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The Media: Brainwashing Females Into Internalizing an Unattainable Body Image Or Just Letting Us Know What's In Style Next Season?



Maya Benayoun

April 30th, 2009





            The constantly developing world of media has served as a benefactor to many Americans today. The question is are there negatives to todayÕs mass media dominated world? It is obvious that most individuals wish to change some aspect of their body shape and size. These individuals face conflict because of the discrepancies between their ideal body image (which may or may not be realistic) and their perceived body image (how they actually look). The belief held and studied by many, states that the media imposes a body image discrepancy, promotes a thin ideal and pressures individuals to hold a negative body image and at times develop an eating disorder. Others believe that correlations between the media and how one perceives their body cannot prove that the media is the direct source of that individualÕs opinion. Those who hold this belief attribute negative body images to other socio-cultural factors such as low self-esteem, the idea that voluntarily viewing images of thin models can allow the idea of an ideal thin state to serve as a positive reinforcement; rather then a negative reinforcement, the flaws within the socioculture model of eating disorders and the fact that researches are biased in focusing their studies on vulnerable individuals who have developed eating pathology as a result of the media. Through an extensive analysis of scientific literature and studies I wish to conclude whether or not there is sufficient correlation to blame the media for various negative affects on oneÕs body image, increased dissatisfaction with oneself and the affects on females with diagnosed eating disorders.


The evolution of social media has produced many mediums where one may look for the Ņideal personal image,Ó the introduction of the modern World Wide Web as well as the recurring themes of magazines and television have given todayÕs female a new standard when it comes to physical appearance. The socio-cultural model of eating disorders states that the media does one of two things. Primarily, it makes females develop negative feelings about themselves and secondly it entrenches the female society and through the recurring theme of thinness promotes irregular eating habits and thus, eating disorders (Herman & Polivy, 2004). The problems attributing to these criteria are significant.

When considering the relation between vulnerability and the effects of media, why is it that although the ubiquitous idea of thinness is promoted through the media, some women chose to act based on their dissatisfaction with themselves while others do not? Is this a matter of less exposure to the media or are there further characteristics of susceptibility to being highly affected by the promotion of the ideal body that have not yet been declared? Secondly, if buying magazines and watching commercials is a voluntary action why do women chose to partake in these activities anyways? If there is a sense of satisfaction or pleasure from seeing thin models and fantasizing about presumably attaining a particular shape who is to blame? Females who allow the ideal body image schema they have internalized become a positive reinforcement (a benefactor if attained) are less likely to develop and an eating disorder. Those who view their schema as a negative reinforcement, in other words becoming thin would remove the current dissatisfaction with their image are prone to develop eating irregularities; which in the long run may develop as disorderly behavior. Another discrepancy within the criteria is that the majority of opinions are formed on the basis of those individuals that have allowed the mediaÕs messages to affect their lifestyles, rather than on the larger pool of individuals that have had nonpathological outcomes and are less inclined to developing irregular behavior. Lastly, whether the media feeds society what it wants or whether it promotes what is profitable and the ideals they wish to impose on others, is a concept that has yet to be fully understood.

 As with the simplistic criteria for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, many believe that a complex issue or disorder should not allow its criteria to be set in stone, but rather allow them to be considered hypotheses open to further review (Herman & Polivy, 2004). The various studies I wish to present indirectly question both the positive and negative aspects of the media, using criterion, such as the socio-cultural model and the cognitive-behavioral models of eating disorders, as a basis for their argumentation and implications.

 Influence of Commercials in Eating- Disordered and Non Eating Disordered Individuals:

            A study was conducted on 25 eating-disordered females and 25 non eating-disordered females in order to asses the affects of appearance related television commercials on both the perceptual and attitudinal component of body image. The study tried to modify previous studies done on how the media has an affect on various parts of oneÕs body image. Some conflicting components of previous studies done on the topic include study samples consisting of only subclinical and college students, fashion magazines used at stimuli instead of the much more widely viewed television commercials (about 35,000 commercials yearly), studies focusing on body dissatisfaction in general instead of the more specific components of body image, such as perception, cognition, and emotion. A few procedural issues in need of reform entail not having neutral conditions to serve as a comparison to medias affect on body image, as well as, failing to include a rest phase after exposure to stimuli to test longitudinal affects (Legenbauer, Ruhl, & Vocks, 2008).

