exposed to average weight models, but not compared to those exposed to pictures without any models36. One study even found that young women who viewed ideal body images in television commercials overestimated their body size to a lesser degree than those who were exposed to commercials not containing the "thin-ideal"13. Clearer insight into the effects of "thin-ideal" media exposure have come from experimental studies that have investigated differential impact. These studies suggest that the media's effect on body satisfaction is not uniform across all women.

Certain groups of females may be more vulnerable than others. A study which compared women with eating disorders to those without eating disorders found that the eating disordered group were more susceptible to the negative effects of media exposure37. Females have also been shown to be more vulnerable to exposure to idealised images at different ages. Shaw (1995) found that adolescents showed greater body dissatisfaction after viewing fashion images than did adult females38. The adolescents who were most vulnerable to the negative effect of this media exposure tended to be older, heavier and display greater bulimic tendencies. However these factors didn't increase the adults' vulnerability. Another study has indicated that "white" girls were more affected by idealised images than African American or Latino girls, as these girls did not identify with the predominantly "white" images, nor did they believe that males their age or their peers were influenced by them, unlike the "white" girls39.

Recent research has also suggested that women with certain 'vulnerability' characteristics may be more susceptible to the impact of thin-ideal media. In one of the most sophisticated studies into the association between reported media exposure and body dissatisfaction, Stice, and associates (1994) investigated the influence of individual characteristics in mediating the effects of "thin-ideal" media exposure on body satisfaction7. They found that greater exposure was associated with increased acceptance of traditional female gender roles, which in turn lead to increased acceptance of the thin ideal, which was in turn associated with greater body dissatisfaction. This study indicates an indirect route from exposure to negative body image, where the characteristics of the person viewing the idealised images influence the extent of the impact. Supporting this, Cusumano & Thompson (1997), found that the level of internalisation of societal standards of appearance predicted the level of body dissatisfaction after viewing fashion magazines30.

A number of studies have investigated the role of individual characteristics by measuring body satisfaction prior to and after exposing females to images of thin models, and examining which types of women are most affected by the exposure. Heinberg & Thompson (1995) found that those high on measures of body image disturbance and internalisation of sociocultural attitudes of thinness and attractiveness, became significantly more depressed and dissatisfied with their appearance following the exposure11. In a similar study Posovac, Posovac and Posovac (1998) observed that college women with initially low compared to high body satisfaction were significantly more concerned about their weight following exposure to slides of fashion models compared to neutral images14. Henderson-King and Henderson-King (1997), however, found only a trend towards a greater impact of idealised image exposure in heavier women suggesting that the level of body satisfaction may be a more important predictor than actual size12. One study found that feminists held more negative attitudes toward stereotypical media images of women. However, both the nonfeminist and feminist groups showed similar actual increases in body dissatisfaction after exposure34. This suggests that attitudinal change alone may not protect against the effects that these images have.

Other potential vulnerability factors that have been suggested by theorists and researchers are low self-esteem, identity confusion, and high comparison tendency4,40. Overall the evidence from these experimental studies indicates that the negative effects of viewing and comparing with the unrealistically thin women exhibited in the media are revealed when the differences between females are considered.

In conclusion, this research indicates the common depiction of the female body in the mass media is unrealistically thin, and that females are frequently exposed to these images and often make negative comparisons with themselves. The evidence is unclear whether media exposure causes body dissatisfaction in all women. However, there is compelling evidence to suggest that exposure to idealised images of slender women is more likely to harm the body satisfaction of certain groups of females and those who have certain individual vulnerabilities. Further research is needed to explore all of the possible vulnerability characteristics so that efforts at reducing body dissatisfaction in young females and women can be targeted appropriately.


Relationship between Male's Body Image and the Mass Media
Very little research has examined how boy's and men's body image may be affected by magazine and television images of the ideal male body. Studies have shown that the ideal male body shown in the media and endorsed by men is a muscular toned body shape 41,42. A very recent analysis of Playgirl magazines found that over the past forty years there has been a significant increase in the body sizes of their male models, which has corresponded with increases in body sizes of the average young male (aged 18-24 years) in the US and Canada 42. However, the increase in Playgirl models was linked to an increase in muscularity, whereas the increase in the average young male body size was related to an increase in body fat. One study that examined media consumption in males found that overall magazine reading predicted men's endorsement of thinness and dieting for themselves43. One very recent study found that one third of the men they examined felt that the media influenced their body image concerns44. There have been very few studies which have examined the impact of viewing idealised male media images on male body satisfaction. In two recent studies men felt less satisfaction with their own bodies after being exposed to idealised male media images32,34. These studies give a preliminary indication that men may also be affected by the media, however there needs to be much more research to clarify the nature of this relationship. Further research is needed to assess whether, like females, males with certain vulnerability characteristics may be more vulnerable to the impact of the media than those without these characteristics.





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