Body Image & the Media Research Paper Starter

Body Image & the Media

Body image refers to people's judgments about their own bodies. It is formed as people compare themselves to others. Because people are exposed to countless media images, media images become the basis for some of these comparisons. When people's comparisons tell them that their bodies are substandard, they can become depressed, suffer from low self-esteem, or develop eating disorders. The influence of media on body image is ironic, given that as people in the United States and other countries have become heavier and more out of shape, female models have become thinner and male models have become more muscled. Sociologists and psychologists have developed several theories describing how the media influences body image, including social comparison theory, self-schema theory, third-person effects and self-discrepancy theory. They also have developed interventions to offset the negative impact of unreal media images. Sociologists theorize that the media have an investment in promoting body dissatisfaction because it supports a billion-dollar diet and self-improvement industry.

Keywords: Body Dissatisfaction; Body Image; Body Image Disturbance; Objectified Body Consciousness; Reflected Appraisals; Self-discrepancy Theory; Self-schema Theory; Social Comparison Theory; Therapeutic Ethos; Third Person Effect


The study of body image — how people perceive their bodies and how these opinions develop — was pioneered by Paul Schilder in the 1920's. His working definition of body image was "the picture of our own body which we form in our mind, that is to say, the way in which the body appears to ourselves" (as quoted in Grogan 2008, p. 3). Many contemporary researchers feel that this definition downplays the complexity of the field, since body image can refer to a variety of concepts from judgments about weight, size, appearance and normality, to satisfaction with these areas. The term "body image" includes both how people perceive their bodies cognitively and also how they feel about their bodies. Studies of body image show that it influences many other aspects of life. People live their lives in bodies, and understanding how they experience embodiment is crucial to understanding their quality of life (Pruzinsky & Cash, 2002). Dissatisfaction with one's body image can lead to many problems, ranging from depression to low self-esteem and eating disorders.

People feel increasingly pressured by the media about their bodies. The average person is exposed to thousands of beauty images weekly, and these images reflect an unreal body image that becomes more and more removed from the reality of contemporary people, who on average weigh more and exercise less than people did decades ago. At the same time, bodies depicted by the media have become thinner and fitter. Pressure about body image is not new, and even in the days before the electronic mass media expanded to its current size and speed, messages about body image were carried in magazines, books, newspapers, and — looking back even further — in paintings and drawings. Modern-day media do have a financial investment in promoting body dissatisfaction. Advertising revenues from the body industry contribute a great deal to media profits. This connection means that the link between media and body image is a health issue but also raises questions about the end results of consumer culture.

Changing Body Norms in the Media

The ideal body presented by the media has become thinner since the 1960's, particularly for women. At the same time, Americans have become much heavier. Since the 1980’s, the percentage of overweight and obese children has doubles and that of overweight and obese teenagers has tripled. Adults show similar trends; over thirty percent of adult Americans are obese (Ogden et al., 2012). The trend toward thinner and thinner models has developed slowly since the early 1900’s. In the 1920's through magazines and in the new medium of film, a thinner, almost androgynous female form was promoted, epitomized in the flat-chested flapper. The ideal female form became curvier during the hard times of the Great Depression in the 1930's, although it remained relatively slender through World War II. The postwar revival of domesticity led to the media hyping heavier, ultra-feminine images such as Marilyn Monroe, with larger breasts and hips but small waists. This was only a temporary interruption of the century's trend toward increasingly thin bodies as the ideal. Models shrank more throughout the 1980's and 1990's. In these latter decades, models also became fitter, adding muscles and tone to the preferred image. Images of men have followed the same pattern since the 1980's with male models displaying slightly less fat, much more muscled bodies. A study comparing the changing body-mass index of Miss America contestants, Playboy and Playgirl centerfolds, and average Americans and Canadians since the 1960's found that especially during the 1980's and 1990’s, the female centerfolds became dangerously thin, while male models increased in size, and average people gained weight (Spitzer & Henderson, 1999). Through changing norms of beauty images, women are told to be thin; men are told to have little body fat and sculpted muscles (Grogan, 2008; Hesse-Biber, 2007; Soulliere & Blair, 2006).

Modern people live media-saturated lives. Studies suggest that over 80% of women and girls read fashion magazines, most people watch 3 or 4 hours of television a day, and people are exposed to countless images while walking down the street, glancing through the newspaper, and browsing online. This constant exposure affects viewers. Studies suggest that the effect is felt in several areas. People compare themselves to images, internalize these idealized images as the norm, and absorb the message that they should judge themselves based on their appearance. This process of comparison, internalization, and acceptance leads to other effects: distortion of accurate body perception (for example, girls who are normal weight may think they are overweight), negative emotional effects, a tendency to overemphasize messages about appearance, and changes in eating and exercise habits (Tiggemann, 2002).

Further Insights

Psychological Theories on How Media Affects Body Image

The effect of media on body image is complex; it is not simply the equation that exposure makes people feel worse about their own bodies. For one thing, people are not affected equally by exposure to media images. Some react quickly and strongly to beauty images and others are resistant. Some of the difference in reactions to media images has to do with people's individual traits. People who are more self-conscious, who place more importance on appearance, who are heavier, and who have symptoms of eating disorders are more swayed by these images (Tiggemann, 2002).

Three psychological theories are particularly useful in understanding how media images affect people differently:

  • Social comparison theory was developed by Leon Festinger in the 1950's. Festinger theorized that to evaluate themselves, people compare themselves to others. Psychologists have expanded this theory and suggested that people compare themselves not only to others in face-to-face interactions, but also to media images.
  • Self-schema theory says that people develop a sense of self by considering what makes them unique and valuable and arranging these into schemas, which are used to process social encounters. Some people prioritize appearance in their self-schemas; these people are more likely to place more importance on media images and messages about body image.
  • Self-discrepancy theory says that people carry an idealized image of the person they want to be; discrepancies between this ideal and their perceptions of themselves can cause them unhappiness and stress. Media images can contribute to the formation of the idealized image (Grogan, 2008).

Studies have shown that women identify the media as the major source of the perceived social pressure to maintain a thin body image. Thin models are a major source of this pressure; in one study women who viewed images of heavier models were less likely to judge their own bodies negatively (Posavac, Posavac & Weigel, 2001).

Cusumano and Thompson (2001) developed the Multidimensional Media Influence Scale (MMIS) to measure media effects on body image in children. Their research indicated that media effects occur in three distinct areas: awareness, internalization, and pressure. These areas capture the extent to which children are aware that the media promote thinness as an ideal, the extent to which they internalize this ideal as applying to themselves, and the extent to which they feel pressured by the media to conform to the idealized image. Interestingly enough, Cusumano and Thompson found that these three items vary independently; that is, it is possible to be aware of media images without internalizing them. Children who internalized media images were most likely to feel dissatisfied with their own bodies.


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