Participants: All of the 50 females being studied were assessed for psychiatric disorders using the Structural Clinical Interview for Psychiatric Disorders and according to the fourth edition DSM- IV, 25 of the participants were diagnosed with eating disorders and 25 participants did not suffer from any eating disorders. Of the 25 participants with eating disorders, 20 were reported to have bulimia nervosa, 2 suffered from anorexia nervosa and 3 were diagnosed with binge eating disorder. 19 of the participants in the ED (eating-disordered) group were diagnosed with comorbidity, 11 reported having other depressive disorders and 4 indicated dealing with social phobias. The mean age for the eating-disordered group was 25 and the average body mass index (BMI) calculated for the group was 22.55 kg/m^2. The comparison group of 25 non eating-disordered females consisted of 2 individuals with major depression and 3 individuals with specific phobias. The mean age for the group was 23.08 years of age and the mean BMI for the group was 21.29 kg/m^2 (Legenbauer, Ruhl, & Vocks, 2008).

Method/Procedure: Body image experimentation was based on the Contour Drawing Rating scale. This scale consists of nine different drawings of different body types. Participants were to choose what drawing they believed they currently resembled, how they actually look and lastly, what they wish to look like. The conflicting states were to reveal each participantÕs current dissatisfaction with their body image. Dysfunctional cognitions were tested using the Questionnaire for Eating Disordered Related Cognitions. The subscales tested in this phase of experimentation were Body and Self-Esteem, Dietary Restraint, as well as, Eating and Loss of Control.  The Internalization and Social comparison scale was developed to avoid miscalculations that occurred as a result of bias answers because of body-related stimuli in the commercials. Mood states were assessed using Likert-type scales for 13 levels of emotion. Emotions tested included, confusion, irritation, boredom, excitement and self-control. Lastly, videotape stimuli were created to test the affect of media stimuli on the participants. Two five minute commercials were created; one relating to appearance (body cr¸me, shampoo, swimsuits) and the other having nothing to do with appearance (paper and dog food). After each phase of the study participants were given a break and asked to speak out loud about their opinions. Finally, participants were given chairs and told to rest and speak of how they felt afterwards (Legenbauer, Ruhl, & Vocks, 2008).

Results: The perceptual part of the study showed that participants with ED faced larger body image disturbances than non-ED participants. The drawing used to depict different body images labeled anorexic images as images 1-4 and obese images as 7-9. The results were as follows:


Baseline Mean

During Appearance Commercials

After Appearance Commercials

Neutral Commercials

After Neutral Commercials

Real Current Image:



















Felt Current Image




































(Legenbauer, Ruhl, & Vocks, 2008)

The mean ranges for each group followed a similar path in which they both increased from the baseline score during and after commercials relating to appearance, decreased during and after neutral commercials and slightly increased after neutral commercials. Thus, participants had a larger body dissatisfaction score after viewing appearance related commercial, as opposed to, neutral commercials. Females with eating disorders rated their current body image as heavier than those without eating disorders even though their BMIÕs were extremely similar. ED participants were also shown to idealize having an anorexic body shape, while non-ED participants chose weights in the normal range. In the second part of the study assessing increased dysfunctional cognitions there was a moderate increase in dysfunctional thinking (dietary restraint focused) for both groups. In addition, the ED group scored higher when tested for internalization/social comparison. In other words the participants internalized the appearance-associated commercials more with ED than those without ED. The rest of the studies didnÕt display and significant statistical evidence.

Analysis of Procedure: There were a few conflicting procedure steps I viewed in this particular study. Although a majority of the concepts tested were done so with respectable psychological tests and scales there were confines to the study. The first would be that the sample size is small and thus, canÕt serve as enough evidence to generalize the concepts tested. Secondly, there was more than one group of eating disordered individuals placed in the ED group. Although, the study does address the fact that most eating disorders share many characteristics, the difference in disorders can skew some of the results. Additionally I believe that there should have been more than 5 minutes of resting time after the final commercial because participants could of very well been still cognitively tuned into what they saw rather then a state of relaxation. As a result the questions answered afterwards could still be biased. It may have been more accurate to ask participants how they felt about their body image a few hours after the study (assuming they arenÕt exposed to further sources of media in that relaxation period). Lastly, another source of possible error could be that although some commercials were considered neutral they could have unintentionally triggered an individual to think of their body image (for example a commercial about dog food can lead to thoughts about food, and thus, weight).

