The Role of Media in Perpetuating Unrealistic Female Body Images
The Role of Media in Perpetuating Unrealistic Female Body Images Portrayals of high fashion models in print media has long created an unrealistic “ideal” body image for women and despite some recent campaigns (e. g. , Dove and Nike) to portray “normal” sized/shaped women, the fall-out from the idealized images has not been pretty (pun intended).
Research has shown that females are frequently affected, negatively, by their inability to achieve and/or maintain the thinness that is the hallmark of the idealized female body type represented in print media. Groesz, Levine, and Murnen (2002) point out that thinness is embedded in beauty ideals, but also in ideals of morality in that the “good girl” exhibits by maintaining her “thinness” that she is in control of her desires while projecting herself as the object of desire for others.
Owen and Laurel-Seller (2000) discuss how heavier bodies, and larger framed bodies are not only viewed as unattractive and sexually unappealing, the owners of those bodies are often defined as lazy, lacking self-control, and lacking virtue and Griffin and Langlois (2006) found that attractiveness was perceived as being related to helpfulness, intelligence, and friendliness. What is interesting however, is how much the idealized body, presented in the media, relies on untruths. History of the Ideal Female Form Dereen and Beresin (2006) explained that standards of beauty for females have long been “unrealistic and difficult to attain.
” They note that, historically, wealth has always allowed greater access to the beauty ideal and that pain was usually a component of achieving the ideal (e. g. , corsets, powders with arsenic and lead in it to whiten the skin, foot binding, surgical removal of ribs, etc. ). The pain of the modern woman is self-denial in order to achieve a thinness that is unhealthy. Hess-Biber (2007) deconstructs the trend toward thinness within feminist discourse, as a cultural reaction toward limiting women’s space and as women have demanded more space by moving into the public sphere.
She notes that movement out into the public space has resulted in more restrictive cultural norms that increasingly restrict their bodies. After the second world war, women returned to the home in significant numbers resulting in a definition of beauty that permitted larger bodies with soft curves and full figures as was evident in the 1950s, however as females began to make the move back into the public sphere, bodies began to shrink again, in a manner that was similar to the ultra-slender form of the post-suffrage movement, the boyishly thin flapper of the 1920s.
Today’s thin-ideal is even more slender, but then today’s woman has much more than the vote. Ideal Female Form in the Media According to Groesz, Levine, and Murnen (2002) the media is the “loudest and most aggressive purveyors of images and narratives of ideal slender beauty” (p. 2). Martin and Kennedy (1993) suggest that the perpetuation of damaging ideals of physical attractiveness may be “unintended” by-products, however they do insist that understanding the “causes and consequences” of advertising outcomes must be examined and addressed.
Of course, feminist discourse, such as that described by Hess-Biber (2007) would argue that the damage is not unintentional at all. Magazines, television, film, the internet, social media, and advertising campaigns are all, in fact, complicit in perpetuating an ideal of extreme thinness as a primary component of feminine beauty. Furthermore, as women have taken up a good deal more of the public sphere, the restrictions upon their bodies have become even more stringent. Guillen and Barr (1994) noted that the models in their magazine study not only”reflected the emphasis on thinness/
They also found that the models had become increasingly thinner. Derenne and Beresin (2006) also noted that models in the 1980s were about 8% thinner than average, but in 2006 they were 23% thinner than the average woman although they suggest that rising obesity rates may also contribute to this statistic.
Technology has been used to attept to hide how damaging the thin-ideal has become by airbrushing away all evidence that the waif thin models in the magazines are suffering from thinning hair; blotched, unhealthy skin; dark circles under the eyes; and other signs of ill-health as a result of their severely underweight conditions and retouching has been used to add curves to skeletal structures with protruding ribs/collarbones and sunken cheeks. In fact, Hardy (2010), a former editor of Cosmopolitan, said that women wouldn’t yearn to be super-thin if they could see how ugly it really was, but airbrushing hides all that ugliness and she adds her voice to the demand to stop airbrushing and creating impossible to attain ideals of feminine beauty.
