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Effects of the Media on Body Image 

Allie Kovar

April 30, 2009


The National Eating Disorder Association (2006) reports that in the past 70 years national rates of incidences of all eating disorders have dramatically increased across the board.  From 1988 to 1993 the number of incidences of bulimia in women between the ages of 10 and 39 has more than tripled. The cause of these staggering statistics has yet to be determined, but research has shown that body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem put women at high risk for developing eating disorders. Today in our culture, the “thin ideal” is portrayed in every avenue of the media. Magazines, television shows, movies, commercials, etc. portray attractive women as being extremely thin. It is nearly impossible to escape the influence of the media and children are being exposed to these portrayals earlier and earlier in life. Since we live in a world of constant stimulation and immediate access to all sorts of media, could the constant reminder of the “thin ideal” cause body dissatisfaction, a negative body image, and low self-esteem?

What is Body Dissatisfaction?

Body dissatisfaction is a term used to express the feeling that people may have that their actual physical appearance is not how they would ideally like it to be. Grabe, Hyde, and Ward state that approximately 50% of girls and undergraduate women experience body dissatisfaction (2008). They also state that body dissatisfaction has been linked to “critical physical and mental health problems” and that a person experiencing body dissatisfaction is at great risk for developing an eating disorder.  Having unrealistic expectation for one’s body image creates a greater chance for body dissatisfaction. The media may influence one’s body image in such a way through the constant portrayal of the “thin ideal”.

What is Body Image?

Dina L.G. Borzekowski and Angela M. Bayer define it as “the internal representation of one's own outer appearance which reflects physical and perceptual dimensions.”(Borzekowski & Bayer, 2005) They also state that body image is closely related to self-esteem and self-concept. Poor body image and low self-esteem contribute drastically to body dissatisfaction. During adolescents, poor body image is especially harmful, because all of the rapid changes both physically and mentally occurring during puberty. Also, adolescents are becoming more and more exposed to the media and the media keeps getting more and more provocative. Young girls are looking to women with unrealistic body shapes as role models. It’s hard to find, in today’s media, a “normal” looking woman. The thin-ideal is constantly advertised, and some researchers even believe that this constant reminder of thinness may be desensitizing our youth and thus making them think and feel that this is normal. However, it’s not normal and never will be. These models are thin to the point of unhealthiness; also, to reach such a level of thinness one would have to take drastic measures. There will be a constant state of shame or guilt for those who compare their own bodies to those of the models on TV and magazines. This is not healthy physically or mentally.

How does the media portray body image?

The media broadcasts the “thin ideal” in almost every way possible. Not only are the models on the covers of magazines and in advertisements embodying the “thin ideal”, but the fictional characters in television shows and movies are almost always portrayed and thin and beautiful. Movies like Shrek where the “ugly” princess is green, overweight, and more masculine and the “beautiful” princess is thin and extremely feminine influences kids at an early age that fat is bad and thin is good. Also, as stated by many researchers, the models of today are drastically thinner than the models of the past. As each year goes by, the front cover models and the A-List celebrities reach new levels in their thinness, even reaching a level thinner than the criteria for anorexia (Grabe, Hyde, Ward 2008).  A relatively new media craze is the numerous “reality shows” that are constantly being played on major television networks. Shows like America’s Next Top Model, The Hills, and The Real Housewives of Orange County, have real life women, not actresses or models, symbolizing the “average woman” in America. These women are the prime examples of how our culture’s standard for attractiveness has reached an unhealthy level. Not only do these women possess the scarily thin bodies, but they constantly discuss dieting, exercise to lose weight, and how they aren’t thin enough. It wasn’t bad enough that supermodels were bombarding our culture with negative body image references, but now these “reality shows” with “real people” are portraying the same message.

Changes in Body Image Over Time

Many of the research pertaining to the influence of media on body image and body dissatisfaction examines the difference in models and magazine articles over time. In almost all cases, it was found that cover models had decreased body mass and increased exposure over the years. Garner, Garfinkel, Schwartz, and Thompson paid particular attention to the difference in body shape of Playboy centerfolds over a 20 year period. They found that over the years, the body mass, bust, and hip measurements decreased; however, the height increased.  They also determined that the Playboy centerfolds were 13%-19% lower than the normal body weight for women of their age (Cusumano, Thompson 1997). Other studies found that over the years, magazines like Seventeen, YM, and Cosmopolitan all had an increase in articles pertaining to diet and exercise. Anderson and DiDomenico (1992) compared women’s and men’s popular magazines and found that diet and exercise articles appeared more than 10 times as much in women’s magazines than men’s.


