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Female Body Image and the Mass Media: Perspectives on How Women Internalize the Ideal Beauty Standard

by Kasey L. Serdar

Sociocultural standards of feminine beauty are presented in almost all forms of popular media, barraging women with images that portray what is considered to be the "ideal body." Such standards of beauty are almost completely unattainable for most women; a majority of the models displayed on television and in advertisements are well below what is considered healthy body weight. Mass media's use of such unrealistic models sends an implicit message that in order for a woman to be considered beautiful, she must be unhealthy. The mindset that a person can never be "too rich or too thin" is all too prevalent in society, and it makes it difficult for females to achieve any level of contentment with their physical appearance. There has been a plethora of research to indicate that women are negatively affected by constant exposure to models that fulfill the unrealistic media ideal of beauty; however, it is not clear how these images actually come to affect women's satisfaction with their physical appearance. There are many different perspectives that can be used to explain why and how women internalize the thin-ideal. These theories include: social comparison, cultivation, and self-schema. Each perspective has helped researchers examine mechanisms by which the media images are translated into body image disturbance in women. They also provide explanations for why some females are particularly vulnerable to the detrimental effects of the media, while others display remarkable levels of resiliency.

 

Female Body Image

 

Body image is a complicated aspect of the self-concept that concerns an individual's perceptions and feelings about their body and physical appearance (Cash & Pruzinsky, 2002). Females of all ages seem to be particularly vulnerable to disturbance in this area; body dissatisfaction in women is a well-documented phenomenon in mental health literature. Researchers have called female's concerns with their physical appearance "normative discontent;" implying that body dissatisfaction affects almost all women at some level (Striegel-Moore & Franko, 2002, p. 183; Tiggemann & Slater, 2004). Females have been found to experience dissatisfaction with physical appearance at a much higher rate than males (Striegel-Moore & Franko, 2002), and women of all ages and sizes display body image disturbance. It appears that body dissatisfaction is more closely linked to appearance-related cognitions than physical reality. People are at higher risk to display disturbed body image if they hold dysfunctional beliefs and cognitions about their physical appearance, regardless of body mass (Butters & Cash, 1987).

Concern over weight and appearance related issues often surfaces early in females' development, and continues throughout the lifespan. The importance of physical appearance is emphasized and reinforced early in most girls' development; studies have found that nearly half of females ages 6-8 have stated that they want to be slimmer (Striegel-Moore & Franko, 2002). Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating patterns have been found to be an especially prevalent issue in adolescent and college females (Schwitzer, Bergholz, Dore, & Salimi, 1998; Stice & Whitenton, 2002). Body image becomes a major issue as females go through puberty; girls in midadolescence frequently report being dissatisfied with weight, fearing further weight gain, and being preoccupied with weight loss (Striegel-Moore & Franko, 2002). Field et al. (1999) found that 20% of 9-year-olds and over 40 % of 14-year-olds reported wanting to lose weight. In addition, most girls who express a desire to be thinner are within the normal weight range for females their age (Striegel-Moore & Franko, 2002).

Numerous studies have verified that one's subjective evaluation of their own appearance can have a powerful impact on a person's development and psychosocial experiences (as cited in Butters & Cash, 1987). Researchers have found that body dissatisfaction is correlated with other forms of psychological impairment. Not surprisingly, disturbed body image is one of the main precursors for disordered eating and dieting in adolescent and young adult girls (Attie & Brooks-Gunn, 1989; Stice & Whitenton, 2002; Striegel-Moore & Schreiber, 2000; Tiggemann & Lynch, 2001). The prominence of dieting and maladaptive eating patterns has become an increasingly prevalent concern in adolescent and young adult populations; research has shown that around two-thirds of adolescent females report dieting at some point. Further, studies have shown that body dissatisfaction surpasses actual body mass as the most powerful risk factor for the development of dieting and disordered eating (Striegel-Moore & Franko, 2002).

Concerns with the development of disordered eating are an especially vital issue because such patterns have been found to be a major predictor of clinical eating disorders. Body dissatisfaction and preoccupation with food, shape, and weight are some of the core features in the diagnostic criteria of both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Estimates of the prevalence of such disorders vary, but most state that 3% to 10% of females ages 15 to 29 could be considered anorexic or bulimic. Most individuals who develop an eating disorder start with what is considered "typical" dieting behavior. With increasing numbers of females reporting disturbed body image and engaging in dieting behavior, there has been a significant level of concern about the increasing incidence of eating disorders. This is especially true of individuals who display early signs of body image disturbance and disordered eating (Polivy & Herman, 2002).