She also notes that airbrushing isn’t restricted to fashion magazines, even health and fitness promoting magazines such as Self have had to “retouch to make the models look bigger and healthier” and Jane Druker, editor of Healthy magazine (sold in health food stores) admitting to retouching a cover girl. Magazines Guillen and Barr (1994) statistically analyzed nutrition and fitness articles and body shape representations in 132 issues of Seventeen that were published between 1970 and 1990.
In their literature review they discuss studies that show magazines are a significant source of nutrition information, for adolescents and young adults. They reported that the predominant messages in women’s magazines were focused on dieting and exercise to achieve an ideal body shape and their study found that this message was replicated in the adolescents’ magazine that they reviewed. They found that 50% of the major nutrition-related articles focused on weight-loss and each of these articles explained the relationship between dieting and improving one’s appearance.
Furthermore, although they found the nutrition advise to be accurate, they explained that there was little provided to help their readers assess whether they needed to lose weight and they found some of the diets were “overly restrictive. ” They explain that 51% of the fitness articles described exercise regimes to promote weight loss and 74% cited attractiveness as an outcome for engaging in a fitness or exercise plan.
Advertising Guillen and Barr (1994) found that 24.8% of the 1459 advertisements they reviewed, in the twenty years worth of Seventeen magazine issues, were for diet camps and another 12. 3% were for weight control products. They also noted, however, that 14. 4% of the advertisements were for candy, snack food, and beverages. Groesz, Levine, and Murnen (2002) also mention the conflicting advertising messages that push high caloric foods with low nutritional values along side articles and advertisements for weightloss.
In Guillen and Barr’s (1994) literature review, they noted an increase in the prevalence of both obesity and anorexia nervosa/bulimia in adolescent women during the onset of the “fitness boom” in the 1970s and 1980s which may be attributable to the conflicting messages of weight-loss; an ideal, but unachievable, body type; and high calorie, low nutrition food. Television and Film
Grabe, Ward, and Hyde (2008) explain that thin actors dominate the television screen and they note that actresses, models, Playboy centerfolds, and even cartoon characters have become “increasingly thinner” to the point that many of them are “often thinner than the criteria for anorexia” (p. 460). In a study conducted by Raphael and Lacey (1992) they found that 69% of female characters on television were so thin they appeared to be anorexic and Hawkins et al (2004) found a similar body structure in the majority of women on television, one that includes narrow hips, long legs, and at least 15% below the average woman’s weight.
Percy and Lautman (1994) examined portrayals of women in the media and reported that the ideal 1894 female model was 5’4″ tall and weighted 140 pounds. By 1947 the ideal model was fifteen pounds lighter and in 1970 models were expected to be at least 5’8″ tall and 118 pounds. An interesting study conducted by Becker et al in 2002 was related by Derenne and Beresin (2006) showed how the introduction of television to Fiji in 1995 drastically changed the body ideal of ethic Fijians.
Prior to the introduction of television this culture favoured a rotund body type, eschewed dieting, and reported only one case of anorexia nervosa. In 1998, dieting was a engaged in by 69% of the population and eating disorders were becoming much more prevalent and the youth explained the inspiration for this new behavior was due to the appearance of the actors in the programs they watched. Implications of Idealizing the Female Form Female obsession with the “thin-ideal” body image is linked to negative behaviors such as excess dieting, low self-esteem, dieting and in extreme cases depression and eating disorders.
Grabe, Ward, and Hyde (2008) discuss the implications of the “unattainable” thin-ideal representation of women, in the media, from the perspective of cultivation theory and social learning theory that suggests that “repeated exposure to media content leads viewers to begin to accept media portrayals as representations of reality” and that the thin-ideal woman is “normative, expected, and central to attractiveness”(p. 460).
Groesz, Levine, and Murnen (2002) conducted a meta-analysis of twenty-five studies (n = 2,292) and they found that 86% of the studies reviewed found a small, but consistent, negative effect on body satisfaction levels in females exposed to thin-ideal media images, with younger females (< 19 years old) and those with a history of body dissatisfaction issues showing the greatest negative impact. Body Image Disturbances and Psychological Dysfunctions Groesz, Levine, and Murnen (2002) describe studies that show that a “moderate degree of [body] dissatisfaction” (p. 2) is now considered a normal aspect of being a woman and dieting is an activity regularly employed to manipulate size and shape.