Experimental Studies of Media and its Effects on Body Image

The Role of the Media in Body Image Concerns Among Women: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental and Correlational Studies


By: Grabe, Hyde, Ward


Grabe, Hyde, and Ward performed meta-analysis of 77 different experimental and correlational studies to determine, quantitatively, the effects of the media on women’s body image. The measurements of body image were based upon body satisfaction/dissatisfaction, body self-consciousness/objectification, internalization of the thin ideal and drive for thinness, and eating behaviors and beliefs. Various scales were used to quantify these results, like the Body Dissatisfaction questionnaire, the Body Dissatisfaction subscale from the Eating Disorders Inventory, the Body Esteem scale, and the Appearance Self-Esteem subscale of the Current Thoughts Scale. The meta-analysis only included studies that investigated media or media exposure and excluded studies containing self-report of media exposure. Usually the subjects were exposed to magazines, television shows, or television commercials. The control groups were exposed to similar media but without the emphasis on appearance. Some of the media presented did not contain models at all, whereas some were presented with average or overweight models. No studies were included where the control group wasn’t exposed to any media at all.  Once the studies were analyzed for effect size and correlations to body image, a mean effect size was determined to be -0.28 which is a low to moderate effect. However, this does express that there is a correlation between media exposure is associated with decreased levels of body satisfaction. The mean effect size for internalization of the thin ideal was found to be -0.39, which also shows that media exposure is associated with an increase in the internalization of the thin ideal. For eating behaviors and beliefs, the mean effect size was -.30 suggesting media exposure is associated with higher eating disorder symptomatology. Overall, Grabe, Hyde, and Ward found that across the board there was a linkage between media exposure and women’s general body dissatisfaction. The correlations were only moderate, but they suggest that because the experiment designs only contained small exposures to the media this would account for the small effect size. Media exposure could have a larger effect over long periods of time, but the experiments included in the meta-analysis did not test this. (Grabe, Hyde, & Ward, 2008)





            Stice, Spangler, Agras suggest that repeated exposure to the utra-slendor models in the media promotes an internalization of the thin-ideal body image for women and may also alter normative perceptions regarding the average body dimensions of women (2001). Stice, Spangler, and Agras had 219 adolescent females from two private high schools in the San Francisco Bay area that ranged from 13 to 17 years old. The participants were administered a physical and mental health survey prior to the experiment, ten months later, and twenty months later. Each subject was assigned a number to ensure confidentiality. By random assignment, 45% of the participants received a subscription to Seventeen magazine, and the remaining 55% were the control group and received no subscription. The researchers had nine measurements during the experiment: magazine exposure manipulation check, body mass, perceived pressure to be thin, social support, thin-ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction, dieting, negative effect, and bulimic symptoms. Their main goal of the experiment was to determine is exposure to the media would create long-lasting effects on the participant. The results showed that the experimental group had a significantly higher magazine exposure and that no outside media influence compromised the control group. The average participant in the experimental group was exposed to about 30 more minutes of media exposure than the control group, which totaled 6 hours and 15 minutes more than the control group over the entire experiment. To assess the other components of measurement in the study, like the body dissatisfaction, perceived measure to be thing, and bulimic symptoms, a random regression growth curve was used. However, after the results were analyzed there were no significant effects of long-term exposure to the magazines. Stice, Spangler, and Agras suggest that perhaps the participants were too old to be affected by the media because they had already internalized the thin-ideal. They also speculate that exposure to such media may only have short-lived affects, except for “adolescents who are initially vulnerable”.  (Stice, Spangler, & Agras, 2001)


Complex messages regarding a thin ideal appearing in teenage girls’ magazines from 1956 to 2005