 

Images of Women in the Media

 

Images in the media today project an unrealistic and even dangerous standard of feminine beauty that can have a powerful influence on the way women view themselves. From the perspective of the mass media, thinness is idealized and expected for women to be considered "attractive." Images in advertisements, television, and music usually portray the "ideal woman" as tall, white, and thin, with a "tubular" body, and blonde hair (Dittmar & Howard, 2004; Lin & Kulik, 2002; Polivy & Herman, 2004; Sands & Wardle, 2003; Schooler, Ward, Merriwether, & Caruthers, 2004; Tiggemann & Slater, 2003). The media is littered with images of females who fulfill these unrealistic standards, making it seem as if it is normal for women to live up to this ideal. Dittmar and Howard (2004) made this statement regarding the prevalence of unrealistic media images:

Ultra-thin models are so prominent that exposure to them becomes unavoidable and 'chronic', constantly reinforcing a discrepancy for most women and girls between their actual size and the ideal body (p. 478).

Only a very small percentage of women in Western countries meet the criteria the media uses to define "beautiful" (Dittmar & Howard, 2004; Thompson & Stice, 2001); yet so many women are repeatedly exposed to media images that send the message that a woman is not acceptable and attractive if she do not match society's "ultra-thin" standard of beauty (Dittmar & Howard, 2004, p. 478).

In recent years, women's body sizes have grown larger (Spitzer, Henderson, & Zivian, 1999), while societal standards of body shape have become much thinner. This discrepancy has made it increasingly difficult for most women to achieve the current sociocultural "ideal." Such a standard of perfection is unrealistic and even dangerous. Many of the models shown on television, advertisements, and in other forms of popular media are approximately 20% below ideal body weight, thus meeting the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa (Dittmar & Howard, 2004).

Research has repeatedly shown that constant exposure to thin models fosters body image concerns and disordered eating in many females. Almost all forms of the media contain unrealistic images, and the negative effects of such idealistic portrayals have been demonstrated in numerous studies. Schooler et al. (2004) found that women who reported greater exposure to television programming during adolescence were more likely to experience high levels of body image disturbance than females that did not report such levels of exposure. In addition, certain types of programming seem to elicit higher levels of body dissatisfaction in females. A study done by Tiggemann and Slater (2003) found that women who viewed music videos that contained thin models experienced increased levels of negative mood and body image disturbance. Music videos seem to send a particularly direct message that women should live up to the sociocultural ideal; women portrayed are almost always direct representations of what our culture considers beautiful. In addition, music television is an increasingly influential form of media, especially for adolescent and college females.

Mainstream magazines and advertisements are another potent source of idealized images of women. This is disturbing because many women, especially adolescents, have been found to read such material on a regular basis. Findings of one study indicate that 83% of teenage girls reported reading fashion magazines for about 4.3 hours each week (Thompson & Heinberg, 1999). Female's motivations for reading such material varies, but self-report inventories have shown that most women who read fashion magazines do so to get information about beauty, fitness, grooming, and style (Tiggemann, 2003).

Magazines and advertisements are marketed to help women "better themselves" by providing information and products that are supposed to make them look and feel better. Women read these magazines with the hope that if they follow the advice given, they will be more acceptable and attractive. Marketing strategies lure women into purchasing these forms of media, and most have the potential to be a powerful influence on women's sense of self and satisfaction with their appearance. Tiggemann (2003) found that frequent magazine reading was consistently correlated with higher levels of body dissatisfaction and disturbed eating. The study also found that women who read fashion magazines displayed higher levels of thin-ideal internalization, which is a powerful risk factor for development of weight anxiety and disordered eating patterns. In addition to weight dissatisfaction and eating pathology, studies have shown that women who view slides of women pictured in many mainstream magazines and advertisements show increased levels of depression, stress, guilt, shame, and insecurity (Stice, Schupak-Neuberg, Shaw, & Stein, 1994).

 

Perspectives on How and Why Women Internalize the Thin-Beauty Standard

 

While research has repeatedly shown that media portrayals of women have a negative impact on the way women view themselves, the mechanism by which women internalize such standards is still unclear. While most women describe experiencing some dissatisfaction with their physical appearance (Lin & Kulik, 2002), a majority do not report having an extreme preoccupation with such concerns, and only a very small percentage go on to develop clinical eating disorders (Tiggemann & Lynch, 2001). There are a variety of theories that provide a possible framework for how images in the media are internalized and translated into body dissatisfaction in many women. These theories include: social comparison, cultivation, and self-schema. In addition to examining how exposure to images in popular media actually comes to impact women, these perspectives give some justification for why some women seem to be affected more than others by the ultra-thin ideal (Schooler et al., 2004).