In reference to the results of the experiment it is not surprising that females with eating disorders view themselves as heavier, considering face dissatisfaction with their image even before viewing the commercial. Although there seems to be a somewhat clear correlation between the commercials and how the participants rated their own body weight, I think that there are many factors not taken into consideration. The media does indeed have some sort of effect on its viewers, but do the commercials simply remind patients of struggles they face with factors as self-esteem, relationship conflicts and un-happiness, which are already established prior to the study. These factors are probably more developed in the females who have established eating disorders, but may very well still be significantly apparent in the females who havenÕt yet developed a disorder. The fact that the commercials affect both groups of women and lead to a development of a negative body image suggest the facts that both groups share similar vulnerabilities.

Eating Disordered Behaviors and Media Exposure:

            Another study was conducted to test the relationship between media exposure and disordered eating, as well as, other hidden factors that may underlie the complex relationship between the media and individual self-perceptions. The study was preformed on students in the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Participants: In the first phase of testing 221 undergraduate psychology students at the university were analyzed based on their responses to a questionnaire. The sample group consisted of 176 females and 45 men. For the basis of this review I will only focus on the results found about the female pool in this study. The students were between the ages of 18 and 32 years of age, 68.5% of the study group white, the rest was black, Asian and mixed (Carney & Louw, 2006).

Method/Procedure (Part 1): This portion of the study was conducted during a regular class lecture. Students were given the Eating Attitude Test-26 (EAT-26), a questionnaire of self-assessment that measures the symptoms associated with anorexia nervosa disorder, in addition to a questionnaire about overall media exposure. The group being studied was told that their participation in the questionnaire was voluntary and that they were allowed to leave at any time (to avoid people answering questions because it was a required task). The test served as a source of measuring the studentÕs overall exposure to various forms of media, to determine his or her ideal body image and if the studentÕs leisurely activities were in any way connected to any form of media.

 In order to measure exposure to mass media questions such as, if the individual had television and Internet access at home, how often the Internet was used, and magazines were read. Following these general questions students were asked to name two celebrities they believe embodied an ideal image. Celebrities were then placed into the following five categories: overweight, curvaceous, athletic, thin and extremely thin. Lastly, the test addressed the idea of leisure time and activities. Participants were asked what they do in their free time and were given points for every media related activity they did. The test was based on a point system with 19 being the highest score. Each portion of the test was graded and put into one of three point scales. The first being from 0 to 6 point meant little to no media exposure, the second range from 7 to 13 was considered medium media expose, and scores ranging from 14 and above were considered high media exposure (Carney & Louw, 2006).

Method/ Procedure (Part 2): In order to participate in the second part of the study students were required to score a medium to high range of media exposure in phase one of the study and a 19 or above (20 being a possible eating disorder) on the EAT-26. Out of the 221 participants in the first phase of the study only 33 women and no men met the criteria for phase two, which consisted of more personalized interviews. 10 of the 29 participants who agreed to participate in an additional study were chosen to have a 30-minute to an hour and a half interview held at the school, 10 months after the questionnaire and were between the ages of 20 and 25. The students were reminded of the questionnaire and its implications prior the interview (Carney & Louw, 2006).

Results: In the first phase of the study 35 females scored in a low range for both amount of media exposure and anorexia nervosa characteristics, 115 scored in the medium range and 27 scored in the high range. After the 10 individual interviews were conducted a process of coding was used to uncover any relationships between all external factors and individual self- perception. Some of the categories established that may explain why females often face confliction or dissatisfaction with their bodies include low self-confidence and self esteem, external causes such as parents and the slender appearance of peers, the ideal-type media, the cognitive dilemma faced by diet advertisements (one knows that the products scientifically cannot work, but in a drive for thinness want to believe they do) and addictive behaviors in relation to media and slender images. Many of the participants reported disorderly behavior and it is believed that these students have begun to participate in dysfunctional eating (eating less or going on crash diets) because of their exposure to the media. Surprisingly not all participants believed that the media had any effect on their self-esteem and claimed to have accepted their appearance (Carney & Louw, 2006).