By: Gina M. Luff and James J. Gray

In this experiment, Luff and Gray hypothesized that the thin-ideal being portrayed in magazines has increased over time from 1956 to 2005. They paid particular attention to Seventeen magazine and YM, and hypothesized that: “1. Written content regarding dieting would increase, 2. Written content emphasizing exercise would increase, 3. Written content promoting dieting as well as exercise would increase, 4. The average body size of cover models would decrease, 5. The percentage of covers featuring at least three-fourths of a model's body each year would increase.” Seventeen and YM were chosen because they mainly target adolescents and were in circulation for the entire time frame of 1965 to 2005. The Contour Drawing Rating Scale was used to assess the body size of the cover models. Three female undergraduates were trained in using the Contour Drawing Rating Scale and were uniformed of the hypothesis of the study. These “raters” assessed the cover models of the magazines. The articles within the magazines were clearly defined, for example “articles” were considered written sections over one page in length, “minor items” were written pieces less than one page in length, and “advertisements” were items of any size placed in the magazine by an outside source. Seventeen had 155 magazines rated, YM had 157 magazines rated. The various amounts of written pieces about dieting/exercise were totaled from all of the magazines. Luff and Gray found that YM had a statistically significant linear relationship between year and number of written pieces about diet/exercise. Seventeen was found to have a curvilinear relationship. Both magazines possessed a peak in written pieces about dieting in the 1980’s. YM was also found to have a linear relationship between year and the increased body size of the cover model. There was no statistically significant evidence of increased exposure of the cover model over time. Luff and Gray interpreted this information in way that over the years our culture has not only become more “thin” conscious but health conscious. The increase in written pieces about diet and exercise could reflect the increase in education about healthy lifestyles. The increase in written pieces doesn’t necessarily imply an increase in internalization of the thin-ideal. Luff and Gray express that the findings are complex in that the message being sent by the magazine could be either promoting the thin-ideal or promoting healthy living, but they could not determine for sure which one was correct. (Luff & Gray, 2009)


Body Image and Body Shape Ideals in Magazines: Exposure, Awareness, and Internalization

By: Dale L. Cusumano and J. Kevin Thompson

Cusumano and Thompson sought out to test if the body shape and breast size promoted by popular women’s magazines had a correlation in predicting the body dissatisfaction, eating dysfunction, and self-esteem in the women who read them. They had 175 female students from the University of South Florida participate in the study. Their measurements of data included body image, eating disturbance, awareness and internalization of body shape ideals, self-esteem, and identification and quantification of magazine exposure. For measuring body image Cusumano and Thompson used the Eating Disorder Inventory – Body Dissatisfaction (EDI-BD) scale and the Multidimensional Body Self-Relations Questionnaire- Physical Appearance Evaluation (MBSRQ-PAE) scale. For eating disturbance, the Eating Disorder Inventory –Bulimia scale and the Eating Disorder Inventory – Drive for Thinness scale was used. For awareness and internalization of body shape ideals, the Sociocultual Attitudes Towards Appearance Questionnaire was used. The Rosenberg Self Esteem Inventory was used to measure self esteem and the Participant Magazine Assessment Tool was created to identify and quantify the amount of exposure to the magazine by each participant. The procedure involved administering a consent form and each of the previously mentioned questionnaires and surveys to each participant, followed by a debriefing by the researchers. The cover models were then assessed for the thinness of their body shapes. They were rated on a scale from 1 to 9, one meaning the thinnest figure and 9 meaning the heaviest figure. All facial features and hair styles were removed from the images as to reduce bias. The breast size of the models was also assessed, but with a 1 to 5 scale, 1 meaning smaller breast size and 5 meaning the largest breast size. Cusumano and Thompson, after evaluating over 30 popular magazines, split the sample into two groups: thinnest and less curvaceous models and slightly heavier and more curvaceous models. It should be noted that no magazine was rated over 4.0 in “heaviness” of its models; therefore, all of the magazines portrayed models as thin and so all exposure to this type of media would emphasis the thin ideal. The exposure to the magazines by each participant was determined by multiplying the time (in minutes) spent viewing the magazine by the number of images pertaining to dieting or thinness. The results concluded that there was no significant effect of exposure to the magazines. However, awareness of body shape ideals was a significant correlate of disturbance and internalization of social norms of appearance accounted for significant and substantial variance. The lack of significant results could have resulted from the inability to find adequate images to accurately assess for body shapes. Also, because none of the magazines printed covers with models over a 4.0 rating, the scale should have been much smaller to account for the smaller range. Cosumano and Thompson suggest that perhaps the constant bombardment of ultra thin pictures desensitizes its viewers to the thin ideal and perhaps does not have as high of an effect on their body dissatisfaction and body image. (Cusumano and Thompson, 1997)

