Melissa Oldham

Melissa Oldham

Melissa Oldham is a PhD student and tutor in the department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool.

How the media shapes our cultural ideals of body shape
Tuesday, 16 May 2017 18:19

How the media shapes our cultural ideals of body shape

Melissa Oldham charts how media representation of ideal body shapes, driven by the need to maximise profits, leads to negative body images in women and men.

Feminine beauty, particularly in the western world is synonymous with thinness, whilst the male cultural ideal is to be tall, broad and muscular. This article will examine how the media shapes our cultural norms and the negative impact this can have on body image concerns in females and males. 

Nowhere is the thin female ideal more evident than in popular media. The bodies of characters on TV and in films are not reflective of the general population, because overweight characters are significantly underrepresented and underweight characters are overrepresented. This is especially true for female characters who are more likely to be underweight than male characters. In a very interesting and novel study researchers measured the size of mannequins in a number of high street clothing shops. They found that whilst the male mannequins typically appeared to be a healthy size, female mannequins often appeared to be representative of an unhealthily thin body. In similarly depressing news, many models havea Body Mass Index which is  indicative of having an eating disorder. These inaccurate representations present a distorted and unrealistic view of women's bodies, which could reinforce weight bias and body image concerns.

Many studies have examined how ‘thin ideal’ advertising impacts on body image concerns in women and studies usually do this in one of two ways. Some studies simply examine the relationship between the number of hours that people are exposed to different forms of media (e.g. time spent watching music videos, reading magazines or watching TV) and body image concerns. Although these studies reliably show that women who spend more time watching or reading popular media will be more likely to have body image concerns, there are problems with this method. Because media exposure and body concerns are measured at the same time, we cannot say that media exposure leads to heightened body concerns. Rather, it could also be that women who have heightened body image concerns are drawn to viewing beauty magazines or music videos in search of some ‘thinspiration’.

MO body satisfaction

However, other studies have used experimental paradigms in order to work out the causal direction of the relationship. Many studies show women advertising featuring very thin models or a control condition. The nature of the control conditions does differ across studies. Sometimes, adverts are shown which feature no bodies whatsoever and other times the images are experimentally manipulated in order to make the models appear larger. Regardless of the exact methodology the results of these studies paint a very reliable and convincing picture: exposure to thin ideal advertisements increases negative mood, weight concerns, body dissatisfaction and levels of depression in women. Similarly, young girls had lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape after playing with Barbie dolls than more average sized dolls or other toys.

Historically the body image literature has focused almost exclusively on women as body image concerns are largely thought to be a female condition. In recent years there has been a shift towards looking more at male body image concerns and it is starting to look like men might also feel dissatisfied with their bodies, but in a different way. Body dissatisfaction scales typically look at whether people feel fat or overweight and those who report feeling overweight or fat are classed as having higher body dissatisfaction.

However, as discussed previously, the body ideal for men is mainly focused on muscularity, not fatness. As such, when a body dissatisfaction scale focuses on feeling overweight women will generally have higher scores of body dissatisfaction than men. However, more recently researchers have started adapting traditional body satisfaction scales with questions which ask about muscularity. In these studies the apparent gender gap in body satisfaction is significantly reduced. It seems men are worried about their bodies, but unlike most women, men want to be bigger or more muscular.

Some researchers suggest that male body image concerns could be a result of a tendency in advertising to increasingly objectify the male body. Advertisements frequently feature images which objectify men (does anyone remember the Diet Coke man?) and an advent of male health magazines and lads’ mags mean that men are exposed to idealised versions of the muscular Adonis more than ever.

MO bloke

In the same way that thin ideal advertising can have a negative impact on female body satisfaction, exposure to advertisements featuring large and muscular men could have a negative impact on male body satisfaction. Some researchers set out to experimentally test this idea. They showed men adverts featuring attractive male models that were either muscular or not. Following exposure to the muscular models men were more dissatisfied with their own bodies and more likely to want to be more muscular than those who saw the attractive but non muscular controls.

The gender discrepancy in body ideals is reflected in the clinical body image disorders which are most frequently experienced by men and women. Women are more frequently diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) than men are - around .2-.5% of women suffer from AN whereas less than 10% of individuals with AN are male. Individuals with AN often have an intrusive and persistent dread or fear of fatness.  The primary driver of AN is extreme weight loss. AN sufferers will deliberately and severely restrict their food intake, will often engage in compulsive and excessive exercise and may purge the food they do eat through forced vomiting or ingesting laxatives. There is no consistently successful treatment for AN and under half of individuals with AN do not fully recover. AN can result in reoccurring episodes of hospitalisation and in extreme cases can result in death. Numerous studies have linked long-term exposure to very thin bodies and the ‘thin ideal’ to eating disorder symptomology in women.

Conversely, a lesser known condition known as ‘bigorexia’ or Muscle Dysmorphia (MD) is a clinical condition which affects significantly more men than women. People with MD, or ‘bigorexia’ as it is commonly known, become preoccupied with trying to gain muscle. Individuals with MD perceive themselves as being slim or weak when in reality they have very muscular physiques. Sufferers of MD spend hours strenuously working out, prioritise their gym time over everything else, compulsively check their appearance in mirrors and spend hours each day scrutinising areas of their body that they perceive as being inadequate.

MD can lead to steroid abuse in order to attain the unattainable. MD can destroy lives and can lead to social isolation, social anxiety, unnecessary cosmetic surgery, depression, heart attacks and even suicide attempts. Diagnoses of MD have increased in recent years. Whilst some researchers suggest this is just due to more knowledge of the disease and more accurate diagnoses, other researchers suggest that the increasing trend to male objectification and the promotion of the muscular male ideal is responsible for the increase.

In a landmark decision this week, France has banned emaciated models from walking the catwalk and all models will now need to provide a doctor’s certificate attesting to their health with a particular focus on their weight. France’s Minister of Social Affairs and Health said that this decision was based on the fact that exposing young people to unrealistic and dangerously thin models can have a negative impact on their self-worth and self-esteem. This is undoubtedly a fantastic move by the French Government, but  why  has it taken so long?

 When the link between thin or muscular ideal advertising and negative affect and body image is so well researched it is difficult to see why companies would continue to use this form of advertising. The old adage is that “thin sells” and  the ex-editor of Australian Vogue Kirstie Clements suggests that thin models are used because clothes hang better on very thin models, who do not have curves that could disrupt the line of the clothes. Many fashion designers have supported the notion that clothes look better on thin models in interviews and essentially what they are saying is they are more concerned with how good their clothes look and how much they sell than they are with the negative impact this has on the body image concerns of their consumers.

The move towards very muscular male models is less clear but it is possible that the media industry is playing on the natural human trait of social comparison. We compare ourselves to others on a daily basis in order to get some idea of how we rank in the grand scheme of things. When thin or muscular models are held up as being the ideal we feverishly consume media to find out more about them, how we rank against them and how we can look like them. This can translate into going out and buying the products that these Gods and Goddesses are advertising. Indeed there is some evidence that adolescents seek out images of men and women with ‘ideal’ bodies who they want to emulate and some studies find that ads which feature more beautiful or idealised models promote a more positive evaluation of the product and can increase an individual’s implicit motivation to buy the product.

Advertisements which promote unrealistic body ideals for men and women are irresponsible and can have a very negative impact on body image concerns, mood and in extreme cases can contribute to the development of clinical disorders. The advertising world should move away from objectification and using models with unattainably beautiful bodies, just for the purpose of maximising profits.

Perhaps it is time to use our influence as consumers and campaigners to question and challenge the use of very thin or very muscular models in popular media.