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Effects of Media on Body Image

Tamkeen Manasia



            Many of us have the phrase, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but do we know who the beholder really is.  The influence of mass media, referring to the variety of technologies, ranging from bill-boards to radio, on the daily lives of people is evident in the choices of products we choose to purchase but is this the only area mass media influences us?  Is the beholder of beauty mass media?

There is a considerable amount of research indicating that physical appearance is very influential in social relations and psychological functioning.  The purpose of this review of literature is to examine the effects of mass media on a person’s body image.  According to Groesz, Levine, and Murnen (2002), mass media promotes a particular body shape ideal that elicits body dissatisfaction.  In their meta-analysis of 25 studies on the subject, it is strongly suggested that media does indeed influence our perception of ourselves.

Upon viewing of the background research, it is hypothesized that media has a strong influence on the body image of people.  It is further thought that mood of viewers of various forms of media are altered in response to what they see.  In other words, exposure to information may lead to a change in one’s mood.  To test this hypothesis, the following pieces of literature were reviewed: “The effects of body dissatisfaction on women’s perceptions of female celebrities”, by King, Touyz and Charles (2000), “Body Image, mood, and televised images of attractiveness: The role of social comparison”, by Cattarin, Thompson, Thomas, and William (2000), “The effects of the ideal of female beauty on mood and body satisfaction” by Pinhas, Toner Ali, Garfinkel & Stuckless (1999), “Depicting women as sex objects in television advertising: Effects on body dissatisfaction” by Lavine, Sweeney and Wagner (1999), “ Effects of exposure to information about appearance stereotyping and discrimination on women’s body image” by Lavin and Cash (2000).




Locating Studies

            To gather previously conducted research PsychINFO and Medline the following key words were used in the mentioned search engines: Body image, effects of media, adolescents, and eating disorders.  In addition to these search engines, the citation indices of several articles were used to manually search for articles that had been cited frequently.  The indexes of International Journal of Eating Disorders, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and Social Psychology Bulletin from 1998 to date were also reviewed.  The search resulted in numerous studies that addressed various relationships between mass media and body satisfaction.  From these search results six studies were selected based on the following criteria:

1)     Studies must have female participants since previous work in the field indicated that females have a greater rate of body dissatisfaction

2)     Although self-reporting is an invaluable source of information, studies selected could not include self-reports.  This was done to ensure that results of the studies could be generalized to the population.

In all five studies, the dependent variable was body dissatisfaction and the independent variable was media.  The levels of body dissatisfaction were measured through various questionnaires, inventories, and scales.  A brief summary of the methods of measurements used by various studies is included in table 1.



Body Image

            The construct of body image contains aspects of perception of one’s physical appearance as well as a cognitive-affective component.  Body image is multi-faceted, including body image distortion, body image dissatisfaction, and body image avoidance.  (Cash & Brown, 1987; Rosen, 1992)  The first component was measured by one of studies that were looked at through the use of a pictorial body image scale (Stunkard, Sorensen, and Schulsinger, 1983).  The second component was measured by several studies through the use of Eating Disorder Inventory (EDI; Garner, Olmstead & Polivy, 1983), used by one study, Body Part Satisfaction Scale (BPSS; Bercheid, Walster, &Bohrnstedt, 1973), used by one study, Body Shape Questionnaire (BSQ; Cooper, Taylor, Cooper, & Fairburn, 1987), used by one study, and Visual Analogue Scales (VAS; Heinberg & Thompson, 1995), used by three studies.  The third component is difficult to assess since it deals with avoidance of situations that may cause anxiety.  Although the actual act of avoidance is difficult to ascertain, the emotions behind such behavior are not as difficult to account for.  To do this task many of the surveyed studies used VAS as well as other mood state tests such as Profile of Mood States (POMS; McNair, Lorr, &Droppleman, 1971).



The general procedure and participant selection of the six selected studies is described below.

In “The effects of body dissatisfaction on women’s perceptions of female celebrities”, a study conducted by King, Touyz and Charles (2000), 116 undergraduate females were shown one accurate picture and six distorted pictures of thin and heavy female celebrities.  Each of the distorted pictures was created to make the celebrity appear thinner or heavier than they actually were.  Subjects were asked to select a photograph that depicted the person’s actual body shape.  After this participants were asked to fill out the BSQ and the EDE-Q, which is a self-report questionnaire designed to determine if the respondent has an eating disorder.

