Can’t Get No (Body) Satisfaction: Media Effects on Body Image

A  version of this article will appear in the next Psychology in Action Newsletter.
Turn on the TV or open a magazine these days, and chances are your eyes will be filled with images of “beauty”: ultra-thin models, men with bulging biceps and washboard abs, celebrities with perfect complexions and flawless figures. In some cases, even leaving the house to drive down a billboard-laden street can cause you to arrive at work or school with heightened body image concerns. What sort of psychological toll is the media’s depiction of beauty taking on us, and what can we do to combat it?

In 2002, researchers at Kenyon College in Ohio examined the results of 25 studies that all asked women of different ages to look at magazines photos of thin models or TV commercials that included ultra-thin actresses. Across all 25 studies, women reported feeling less satisfied with their bodies after viewing these advertisements. Even more alarming, women less than 19 years old were especially vulnerable to feeling bad about their bodies after viewing these images. Although not surprising, this conglomeration of studies puts scientific evidence behind the idea that exposure to the media’s unrealistic representation of the ideal body causes women to feel worse about themselves.

Women aren’t the only ones vulnerable to feeling bad about their bodies as a result of advertising. In recent years, more research has been conducted showing that men also report lower body satisfaction after being exposed to males in TV commercials and print ads. Men specifically feel less satisfied with their muscularity, and in some cases are in more negative moods, as a result of viewing ads featuring muscular, attractive models and actors.

All this evidence can make you feel hopeless, as it is almost impossible to never be exposed to advertising, even if you avoid fashion or fitness magazines. But fear not! A growing body of research shows that there are ways to combat the media’s effects on body satisfaction. One intervention pioneered by Eric Stice of Oregon Research Institute uses a classic social psychological concept called “cognitive dissonance” to decrease feelings of body dissatisfaction. Cognitive dissonance is a feeling of discomfort that occurs when someone holds two conflicting ideas simultaneously: for example, believing you should exercise, but then never making it to the gym. When cognitive dissonance occurs, people are motivated to reduce the conflict and alleviate their psychological discomfort (so you might actually go to the gym, or, less healthily, decide that working out isn’t that important after all).

Stice and his colleagues put this principle to work for them in an eating disorder prevention program: They had adolescent girls view magazine images of models, which lead them to hold ideals that thinness is best. Then, they asked the girls to provide reasons why they thin ideal might not be healthy or attainable (examples: companies want you to feel bad about yourself so you buy their diet pills, healthy weight is better than starving to be thin).  Holding the two conflicting beliefs that 1) thinness is ideal, but 2) that thinness is unattainable led girls to be motivated to reduce the resulting discomfort by no longer idolizing thin models and actresses. When girls who completed this dissonance based prevention program were followed over time, they reported being more satisfied with their bodies and were less vulnerable to the media’s thin ideal advertising (compared to girls who did not receive the dissonance program).

So, what can you learn from dissonance theory and the research summarized here to protect your body image from the media? The next time you find yourself feeling bad after watching TV commercials or seeing a summer blockbuster, think about why having the body of a starlet or body builder might not be attainable or ideal. Reduce your resulting cognitive dissonance and focus on having a healthy weight—and maybe avoid picking up next month’s copy of Vogue.