Michael P. Levine, PhD
Sociocultural factors clearly play an important role in the spectrum of problems related to negative body image and unhealthy eating and weight management practices (1–4). This brief review is intended to stimulate further interest in the influence of mass media such as fashion magazines and television (5,6).
Media Messages: Slim in Content, Fat in False Hopes
Content analyses confirm most people’s sense that magazines, television programs, and film frequently, persistently, and overtly glorify slenderness and strict weight management and vilify fat as unhealthy, ugly, and immoral (2). These omnipresent images of ideal slender beauty are not “romanticized as otherworldly and unattainable. Rather, print and electronic media images blur the boundaries between a fictionalized ideal and reality” (7). The air of unreality is thickened by the juxtaposition of weight management messages with exhortations to “indulge” or “give in” to one’s guilty (diet-induced?) desires for food.
All of these messages are inextricably linked with images and texts that revel in the identification of femininity with appearance and other aspects of sexual objectification. Females searching for guidance about what it means to be a “real” woman can easily extract a thinness schema from mass media: (1) beauty is a woman’s principal project in life; (2) slenderness is crucial for success and goodness; (3) “image” is really substance; (4) women are naturally self-conscious about and bound up with their bodies; (5) “fat” announces your personal responsibility for weakness, failure, and helplessness; and (6) a “willing” and “winning” woman can transform and renew herself through the technology of fashion, dieting, and rigorous exercise. This normative perspective, tinged with many of the issues in a woman’s struggle for healthy identity, is perilously close to the “nervosa” underlying disordered eating (1).
This Message is Not Falling on Deaf Ears
Many girls and young women “consume” mass media, thereby immersing themselves in the thinness schema. For example, approximately 2 million girls subscribe to Seventeen, and the estimated readership (many of whom are ages 11–14) exceeds 11 million. People read magazines and watch television for many reasons, including pleasure, education, relief from anxiety, and self-improvement. Nevertheless, the salience of the aforementioned media “texts” is not lost on females: “Everybody feels like they are not good enough, not pretty enough, not skinny enough ... Every time you open a magazine you always see beautiful people…it is always blasted over TV about how ... you have to look good to be a good person” (8).
This negative impact of mass media on the hearts, minds, and bodies of young girls and women is taken as gospel by many people. However, even a cursory review of the available studies reveals a complex picture. One important line of research examines the correlation between negative body image, disordered eating, and level of media exposure. For example, Murray, Touyz, and Beumont found that, compared with community controls, young women with eating disorders were more likely to report that magazines and newspapers influenced their eating habits, their endorsement of a slender beauty ideal, and their body image (9). A study of college students found that the amount of magazine and TV exposure in the previous month was strongly linked via direct and indirect paths to eating disorder symptomatology (10).
In contrast, two recent cross-sectional studies have found either negligible effects of media exposure or no effects of the amount of exposure to thinness-depicting media stimuli on body image and disordered eating in college students (11,12). Another strand of research indicates that, regardless of level of media consumption, internalizing the slender ideal championed by media is strongly associated with many negative effects. The Sociocultural Attitudes Towards Appearance Questionnaire contains a factor-analytic subscale (SATAQ-I) that explicitly reflects “internalization” of the cultural ideal of slenderness as portrayed in the mass media. SATAQ-I scores of college-age women on this subscale are strongly correlated with Eating Disorder Inventory scores for body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, and bulimia (4). Four studies indicate that elementary and middle school girls who read fashion magazines and compare themselves with the models also report greater body dissatisfaction and higher levels of disordered eating (13,14). Field and colleagues conducted a 1-year prospective study of over 6,700 girls ages 9 through 14. They found that “trying to look like females on television, in movies, or in magazines” was a significant, independent predictor of the onset of weight concerns and purging behavior” (15,16). Lest these results be seen as demonstrating the obvious, Stice found that neither media pressure (social reinforcement) nor media modeling prospectively predicted development of bulimic symptomatology in high school seniors (17). Groesz and Levine’s ongoing meta- analysis of over 20 studies18 indicates that, relative to comparison pictures of larger models or inanimate objects, controlled exposure to images of slender models immediately causes a modest (d = .33) increase in a female’s negative feelings about her body. This effect may be slightly larger (d = .50) for those who have previously internalized the slender standard of beauty or who come to the laboratory already feeling self-conscious or bad about their bodies. As yet, we do not understand the psychological processes (e.g., social comparison) involved in the acute impact of the slender ideal on body image and emotions.
It is all too easy to feel pessimistic, if not helpless, about the possibility of preventing disordered eating through reversal of sociocultural factors, including the wealthy, creative, and industrious “mass media.”
I am very optimistic, principally because in my lifetime there have been dramatic changes in cultural norms and individual behaviors pertaining to cigarette smoking, the exclusion of women from athletics, drunken driving, and violence against women—all features of society once justified as pervasive because they were “natural.” Mass media have played an important role in these transformations. People committed to prevention of negative body image and disordered eating in the new millennium must learn how to gain access to and “use” the mass media in order to market messages and products that advocate respect for the diversity of body shapes, appetites, talents, strengths, and potential in girls and women.
Some aspects of mass media exert an unhealthy influence on female, as well as male, body image, eating habits, and weight management practices. However, much more research is needed to articulate the relationship between exposure to mass media, internalization of the slender ideal and other unhealthy beliefs and practices, and development of negative body image and disordered eating. We need to continue to formulate and test models of exposure-vulnerability effect that draw on social learning theory (3,17), social comparison theory, and developmental psychopathology (2). There also is an increasing need to examine the relationship between boys and cultural images that promote dysmorphic concerns about shape and strength, often manifest in an unhealthy drive for bulk (19). The accompanying articles by Irving (20) and by Piran et al (21) demonstrate that media analysis should play a role in prevention as part of a larger philosophy that emphasizes critical evaluation of sociocultural factors at multiple levels (e.g., peers and media), group dialogue to articulate their influence, and group and individual actions to promote change.
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