Like the study conducted by King, “Body Image, mood, and televised images of attractiveness: The role of social comparison”, a study by Cattarin, Thompson, Thomas, and William (2000) also used female undergraduate participants, 180 to be precise.  Each subject viewed either a 12 minute experimental video of commercials containing female models highly representative of the thin and attractive sociocultural ideal (experimental) or a 12 minute video of commercials with female models who were not highly representative of the thin sociocultural ideal (control).  Prior to viewing of the commercial footage subjects were requested to complete a Sociocultural Attitudes Towards Appearance Questionnaire, a 14-item measure composed of two subscales-Awareness and Internalization (Heinberg, Thompson, &Stormer, 1995), and the VAS corresponding to mood.  Upon completion of viewing the commercials, the participants were requested to fill out the VAS corresponding to mood again.

Another study involving only female undergraduate subjects was conducted by Pinhas, Toner Ali, Garfinkel & Stuckless (1999) titled, “The effects of the ideal of female beauty on mood and body satisfaction”.  118 undergraduate females completed the POMS, the BPSS, and the EDI and were then shown slides.  The experimental group was shown images of female fashion models and the control group was shown slides of non-human figures.  All of the subjects were then asked to complete the POMS and the BPSS again.

Unlike the Pinhas and colleagues study, a study titled “Depicting women as sex objects in television advertising: Effects on body dissatisfaction” done by Lavine, Sweeney and Wagner (1999) used both male and female participants.   57 undergraduate females and 51 undergraduate males were randomly assigned to groups that were shown sexist ads or nonsexist ads or uncontrolled ads.  After viewing, the participants were required to complete body image and attitudes scales.

            Lastly, unlike all of the previous studies, a study conducted by Lavin and Cash (2000) “ Effects of exposure to information about appearance stereotyping and discrimination on women’s body image” looked at the effects of non-visual media on subjects’ body image.  66 college women listened to either an audiotape containing information of appearance stereotypes and discrimination or an audiotape containing information about television violence.  The first was the experimental condition and the second was the control condition.  After listening to the tapes, the subjects were asked to complete the VAS and the ASI, an appearance schemas inventory designed to assess core assumptions about the importance and influence of one’s appearance.




            King and her colleagues, after computing means of various independent t-tests, found that women who were concerned about their body shape judged thin celebrities as thinner than actuality whereas unconcerned women judged the celebrities more accurately.  This supported their hypothesis that low body shape concerned women would be more accurate in judging body shapes of others even though the women in this category overestimated the size of heavier celebrities.  Also their hypothesis of high body shape concerned women overestimating the size of heavier celebrities and underestimating the size of thinner celebrities was confirmed.

            The study conducted by Lavine, Sweeney, and Wagner also suggests that women exposed to particular advertisements rate body shape differently.  Unlike the King study, the women in this study were evaluating their own body shapes. Women exposed to sexist ads judged their current body size as larger and revealed a larger discrepancy between their actual and ideal body sizes, preferring a thinner body than women who were exposed to non-sexists advertisements or the no advertisement condition.  Male subjects in this study had a quite different result than the females.  Men exposed to the sexist ads judged their current body size as thinner and revealed a larger discrepancy between their own ideal body size and what they perceived as other males’ preference of body size, preferring a larger body, than those males who were exposed to non-sexist advertisements or to no advertisements. 

            Cattarin and colleagues, in their study manipulating levels of social comparison (comparison, distraction, or neutral), found a three-way interaction between the condition their subjects received, the videotape they saw and the time it took for a measure of dissatisfaction.  This suggested that comparison participants’ body images were not more negatively affected than other groups.  Their findings also indicated that greater distress was associated with viewing of media images reflecting current societal bias towards thinness and attractiveness. 

Findings by Pinhas and colleagues also suggest that media affects women’s moods negatively.  Their study indicates that women were more depressed and angry following exposure to pictures of fashion models; viewing pictures of the female fashion models by their participants had an immediate negative effect on their moods.    

            Lavin and Cash with their study involving audiotapes, contrary to Pinhas and colleagues, found that media exposure did not alter the mood of the women in the study but the exposure to appearance-related versus control information produced significantly less favorable body-image evaluations.  Also women who were schematically invested in their physical appearance were especially susceptible to negative effects of appearance information.  




Society shapes our concept of physical beauty both explicitly and implicitly.  This is done by conveying the benefits of being attractive; people voluntarily do things for you if you are good looking (men opening doors for women), you have a much more active and fun social life if you are physically attractive (beer commercials), and you are socially accepted into a group if you look like them (clothing advertisements such a Calvin Klein).  The present review of literature on media influence examined several studies that looked at such effects through experimentation.