Analysis of Procedure: Some key elements of this study that made some of the data more reliable that was not viewed in the previous study are the fact that this study group was much larger and that the study itself was conducted over a longer period of time. Although the group was eventually narrowed down it is important that data was collected from a large, randomized group of students to view initial correlations between media exposure and student opinions on body image. It was also essential that when trying to analyze individual underlying factors contributing to a negative body image, the group was condensed and more focused. The study itself was created in order to combine quantitative and qualitative measurements to strengthen the conclusive results and by using both a questionnaire and interview better results can be concluded. Allowing the second portion of the study to occur months after the questionnaire allows less biased thinking to affect the participantÕs answers, and is in my opinion another way of increasing the effectiveness of a study. However, even though I do believe the second study group should have been smaller and gave some insight on how females may be predisposed to or develop eating disorders I donÕt believe that a study of 10 individuals is sufficient enough to make any conclusive argumentation. The results may serve as hypothesesÕ, but further research needs to be conducted to see if these factors are something ever-present for women or are only factors affecting this group of females.

Seeking Evidence of Self-Affirmation

Another very similar study was conducted on 181 college females to see the difference between post-media exposure feelings about body image in larger framed woman compared to smaller framed women. The study sought to prove the hypotheses that after viewing media depicting thin models females would have an increased amount of weight concern. Specifically those women who had a larger BMI would feel a heightened sense of disturbance because their image is farther from the thin models image than that of a normal sized female. It also wished to confirm the self-affirmation theory by viewing The results followed the self-affirmation theory in that women with a high BMI would rate un-appearance related features much high than appearance after viewing thin model related media images. It also propose that regardless of BMI women with lower self-esteem would rate un-weight related characteristics higher than others. Participants were 20 years old on average and had a BMI of approximately 23.28. The results mirrored the results of the previous study. Using the Self-Worth Questionnaire and the Body Esteem scale, results showed that only those with higher BMIÕs and low self-esteems rated characteristics unrelated to weight as extremely as a way to make up for the disturbance they feel in relation to body image. The results of this study show that the media does indeed have an effect on how females view their body image, but is unique in posing the idea that only those who are vulnerable before viewing thin media in the first place are affected by it. The limitations of this study that was mentioned and I believe would be extremely interesting to view is to extend the study or create a new one to test whether self affirmation does or does not increase the feeling of self worth in individuals affected by the medias ideal image (Bergstrom, Neighbors, & Malheim, 2009).

The Availability of Pro-anorexia Internet Sites and Its Affect on Eating Disorders:

            Pro-anorexia websites have recently emerged as a source of communication between individuals suffering from anorexia and in need of a support system. These sites are extremely controversial because many believe that the usage of these sites will increase rates of anorexia nervosa. The sites are beneficial for those who use them for various reasons. First, the site serves as a support network and system that leaves the diseased beingÕs identity anonymous. Those who seek support through these sites, view an improvement in mental health, as they gain a sense of being part of a group, rather then alone. Lastly, these sites provide guidelines on how to maintain an anorexic lifestyle and answer any problems participants may have. The following study was an analysis of posted message boards on an information-rich pro-anorexia Internet site (Mulveen & Hepworth, 2006).

Participants: Out of the 15,519 messages posted on the site, 15 message threads were collected for a 6-week period.

Method/Procedure: Interpretative phenomenological analysis (also know as IPA) was used in order to explore the site and sort out threads that seemed relevant to the topic at hand. The site contained sixteen threads each relating to a different aspect of anorexia. Some of these threads included tips and trick, eating disorder related newspapers and magazines and a section for participants to post their own weight loss progress. The 15 threads that were collected and viewed were divided into four themes with the results listed below.

Results: The first theme examined was tips and techniques. The messages posted on tips and techniques followed a common pattern in the topics addressed. Diet pills, calorie counts, herbal supplements, caffeine as a method for increasing weight loss and exercise techniques were all common topics spoken about in these threads. Most posters were in the range of 70-100 pounds, which is rather disturbing.

The second theme titled ŌanaÕ vs. anorexia and distinguished the difference between being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa (a mental illness) and ana, which is a lifestyle that an individual chooses. Ana is seen as way to be in control of oneÕs lifestyle without the mental inabilities that anorexia nervosa patients face. Those who posted to this thread were either pressured to not seek recovery and maintain their low body fat or to begin an ana lifestyle.

The third theme labeled social support, gave participants the social freedom they were seeking.  They posted messages about how the website had improved their emotional and mental health and how support on weight loss practices were effective and helpful.

The final theme, need for anorexia, was a thread in which participants viewed their disorderly lifestyle as one step closer to being a more pure and healthy individual they believe that anorexia has helped them cope with stress and anguish that they have faced (Mulveen & Hepworth, 2006).