Body Image and Media Use Among Adolescents

By: Dina L.G. Borzekowski and Angela M. Bayer

Borzekowski and Bayer discuss how the level of media access granted to adolescents in the current times is drastically higher than that of the past. Teen magazines are extremely popular with adolescents, and not only do they spend time looking at the physical magazine, but also view their companion websites in large amounts. The internet is a whole new realm of media exposure. Borzekowski and Bayer state that although the internet is mainly used by adolescents to socialize, more than two-thirds of adolescents have used the internet for “health information, either personal or academic reasons.” The internet provides people with positive information about leading a healthy lifestyle, but it also provides access to harmful websites called “pro-ana” and “pro-mia”. These sites provide tips, tricks, and advice to those interested in becoming anorexic or bulimic. There are not precautionary measures to stop people from viewing these sites, so if adolescents at their impressionable ages come across these pages, it could be detrimental. It has been found that young females who read beauty and fashion magazines are more likely to reduce their caloric intake to 1200 or less calories per day. They are also said to have greater body dissatisfaction and greater drive for thinness. Also, women who try to imitate the women on television are at much greater risk for anorexia and bulimia. However, there is one positive to increased media exposure; if a person is exposed to more sports related media or even idolize the women on television or in magazines, they were much more likely to participate in physical activity. In qualitative research, when women were asked what sorts of cultural aspects influenced their body image and self-esteem, they reported the media as the main influence. Borzekowski and Bayer found that across studies, the media was most influential in those people already at risk for eating disorders. Those who were most affected by the thin-ideal images were those who were at risk for weight concerns. Overall, they found that exposure to the media in which the ideal woman was portrayed as ultra think definitely makes an impact on adolescents who are already vulnerable to social and cultural pressures. They also found that media exposure overall has increased, with the mass amounts of information on the Internet. (Borzekowski & Bayer, 2005)

Evaluation of Studies

The previously critiqued experimental studies were extremely telling in their results. Although some of the studies reported no significant correlation between the media and body dissatisfaction and body image, they still were able to express the shift in our culture’s view of the ideal body. Most of the studies concluded that media exposure to a vulnerable audience creates a larger impact than those who are more stable. However, the constant bombardment of the “thin-ideal” is bound to influence its audience in one way or the other, whether it’s in a negative or positive way. The studies seemed to lack an adequate longitudinal study, where they would test the long term effects of media exposure. The longest amount of time that the studies ran was 15 months. A longitudinal study starting with adolescents and following their exposure through young adulthood could result in telling conclusions. The examination of the change in body shape and body mass in models over time was startling in that models used to only be 8% less body mass than the normal woman, but now is more than 23% less. The ideal body image is becoming more and more unattainable, but even more and more prominent in our society.


The “thin ideal” being portrayed in the media is a constant reminder of the negative body image being taught to adolescents in our culture and then continuing to be supported by the rest of our population. Media access is at its prime, with a click of a mouse any and all information is accessible. With sites like “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” the affects of the “thin ideal” are reaching a new extreme. The amount of diet and exercise articles in magazines has been increasing with every new year. The BMI of the cover models has been decreasing with every new year. If we do not take drastic measures to stop this trend, more and more cases of eating disorders are going to spring up. Body image and self-esteem are definitely affected by the media, in that people compare their actual physical body to those in the media and experience guilt or shame and thus body dissatisfaction. Not only should the health of the viewers be of concern, but the health of the models who are themselves at risk for eating disorders should be taken into consideration. Perhaps more studies should be done on the affects of the increasing “thin ideal” on the models used to portray it. The long term effects of the media should be researched more thoroughly, and perhaps examine the body image and self-esteem of the generation in which the “thin ideal” began. If we cannot come together as a society and change the way we perceive beauty, there will be serious health consequences, not only in the physical sense but also the mental sense.



Works Cited


Cusumano, Dale, and J. Kevin Thompson. "Body Image and Body Ideals in Magazines: Exposure, Awareness, and Internalization." Sex Roles 37.9/10 (1997): 701-721.


"General Information Text." National Eating Disorders Association. 30 Apr. 2009 <>.


Grabe, Shelly, Janet Hyde, and L. Monique Ward. "The Role of the Media in Body Image Concerns Among Women: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental and Correlational Studies." Psychological Bulletin 134.3 (2008): 460-476.


Luff, Gina, and James Gray. "Complex messages regarding a thin ideal appearing in teenage girls’ magazines from 1956 to 2005 ." Body Image 6.2 (2009): 133-136. 29 Apr. 2009 <>.


Stice, Eric, Diane Spangler, and W. Stewart Agras. "Exposure to Media-Portrayed Thin-Ideal Images Adversely Affects Vulnerable Girls: A Longitudinal Study." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 20.3 (2001): 270-288. 29 Apr. 2009 <>.






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