Hesse-Biber (2007) suggest that at least 56% of women experience body dissatisfaction which has given rise to the increase in dieting and exercise, but also eating disorders and plastic surgery. Grabe, Ward, and Hyde (2008) cite several studies that identifies body dissatisfaction as a dominant risk for eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, and obesity and suggest this (body dissatisfaction) is “a core aspect of women’s physical and mental health” (p. 460). They found more than 100 studies that examined how the thin-ideal represented in media was internalized by women as an expected and normal aspect of beauty.
Park (2005) found a link between her college-aged subjects desire to be thin and their beauty and fashion magazine reading activity. Her subjects had internalized the thin-ideal to such an extent that they assumed that everyone, men and women, prefer the thin body represented in the media. Stice, Spangler and Agras (2001) sought to determine the outcomes of longer term exposure to thin-ideals by providing a 15 month subscription to a fashion magazine (Seventeen) to 45% of a sample of 219 adolescent girls; the remainder were assigned to the control group.
They were able to show that their experimental group spent more time reading the magazine (~30 minutes more per month) than the control group. They did not see any significant increases in effects on the five outcomes being studied: thin-ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction, dieting, negative affect, and bulimic symptoms overall, except for the participants who had initially reported above average scores on the pressure to be thin variable.
These vulnerable adolescents felt an increased pressure to be thin and reported more body dissatisfaction as a result of increased exposure to the thin-ideal. Wertheim et al. (1997) sought to understand the sociocultural pressures and influences on the dieting behaviors of a small (n=30) homogeneous sample of adolescent girls (ages 14 to 16), primarily to contribute to research that seeks to discover and implement preventions measures for eating disorders in adolescents.
While they were able to see that dieting and watching one’s weight were part of the conversations these subjects had with friends and family, the greatest pressure came from the thin models on the television and in advertisements and the second greatest force was the fashions worn by those models that “aren’t made for bigger or medium-size people. Most of it is made for slim people” (p. 350). The Role of the Media Researchers over the last thirty years have concluded that media exposure to the thin-ideal contributes to a fixation on body image and internalizing the social expectation to be thin.
High exposure to media images of the thin-ideal is correlated with body dissatisfaction, diminished self-esteem, negative self-worth, depression, shame, insecurities, and eating disorders in female youth (Grabe, Ward, and Hyde, 2008; Groesz, Levine, and Murnen, 2002). Wertheim et al. (1997) found that media and fashion were the biggest sources of pressure on their study subjects’ desire to be thin although the pressures were reinforced by social factors such as teasing or wanting to fit into a peer group that was dieting (even if they didn’t need to be dieting).
Lokken, Worthy, and Trautmann (2004) found a correlation between women who had internalized the thin-ideal standard for beauty and their preferences for fashion and beauty magazines. Reactionary Media Campaigns Commissioned by Dove, Etcoff, Orbach, Scott, and D’Agostino (2004) conducted a study in which they interviewed 3,200 women in ten countries; 500 of these women were from the United States. They found that 47% of their subjects (60% of U. S. respondents) believed their weight to be “too high” which affected their perceptions of their own physical attractiveness.
These women reported that they believed that the idea of beauty is much more than just physical attractiveness, but popular culture and the media have made these two concepts synonymous and that attributes associated with female beauty are not only becoming “increasingly narrowed” in their definition, but are also becoming much more unattainable.
These respondents strongly agreed that media and advertising were responsible for setting “unrealistic standard[s] of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve” (p.27) and 59% of the American respondents believed that “only the most physically attractive women are portrayed in popular culture” (p. 27). Dove (2013) has attempted to address these findings in their advertising campaign, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty launched in 2004, by introducing what they called “real women whose appearances are outside the stereotypical norms of beauty. ” They report that their efforts have resulted in some positive movement away from perpetuating unrealistic perceptions of beauty that are represented by underweight fashion models beginning when Spain banned “overly thin models” in 2006.