Analysis of Procedure: I enjoyed this study because I believe the method used in obtaining information and data was unique and more realistic, many studies aim to use numerical data to hypothesize and form conclusion on a particular behavior, but this study actually delved into the shoes of those suffering from anorexia and their feelings about life and the site itself. The conclusive result was that although pro-anorexia websites may contribute to increased eating disorders, the study itself was able to depict the reasoning for the sites creation rather then the source of blame. This conclusive result is important to point out because there is not a sufficient amount of information or scientifically structured basis for any results to be drawn. Some limitations of the study are the lack of knowledge on how many of those using the site considered their disorderly lifestyle as a result and the fact that the study wasnÕt held over a long period of time to see if there was a significant increase of participants over time.

ŅBody PerfectÓ Ideals and Negative Body Image:

Another study done on forty-two female students in the University of Liverpool tried to view the difference in body image dissatisfaction between viewing images of thin models and viewing images of plus size models. The study group consisted of females between the ages of 18 -25.The females in the study were shown a slideshow of images of both thin and plus size models. After each slideshow participants were to fill out a questionnaire about body image and compare themselves to the females in the photos. As in the previous two studies the same pattern with body dissatisfaction was viewed after seeing photos of thin models. The femalesÕ body image satisfaction increased after viewing the images of the large figured models. Below is a preview at some of the data collected from the study:

Table 1

Means [+ or -] SE of each body satisfaction question and the average

Score in both conditions. *= p<0.05; ** p<0.01; *** p<0.001


Body part         Thin condition

    Before (N=42)        After (N=42)

Shape of legs     45.88 [+ or -] 3.14   39.74 [+ or -]3.21 **

Body part         Overweight condition

                   Before (N=42)        After (N=42)

Shape of legs     44.07 [+ or -] 2.93   53.31 [+ or -] 3.18 *** (Tucci & Peters, 2008)


            As with the previous studies there is a clear connection between the media and how females perceive their own image, but not enough long-term data to state any absolute conclusions. Although no long term effects are obvious, it can be said that in the immediate short term images to change individual perception of body image (Tucci & Peters, 2008).


            The fact of the matter is that there is a correlation between the media and its affect on the body image of both females who have not yet developed disordered behavior and on females who already have an eating disorder. Studies have been able to show different aspects of these correlations, but do not have sufficient data to allow their findings to be generalized. The main reason for not having anything, but hypotheses on the topic is because there are many limitations on studies analyzing this specific topic and there is a lot of knowledge that it not yet known about the topic of media and body image. First of all there is a need for more longitudinal research that examines the effects of the media and the motives individuals have for media use. Longitudinal research can also aid in answering the question, is it really the thinness of models in media that have a negative effect on body image? These studies should measure the exact exposure to media and the frequency of media consumption. An important perspective on body image that must be addressed is the influence of both direct and indirect effects. Some indirect effects of media exposure include the development of body ideals, eating behaviors, interactions with family, peers, and adults that learned their eating habits from television and magazines. The idea is that although direct media effects may be insignificant, when taking into consideration both the direct and indirect influences of the media are considerable. Lastly, longitudinal and cross-sectional studies need to be conducted to compare the effects of the media on disordered eating in all ages (starting from childhood development) (Legenbauer, Ruhl, & Vocks, 2008). The more we know about when the problem begins the more we can prevent the development of disorders and aim to educate females about the importance of a positive body image.




























Works Cited

Bergstrom, R. L., Neighbors, C., & Malheim, J. (2009). Media Comparisons and Threats To Body Image: Seeking Evidence of Self-Affirmation. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology , 28 (2), 267-281.

Carney, T., & Louw, J. (2006, September). Eating disordered behaviors and media exposure. Social Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiology , 957-966.

Herman, P. C., & Polivy, J. (2004). Sociocultural Idealization of Thin Female Body Shapes: An Introduction to the Special Issue on Body Image and Eating Disordersr. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology , 23 (1), 1-6.

Legenbauer, T., Ruhl, I., & Vocks, S. (2008). Influence of Appearance Related TV Commercials on Body Image State. Behavior Modification , 32 (3), 352-371.

Mulveen, R., & Hepworth, J. (2006). An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Participation in a Pro-anorexia Internet site and Its Relationship with Disordered Eating. Journal of Health Psychology , 11 (2), 283-289.

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






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