 

Social Comparison Theory

 

The social comparison theory offers some level of explanation for how media images actually come to impact the way women feel about their bodies. It examines how individuals evaluate themselves in relation to peers, groups, and/or social categories (Milkie, 1999). The main argument is that people compare themselves on many different dimensions with other individuals who are similar to them. Depending on the target of comparison, a person will usually judge themselves as being either or better or worse on some dimension. An upward comparison occurs when an individual compares himself or herself to someone who fares better than they do on a particular construct. In contrast, downward comparisons involve a person comparing himself or herself to someone who is not as well off as they are in a certain dimension. In general, upward comparisons have been found to correlate with depression of mood, whereas downward comparisons are more likely to elicit elevation of mood (Lin & Kulik, 2002; Schooler et al., 2004; Tiggemann & Mcgill, 2004; Tiggemann, & Slater, 2004).

There are many different sources to which individuals can look for social comparison, but mass media is seen to be one of the most commanding influences, especially for women. Television, advertisements, magazines, and other forms of popular media provide a plethora of references for upward social comparison. Images in the media generally project a standard to which women are expected to aspire, yet that standard is almost completely impossible for most women to achieve (Schooler et al., 2004; Thompson & Coovert, 1999). Women almost always fall short of standards that are expected of them regarding physical appearance. Particularly for women, it is difficult to go through a day without viewing images that send the message, "you're not good enough." The pervasiveness of the media makes it very challenging for most women to avoid evaluating themselves against the sociocultural standard of beauty (Milkie, 1999). Most companies that target women in the media actually attempt to foster social comparison with idealized images, in order to motivate women to buy products that will bring them closer to the ideal (e.g. diet products, makeup, hair products). If women see a discrepancy between themselves and the images they view in advertisements (which the almost definitely will), they will be more inclined to buy the products that are advertised (Thompson & Coovert, 1999).

Evidence for the negative effects of women's social comparison with media images is plentiful. Research has found that women who report frequently comparing themselves to other women, especially women in the media, are more likely to show signs of negative mood and body image disturbance (Schooler et al., 2004). Tiggemann and Mcgill (2004) found that women participants' brief exposure to media images of females (11 images) led to increased levels of body dissatisfaction and weight anxiety. This finding is disturbing because the number of images used in the study is far less than what is present in any women's magazine or shown in most television programming.

Tiggemann and Slater (2003) found music television to be a powerful instigator of the social comparison process in young females. Their study found that exposing girls to thin and attractive images of women portrayed in many music videos led to increased levels of body image disturbance. In addition, the study showed that videos portraying the thin ideal triggered more self-reported social comparison than control videos that did not contain such images.

The extent to which females engage in social comparison processing may be an important indicator of whether they will be profoundly impacted by exposure to ultra-thin media images of women. The level at which a woman reports comparing herself to other females seems to be associated with the level at which she internalizes the thin ideal. Tiggemann and Mcgill (2004) found that women who displayed high levels of social comparison were more likely to be negatively affected by exposure to different forms of media. It has been proposed by many researchers that social comparison may be the mechanism by which unrealistic media standards are translated into actual body image disturbance in an individual. Women who report higher levels of social comparison are at greater risk to develop extreme preoccupation with weight and appearance, and are also more likely to display disordered eating patterns and/or clinical eating disorders. This finding suggests that programs aimed at decreasing females' levels of social comparison may have some efficacy; women who are taught to not compare themselves to unrealistic standards and be critical of images they see in the media are less likely to internalize and aspire to an unrealistic standard. Several programs with such goals have been researched, and evidence has shown that such interventions seem to hold some promise (Tiggemann & Slater, 2003).

 

Cultivation Theory

 

Unrealistic media images of women are so prevalent that it seems that females who fulfill such a standard are more the norm than the exception. Cultivation theory argues that images that portray women who match the sociocultural ideal of beauty are extremely prevalent in popular media, and that repetitive exposure to such images influences women's abilities to understand that such standards are unrealistic. As females constantly view images of tall, thin women that are shown in different forms of mass media, there is a cumulative effect over time in that many women adopt this unrealistic standard of beauty as "reality." Many women come to view ultra-thin females to be "normal," and thus determine that any woman who does not live up to this ideal is "abnormal" (Schooler et al., 2004; Tiggemann, 2003).

 

Consistent representations on television construct a specific portrait of reality, and repeated exposure to this content leads viewers to adopt this alternative reality as valid. Accordingly, because the representations of women's bodies shown on television are so skewed, adopting this reality for young women is believed to lead to decreased satisfaction with their own bodies, a strong desire to be thinner, and disordered eating behavior (Schooler et al., 2004, p. 38).

