What does the research say?

It is always difficult to conclusively prove what effect the media have on people. This is because the media are just one among many influences in our lives. When someone commits a gruesome crime, people often assume that the criminal act was the result of watching violent movies, playing violent video games or listening to certain kinds of music. But such explanations are much too simplistic. The perpetrator may have been getting certain messages from these media, but messages were also coming from family, friends, teachers and others. And, of course, millions of people watched, played or listened to such media forms without committing acts of violence. So we must always be cautious about assuming simplistic cause-and-effect relationships between media messages and people’s attitudes and actions.

Nonetheless, several compelling recent studies demonstrate what a powerful force media messages can be in shaping attitudes about bodies and beauty.

In 1999, Anne Becker and Rebecca Burwell of the Harvard Eating Disorders Center found that media exposure dramatically increased the incidence of eating disorders in the island nation of Fiji. The researchers chose to study Fiji both before and after the introduction of Western television programming to the nation. Before Western TV arrived, most Fijians subscribed to traditional ideas of beauty: larger bodies, bodies that would be classified as obese in the West, were considered the most attractive. Large bodies were seen as evidence of a person’s health and high status; slim bodies were thought to look sickly, and were seen as indications that the person suffered from a lack of food and/or a lack of friends and loved ones to support them. Only three years after the introduction of Western (mainly US, UK and Australian) TV programs, the number of girls and women who reported vomiting to control their weight increased five-fold. 74% of girls reported feeling “too fat,” and 62% reported dieting in the last month. And furthermore, girls who watched more television were more likely to evaluate their bodies negatively. Interviews with the girls and young women demonstrated that they were attempting to emulate the thin Western actresses they saw on television.

Other researchers, including Myers & Biocca (1992) and Irving (1990, 1998) have found that exposure to media depictions of thin female models lead women and girls to overestimate their own body size, experience greater dissatisfaction with their own bodies, and report lower self-esteem. In addition, Harrison and Cantor (1997) tested the effects of media exposure on the development of disordered eating among college students. They found that among women, exposure to media that depicted and promoted thinness “appears to be associated with a subsequent increase in eating disorder symptomatology.” Among men, such exposure is correlated with a drive toward personal thinness as well as favorable attitudes toward female thinness.

So while the media alone don’t create harmful body attitudes and practices, they promote images that can seriously harm our self-esteem and tempt us to engage in expensive, unhealthy and ultimately futile, attempts to live up to mass mediated beauty ideals.