Results from this review of the literature indicated that in most of the studies surveyed, subject’s body image became less favorable after exposure to mass media.  Interestingly in the studies that dealt with both male in female participants, both males and females showed less favorable body images.  Unlike the data concerning alteration of body image after media exposure, the data dealing with mood was less definitive.  One study suggests that mood was altered as a result of the exposure to the media whereas another says it does not.

            The findings from the analysis of the data support the hypothesis that mass media does indeed effect an individual’s perception of social acceptability which flitters into their personal body image.  This in turn leads to body dissatisfaction that can be harmful.  These findings were consistent with the sizable body of research on the matter.  

            How does exposure to media forms of beauty change one’s perception of their body image?  The studies surveyed were vague about how internalization of the media images occurred.  It was not made clear how looking at a picture or listening to information concerning physical-appearances could alter the subject’s views.  The internalization process seemed stronger for women who had more invested in their physical appearances than those who did not thereby indicating that all women are not affected by mass media in the same way.  Lavin and Cash found this to be true for the women they studied.  It appeared that having certain assumptions or schemas about the importance and influence of one’s appearance potentiates a negative impact of information about appearance stereotyping and discrimination.  The link between the media information and an individual’s body image are still vague.

            Another area left unaddressed by the review of the literature is why people are drawn to magazines or television advertisements that explicitly deal with promoting a thinness ideal.  The process seems somewhat like self-induced torture.  If one knows they do not fit the ideal media image of beauty, why are they still lured into believing that it is the only image of beauty (and thus causing body dissatisfaction)?  Pictures selected from fashion magazines used in the study conducted by Pinhas and colleagues were from modern women’s magazines.  After looking at these pictures, the women felt more depressed and angrier after seeing the pictures.  This occurred after seeing only twenty images of fashion models, a number that is far less than the number of images in just one magazine, yet the demand for the fashion magazines is still very high.  This would indicate that even after feeling worse, people go back to the media beauty ideal to make themselves feel bad again.

            The present review supports the sociocultural perspective that mass media promotes a slender ideal for women that elicits body dissatisfaction (Groesz, Levine, Murnen, 2001).  A weakness of this review is the limited number of studies involved.  A larger number studies to be surveyed, the conclusions from this review may have been more clearly defined in the area concerning mood alteration after exposure to a form of media.  Future reviews may also benefit from focusing on the effects of media for various age ranges to see when social comparison becomes most prominent.  


By Tamkeen Manasia


Table 1



Measure for Body Image Distortion

Measure for Body Image Satisfaction

Measure for Emotional or Mood State

Other Measures Used

Number of Subjects (M) & (F)

Age of Subjects

Media used in experimentation

King, Touyz, Charles (1998)





F = 116

Mean age = 19 years

Picture booklet of female celebrities

Cattarin, Thompson, Thomas, and William (2000)





F = 108

Mean age = 22.97 years

Videotape of television commercials

Pinhas, Toner, Ali, Garfinkel, Stuckless (1998)





F = 118

Mean age = 21 years


Lavin, Sweeney, Wagner (1999)




Attitudes scales

M = 51

F = 57

Mean age = 19 years


Lavine, Cash (2000)





F = 66

College aged

Audiotapes of information










Cattarin, J., Thompson, K., Thomas, C. & Williams, R. (2000). Body image, mood, and televised images of attractiveness: the role of social comparison. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 220-239.


Garner, D., Garfinkel, P. Handbook of Treatment for Eating Disorders. 2nd Edition (1997)


Groesz, L., Levine, M., Murnen, S.(2002). The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: a meta-analytic review. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31, 1-16.


King, N., Touyz S., Charles, M. (2000). The effect of body dissatisfaction on women’s perceptions of female celebrities.  International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2000, 341-347.


Lavin, M.A. & Cash, T. (2000). Effects of exposure to information about appearance stereotyping and discrimination on women’s body images, 2001, 29, 51-58.  


Lavine, H., Sweeney, D., &Wagner, S.H. (1999). Depicting women as sex objects in television advertising: Effects on body dissatisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1049-1058.


Pinhas, L., Toner, B., Ali, A., Garfinkel, P., and Stuckless, N. (1999). The effects of the ideal of female beauty on mood and body satisfaction. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 1999, 25, 223-226.



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