Dove responded by stepping up their advertising campaign by producing videos that show how “unrealistic perceptions of beauty are created” with airbrushing and modifications to images of made up models before they are released to the public. They also produced a film in 2007 called Onslaught, that dramatizes the massive volume of “unrealistic, unattainable images… of beauty” targeting girls and young women that is resulting in lower self-esteem. Dove is pleased that their efforts are gaining traction, but they know that there is still much that needs to be accomplished.
The message is being heard, however, as advertising directed at women is increasingly relying upon “real women. ” In the United Kingdom, Jo Swinson, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, reports that their government has been getting involved and encouraging media, retail, and fashion industries to “promote diverse body images” and to refrain from airbrushing in their ads. She was pleased that advertising campaigns in the U. K. are, in her word, “championing authenticity” (Campaign, 2013). Recommendations
Groesz, Levine, and Murnen (2002) suggest that advertisers and marketers need to be held accountable for the fall out from promoting unhealthy body ideals and Grave, Ward, and Hyde (2008) suggest that the media needs to be encouraged to reduce and eliminate representations of the thin-ideal. Both studies concluded with a recommendation for education programs that teach girls media literacy so that they can be “critical consumers of appearance-related media to prevent the development of body dissatisfaction and disturbed eating behaviors” (Grave, Ward, and Hyde, 2008, p.471) and both studies presented evidence on the effectiveness of such interventions.
Derenne and Beresin (2006) would like to see a government funded advertising campaign conducted that promotes healthy life-styles, although they (perhaps naively) believe that the lessons and values for healthy eating and exercise must be modelled and learned at home although the study conducted by Wertheim et al (1997) does support this somewhat, in that the subjects, in their study, who did not diet or watch their weight exhibited characteristics of self-acceptance that was fostered by their friendship groups and family influences.
They suggest that the constructive influences of peer groups can be utilized to facilitate interventions to mitigate the sociocultural agents that promote unhealthy eating behaviors. They pointed to the successful use of peer facilitators in youth smoking prevention studies, but otherwise did not provide much guidance on how to implement such a measure.
Martin and Kennedy (1993) believe that media representatives need to be encouraged to portray a “broader spectrum of beauty” and sees some advertising campaigns showing “oversize models” as evidence that media representatives are open to the suggestions. Etcoff, Orbach, Scott, and D’Agostino (2004) found that the women in their study also want the media to change the way it represents beauty. 76% of the respondents (85% of U. S.
respondents) think beauty must be portrayed as something more than just physical attractiveness by portraying a greater diversity of women where physical attractiveness is not restricted to women of a particular age, shape, weight , or size. They suggest that the narrow definition of beauty that is “largely located in limited ideals of physical appearance” (p. 47), but can be changed to affirm the “unrealized and unclaimed” concept of authentic beauty (which includes happiness, kindness, wisdom, and love, etc. ) that is “lodged in women’s hearts and minds” (p.47).
In is through such efforts that women believe they may be freed from an ideal that is “extremely difficult to achieve” and failure to achieve is a significant contributor to low self-esteem particularly among the youngest of the respondents. These respondent expressed a hope that popular culture and media take the opportunity and be the primary force for change in defining a new standard for beauty that incorporates characteristics that go beyond the young, waif-thin, tall, leggy models that grace the pages of fashion magazines.
Conclusion Evidence that the message is being heard by advertisers was shown when the creative director of the Dove Campaign, Brian Collins, was presented with the Image of Woman award at the 2006 National Organization for Women Conference and in his acceptance speech he said “This is a simple idea, that beauty, whatever that means, is a self-defined and democratic idea. What I really want everyone to do here is hold the advertising industry accountable” (Hopper, 2006). Ms.
Hopper reports that there are some nay-sayers who believe that Dove has not gone “far enough in challenging the status quo,” since they still rely on sex, or at least sex-appeal, to sell many of their products and according to Felix (2012) they may be using real women, but they still airbrush way “imperfections” from their imperfect models. However, the conversation about body image and beauty is taking place in the mainstream and not just within the academic literature. Perhaps the time is finally upon us to find Keats’ truth.