 

Empirical research supports this theory; studies have shown that individuals who report watching more of television and being exposed to specific types of media (e.g. music television, soap operas) display greater dissatisfaction with physical appearance (Schooler et al., 2004).

An individual's level of awareness about the characteristics and effects of images portrayed in the media may be an important indicator of how that individual will internalize the thin ideal. Tiggemann (2003) found that females who were less aware of the media's effects were more likely to show symptoms of body image disturbance. It has been shown that if a woman is able to recognize that standards that are valued by the media are unrealistic, she is likely to show a higher level of resilience to body image concerns. In contrast, if a woman does not recognize that media expectations are almost unattainable, she will be more likely to internalize, and thus be negatively affected by the thin ideal (Tiggemann, 2003).

 

Self-Schema Theory

 

The basis of self-schema theory is that women use three points of reference to construct their perceptions about their own physical appearance: the socially represented ideal body, the objective body, and the internalized ideal body. The portrayals of women by the media and other important individuals in a person's life influence the socially represented ideal body. This reference point comes from what an individual believes is expected by society with respect to physical appearance and beauty. In contrast, the objective body involves a person's own evaluation of their body. A person's satisfaction and dissatisfaction with aspects of their physical appearance are contained within this dimension; individuals almost always have some opinion about their physical demeanor. The internalized ideal body involves the level at which an individual endorses the ideal image and aspires to achieve it. Some women can be exposed to images of thin women and not internalize such standards of appearance because they know they are unrealistic. In contrast, some women's internalized ideal is very similar to the socially represented ideal, which makes them particularly vulnerable to the powerful effects of the media (Sands & Wardle, 2003).

If there is a large discrepancy between a person's internalized ideal body and their objective body, a person's confidence in and satisfaction with their appearance is often negatively affected. Media images of women make it difficult for individuals to hold an internalized ideal body that is realistic and attainable. With exposure to repeated images of ultra thin women, an individual's internalized ideal body often becomes much thinner. This increases the gap between what a person feels their physical appearance is, and what it should be. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that women who have an internalized ideal body that closely resembles the socially represented ideal body are at a particularly high risk to develop body image disturbance and disordered eating patterns (Sands & Wardle, 2003).

It is almost impossible to alter society's representation of what is considered to be the "ideal body." Despite powerful evidence that the media's unrealistic depiction of females has negative effects on the way women view themselves, companies in television and advertising seem to be unyielding in their marketing approaches. This may come from the mindset that "thinness sells," while using heavier women would not be as profitable (Dittmar, & Howard, 2004). While it is difficult to change the way the media portrays women, there may be hope for altering women's internalized ideal body to reflect something that is realistic and attainable. If women can be taught not to internalize the sociocultural ideal, they may be able to counter the negative effects of the ultra-thin images that are almost inescapable (Sands & Wardle, 2003).

Many programs focus on reducing the level at which females internalize unrealistic standards of beauty. Research on these programs indicates that such interventions may help increase women's levels of resiliency to the detrimental effects of multiple forms of popular media (Sands & Wardle, 2003). Phelps, Sapia, Nathanson, and Nelson (2000) found that a six-session program that focused on the prevention of eating pathology seemed to be relatively effective in minimizing participants' use of unhealthy weight control techniques. The main focus of the preventive programs evaluated in the study was to reduce the participants' degree of thin ideal internalization and body dissatisfaction, while also attempting to increase their physical self-esteem, feelings of self-competence, and use of appropriate methods of weight control. After participating in the program, participants' self-report measures showed a greater reluctance to the use of dieting, fasting, excessive exercise, and other weight reduction techniques in samples of both high school and college women. In addition, the females in the study reported higher scores on measures of physical self-concept and self-competence after the preventive interventions. While such results cannot be generalized to all women, the research does indicate that mental health professionals need to direct their attention toward prevention of body image disturbance in addition to treatment.

 

Conclusion

 

The mass media's depiction of women portrays a standard of beauty that is unrealistic and unattainable for a majority of women in society. Models shown in all forms of popular media are often under what is considered healthy body weight, which sends a powerful message that women must sacrifice their health to be considered attractive by societal standards. The negative effects of ultra-thin media images of women have been well documented; research has shown that females who are repeatedly exposed to and internalize the thin ideal are at greater risk to develop body image disturbance and eating pathology. Although it is clear that the media influences the way women view themselves, it is unclear how this process takes place. The social comparison theory, cultivation theory, and self-schema theory can be used to examine how media images of women come to affect the way women feel about their bodies and physical appearance. These perspectives also give some explanation for why some women show resilience to the negative effects of the media, while others are dramatically impacted.

 

 


 

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