The latest issue of Psychological Bulletin contains a comprehensive review of 77 previous studies focusing on the effect on women that media images of ultra-thin actresses and models have. The researchers found that exposure to such images significantly increased women's concerns about their bodies, including how dissatisfied they felt and their likelihood of engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors. The review is timely, as France's parliament is currently considering a landmark bill that would outlaw media images glamorizing extremely thin female models.
Although the results seem obvious, University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Shelly Grabe believes many people still resist the idea that a societal influence, like the media, can have a real impact on how women view themselves. When individual experiments have found this relationship in the past, she explains, critics have often dismissed them for focusing on groups of particularly body-conscious women, such as college students, or exposing test subjects to unusually racy photos.
Grabe, and study co-author Janet Hyde, in contrast, analyzed data from every well-designed study on the topic they could find, thus avoiding much of this criticism. "We've demonstrated that it doesn't matter what the exposure is, whether it's general TV watching in the evening, or magazines, or ads showing on a computer," says Grabe. "If the image is appearance-focused and sends a clear message about a woman's body as an object, then it's going to affect women."
The most worrying finding of the review is that the effect appears to be growing. The researchers' analysis reveals that, on average, studies conducted in the 2000s show a larger influence of the media on women's body image than do those from the 1990s. "This suggests that despite all our efforts to teach women and girls to be savvy about the media and have healthy body practices, the media's effect on how much they internalize the thin ideal is getting stronger," said Grabe.
The results are troubling because recent research has established body dissatisfaction as a major risk factor for low self-esteem, depression, obesity, and eating disorders, such as bulimia. At the same time, women's displeasure with their bodies has become so common that it's now considered normal, says Grabe. "I think we need to consider how we're using media images as a culture to share the values we think are important, and the effect that has on our well-being," she noted.
Grabe concludes that the issue lies not with our attraction to images of beauty or with women's desire to emulate them, but with what we've come to define as beautiful: bodies that are unnaturally and unhealthily thin. "I want to stress that it's totally normal for women to want to be attractive," says Grabe. "But what's happening in our society is that many women are striving toward something that's not very realistic or obtainable, and that leads to a lot of health consequences."
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Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison