Body Satisfaction and Media Influences

This article is authored by Nancy Gomez and Arielle Radin and is a part of the 2018 pre-graduate spotlight week spotlight week.

When you look in the mirror, you often see the actual physical reflection of yourself, height, eye color, skin color – but the way you perceive how you look goes beyond the objective.  Researcher Peter Slade defines body image as a loose mental representation of the body’s shape, form and size, which is influenced by a variety of historical, cultural and social, individual and biological factors, which operate over varying timespans (1). It is no surprise then, that body dissatisfaction can arise as a negative psychological distortion that contributes to the way you feel internally about your body image. Many factors account for these mental distortions, but I’d like to draw your attention to the impact of mass media and how it influences our body satisfaction/dissatisfaction. How does the mass media affect the way you feel, think, and perceive your body image? And given that we are all constantly exposed to the media, whether we like it or not, what can we can do to buffer its impact on our self-image?

Historically, we’ve seen on many occasions the thin-ideal woman portrayed as the most beautiful in television and magazines. Across many studies, researchers have shown that this thin-ideal portrayal affects mostly young/teenager girls in a negative way. In one study, researchers showed female undergraduate students images of both thin and overweight models in two different sessions. In one day, females would be exposed for 2 minutes to images of thin models OR overweight models. Then they would rate their body satisfaction after the 2 minutes of image exposure. Depending on the type of images shown in the first day, during the second day females saw the opposite type of images, thin or overweight, and then indicated their body satisfaction. As predicted, the researchers found that exposure to a thin model in media resulted in female participants reporting higher body dissatisfaction (2). Interestingly, these effects are not just seen in female subjects – a systematic review of studies found that males are similarly negatively impacted in terms of their body satisfaction when exposed to images of the ideal male in media, such as men with more muscle (3). These findings are especially alarming given that adolescence is a critical time for individuals to develop their self-concepts and identities. Therefore, it is imperative that we determine ways in which we can buffer these effects and even harness the power of the media to have positive benefits to adolescents.

Understandably, parents may start to wonder how they can protect their children from the negative effects of the mass media’s portrayal of the ideal body. Luckily, psychological researchers have been working to address these concerns and are learning from adolescents who are particularly resilient to the influence of mass media on body image. In a study conducted by Nichole Wood-Barcalow and colleagues, 15 female college participants were asked how they interpreted and internalized thoughts and perceptions of their bodies. They found that those participants who were able to filter out negative information (from peers or mass media) had 3 main characteristics: positive emotions, rational beliefs, and realistic perceptions. Young females who reported these characteristics were highly satisfied with their body image and were able to block the effects of the thin-ideals (4).

Unfortunately, not everyone is naturally equipped with the tools to remain resilient in the face of body image pressure. Therefore, it is crucial that we as a community identify ways to help these young adolescents foster resilience and combat mass media’s influence on body dissatisfaction. Yamamiya and her colleagues expanded on this through two brief interventions: (1) psycho-educational media-literacy information (artificial beauty and genetic realities vs. control audio tapes), and (2) cognitive dissonance-induction (write key information from the tape they’ve just heard or write counter-arguments against the tape’s information). Participants were then exposed to either images of young fashion models (the thin-ideals) or neutral images (automobiles). Then, they were randomized to hear the “artificial beauty and genetic realities” audiotape that explained that many images in mass media are depicted as incorrect (false depictions) as they are created from many techniques such as make-up and photo editing, and the influence of genetics on body weight shape, thus making some females genetically predisposed to be overweight or thin. They were also randomized to write either the main points of the information they just listened to or write persuasive arguments against the tape’s information. The researchers found that psycho-educational media-literacy information was able to block the adverse effects of the thin-ideal media exposure (5).

We now know that compared to males, females are more vulnerable to body dissatisfaction after media exposure (1,5). What can we learn from these arising studies? It appears that one must learn to reduce negative thinking of body ideals and understand that these are made-up fantasies from the entertainment industry. The next time you are scrolling through your Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, or Facebook, keep in mind just how many filters and edits were used to create what appears to be a flawless image. As research has shown, keeping this reality in mind can dampen this imperfect mirror of body image.

Nancy Gomez is currently in her senior year as an undergraduate student at UCLA, majoring in Psychology. She received a full scholarship for her undergraduate studies and plans to specialize in Quantitative Psychology. Ms. Gomez is a research assistant at the Dieting, Stress, and Health (DiSH) lab with Dr. Janet Tomiyama. She is currently completing her senior thesis on the effects of mass media on body image. With her passion for statistics, she continues to tutor at her former college for statistics and psychology courses.

References

1. Slade, P. D. (1994). What is body image? Behaviour Research and Therapy, 32(5), 497-502. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(94)90136-8

2. Tucci, S., & Peters, J. (2008). Media influences on body dissatisfaction in female students. Psicothema, 20(4), 521-524. 

3. Blond, A. (2008). Impacts of exposure to images of ideal bodies on male body dissatisfaction: A review. Body Image, 5(3), 244-250. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2008.02.003

4. Wood-Barcalow, N. L., Tylka, T. L., & Augustus-Horvath, C. L., (2010). “But I like my body”: Positive body image characteristics and a holistic model for young-adult women. Body Image, 7, 106-116. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2010.01.001

5. Yamamiya, Y., Cash, T. F., Melnyk, S. E., Posavac, H. D., & Posavac, S. S. (2005). Women's exposure to thin-and-beautiful media images: Body image effects of media-ideal internalization and impact-reduction interventions. Body Image, 2(1), 74-80. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2004.11.001