Breaking Through The Pressure To Be Thin
November 9, 2012

Decrease Obsession For Thin Bodies With Realistic Images Of Females In The Media

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

"There is an immense pressure to be seen to have it all and be perfect at everything. Within the media, being thin and attractive is linked to being successful.” These are the words of Rachel Cowey, a 25-year-old British female who suffered from anorexia when she was a teenager. Cowey´s disorder was prompted by school pressures, family expectations, and the need to be “perfect.” These various issues were worsened by the media´s flaunting of skinny celebrities. In particular, researchers from Durham University in the United Kingdom recently revealed study results that showed that British women´s obsession of thin bodies would change if more advertising incorporated plus size models.

The scientists studied more than 100 women who stated that females shown in advertisements should reflect realistic body sizes of the current population. Preliminary research also showed that women who were shown more images of thin body sizes were less inclined to images of plus-size women; these results were found in situations when women were shown images of models in clothing catalogues and pictures of real women. Specifically, the researchers utilized images of thin and plus size models from both clothing catalogues and beauty contests as well as pictures of ordinary women dressed in plain, gray leotards. The models in the clothing catalogues were standard size, while the thin women in leotards had a Body Mass Index between 11 and 14. On the other hand, the plus size models were at least a size 26 while the plus-size women dressed in gray leotards were between a size 36 and 42.

Based on the findings, the team of investigators believes that, if advertising included more plus size models, there would be more people who had positive body images and less people who had eating disorders.

"This really gives us some food for thought about the power of exposure to super-slim bodies. There is evidence that being constantly surrounded through the media by celebrities and models who are very thin contributes to girls and women having an unhealthy attitude to their bodies,” said the study´s lead author Dr. Lynda Boothroyd, a researcher from the Department of Psychology at Durham University, in a prepared statement.

The findings, recently published in the academic journal PLoS ONE, could provide leverage for individuals working in government or health charities in terms of advocating for healthier images of women.

"Although we don't yet know whether brief exposure to pictures of larger women will change women's attitudes in the long term, our findings certainly indicate that showing more 'normal' models could potentially reduce women's obsession for thinness," continued Boothroyd in the statement.

The study also included the participants´ perspectives of their body images. The team of investigators proposed that the subjects associated good health with thinness. As such, the participants may have had a more positive association for the thin females.

"This study points towards an important aspect of our modern lives. We see an average of 2,000 images a day in advertising alone, and most of these include bodies that are more slender than average. Increasing the diversity of body shapes and sizes portrayed in the media could rebalance our views about our own bodies in an emotionally healthy way," noted Susan Ringwood, a representative of an organization focused on eating disorders in the United Kingdom, in the statement.

The researchers stated that the affinity for thinness may be the West´s perception of beauty.

"Thinner bodies are definitely in vogue and within western media, thinness is overwhelmingly idolized and being overweight is often stigmatized. Although the media doesn't directly cause eating disorders, research suggests it is a very powerful factor in creating body dissatisfaction,” explained Boothroyd in the statement. "Furthermore, it seems that even so-called 'cautionary' images against anorexia might still increase our liking for thinner bodies, such as those featuring the late French model Isabelle Caro, who gained worldwide publicity for posing nude for an anti-anorexia campaign while suffering from the illness. These campaigns may not have the desired effect which is a sobering thought."

Overall, individuals not affiliated with the study believe that the research is helpful in understanding the issues females face in terms of body images.

"I think this research is incredibly important as anything that can help us understand eating disorders is valuable. It also helps to highlight the media's impact on people, and that what they print can sometimes have devastating consequences,” concluded Cowey in the statement. "As well as the media's constant focus on weight loss and looking thin and 'perfect,' the often sensationalist portrayal of eating disorders also makes it more difficult to speak out. The publication of people's lowest weights and their pictures when ill causes damage, hurt and stigma. It gives the perception that eating disorders are only about weight and appearance which is not the case."