Can the Media Help Reverse Women’s Unhealthy Body Image

Bombardment with images of super-thin models and celebrities is everywhere. Magazines, television, billboards and catalogues are filled with pictures of women who exemplify beauty and style and they are all rail-thin. The cumulative effect of this is that women accept the media-projected standard of beauty and too often see themselves as something less. The repeated message that extreme thinness is required in order to be considered attractive takes a heavy toll on female psyches. Many wonder if the media is in part to blame for a rise in the number of women who resort to disordered eating to overcome their feelings of inadequacy. Few women are in a position to spend hours each day in the gym or have their meals prepared by a personal chef, nevertheless, plenty of women seem to feel the need to look the same as women who do live this sort of lifestyle. In order to get there, women may severely restrict their food intake or may purge whatever food they do eat. The gap between the carefully crafted images and real women has widened and has damaged women’s body image in the process. But, some wonder, could the media itself reverse this trend? It was curvaceous women in generations past who were considered as beauties. Over the past half-century the icons of fashion, fame and marketing have gotten slimmer and more angular. Several key studies over the years have drawn a line between more slender female images and a rise in the number of cases of eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia. One of the inherent dangers of television, for instance, is that with frequent viewing people begin to equate the portrayals with reality. Known as cultivation theory, the shared viewing with others leads people to attempt to reconcile what they’ve seen with what they actually experience. For women, this means that society has adopted the ultra-thin image as the real-life standard for beauty and desirability. Certainly in terms of advertising, the goal is to create a tension wherein the person feels inadequate unless they own the product and by extension, look like the models selling the product. Some efforts have been made recently to reverse that strategy. One soap company intentionally focused on “real” women to promote their brand. The women were not professional models and did not fit the stereotypical image of female beauty. The soap makers were sending a message to women that realistic is lovely. Reaction to the ad campaign was mixed at best. One expert suggested that women do not want reminders of their own beauty shortfalls. A recent British study showed similar results when women were exposed to a mixture of model-thin, average and even plus-size images. In some cases women preferred the thin images and in other cases, women appeared to prefer more realistic models. A shift in marketing and media-driven images could change public perceptions of beauty, but recent research reveals that it will take some time to turn the ship around.

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