Media influence on body image Essay

This essay has a total of 4523 words and 21 pages.


media influence on body image






Eleven million women in the United States suffer from eating disorders- either
self-induced semistarvation (anorexia nervosa) or a cycle of bingeing and purging with
laxatives, self-induced vomiting, or excessive exercise (bulimia nervosa) (Dunn, 1992).
Many eating disorder specialists agree that chronic dieting is a direct consequence of
the social pressure on American females to achieve a nearly impossible thinness. The
media has been denounced for upholding and perhaps even creating the emaciated standard of
beauty by which females are taught from childhood to judge the worth of their own bodies
(Stephens & Hill, 1994). To explore the broader context of this controversial issue, this
paper draws upon several aspects influencing women’s body image. First, this paper
examines the concept of body image and the problems associated with chronic dieting and
the diet industry. Next, is an exploration of the prevalence and the source of body
dissatisfaction in American females. It also considers existing research that presents
several important aspects regarding the nature of the connection between advertising and
body dissatisfaction. From these distinctions, it will be shown that the media has a large
impact on women’s body image and that the cultural ideal of a thin body is detrimental to
the American female’s body perception which often results in poor eating pathologies.

Body image can be defined as a individual’s subjective concept of his or her physical
appearance. Body image involves both a perceptual and attitudinal element. The
self-perceptual component consists of what an individual sees or thinks in body size,
shape, appearance. A disturbance in the perceptual element of body image is generally
reflected in a distorted perceptions of body size, shape, and appearance. The attitudinal
component reflects how we feel about those attributes and how the feelings motivate
certain behavior (Shaw & Waller, 1995). Disturbances in the attitudinal element usually
result in dissatisfaction with body appearance (Monteath & McCabe, 1997).

Perceptions about body images are shaped from a variety of experiences and begin to
develop in early childhood. It has been shown that children learn to favor thin body
shapes by the time they enter school (Cohn & Adler, 1992). Gustafson, Larsen, and Terry
(1992) reported that 60.3 percent of fourth grade girls wanted to be thinner, and the
desire for less body fat was significantly associated with an increase occurrence of
weight-loss related behaviors.

Overall body size and image concerns have been reported to be more prevalent among females
than males. Gender related differences in acceptable body size are shaped from a variety
of societal definitions of appealing shapes for males and females. Patterns of body
dissatisfaction formed in childhood and adolescence persist into adulthood and are most
prevalent in females. In their study, Fallon and Rozin (1985) reported that college women
perceive their figure to be heavier than the figure they identified as the most attractive
to themselves (Lavine, Sweeney, & Wagener, 1999).

The American culture thrives on food and there is an increasing repertoire of foods to
choose from on a daily basis. More money is spent on food advertising than on most other
products and services in the United States. Food advertisers target people of all ages
and genders. Females experience a large discrepancy with food. On one hand, food is
depicted as a reward or indulgence, or as a way of socializing. On the other hand, women
are supposed to be fit and thin, which is difficult to accomplish if females indulge in
the large repertoire of food (Stuhldreher & William, 1999).

The diet-obsessive mind of advertising in many women’s magazines provide a sharp contrast
to the hedonistic view toward food. In several magazines, even the food advertisements
focus more on dieting than on quality of food. Thus there are clear and quite strict
limits on the degree to which American females may attempt to satisfy their hedonistic
impulses toward food (Lennon, Lillethun, & Backland, 1999).

Societal standards of beauty change dramatically over time. Today the body ideal is to be
thin. However, this has not always been the case. In the 19th century large women were
thought of as the image of beauty. The body ideal in the 1920’s was similar to that of
today, which is thin (Brumberg, 1988). However, this look was achieved through the use of
clothing styles and fashion. Then in the 1950’s, more voluptuous figures were the ideal.
Since that time the ideal body shape for women has become more and more slender
(Borzekowski, Robinson, & Killen, 2000). Unfortunately, for many people the ideal thin
body is nearly impossible to achieve. This makes women feel dissatisfied with their
appearance. Hence the beginning of a negative body image.

Recently, researchers have become concerned with the question of how and to what degree
advertising involving thin and attractive women is related with chronic dieting, body
dissatisfaction, and eating disorders in American females (Stephens & Hill, 1994). The
esteemed attention that female thinness culminates began in the United States back in the
1950’s (Garner, Garfinkel, & Thompson, 1980). During the last three decades, pageant
contestants, fashion models, and famous actresses have grown steadily thinner (Lake,
Sweeney, & Wagner, 1999). Twenty years ago the average fashion model weighed only 8
percent less than the average women. Today the average model weighs 23 percent less than
the average woman (Dunn, 1992). Surprisingly, as the body standard has continued to thin,
the average weight of American women has actually risen. In 1950, mannequins closely
resembled the average measurements of a woman. the average hip measurement of mannequins
and women was 34 inches. By 1990, the average hip measurement was 37 inches for an
average woman, while the average mannequin hip measured only 31 inches(Lake, Sweeney, &
Wagner, 1999). Between the cultural norm and biological reality, suppliers of diet
advertisements and products have increased: the average amount of money spent annually on
diets and related services in 1990 was 33 billion. The clientele are about 85 percent
women, most of whom regain the weight lost within two years (Lennon, Lillethun, &
Buckland, 1999).

A person’s perception of body image may also be influenced by locus of control. Females
with an external locus of control tend to overestimate their body sizes to a greater
degree than those who have an internal locus of control(Dejong & Kleck, 1986). A
relationship also exists between the attitudinal component of body image and locus of
control. For instance, women exhibiting external locus of control experience greater
dissatisfaction with the appearance of their bodies than women with internal locus of
control. This finding indicates that women possessing an external locus of control feel
powerless to alter the appearance of their bodies. Thus, they experience a distorted
perception of their body and generally develop negative feelings. Whereas, woman with an
internal locus of control generally believe that the appearance of their bodies is within
their control. These feelings of control result in a more positive view of their body
(Garner, Garfinkel, & Thompson, 1980).

In 1990 the diet industry was hit by several lawsuits. Many people experienced serious
side effects such as gall bladder disease from certain diets. Hence, the rush of law
suits against the diet companies. These lawsuits led to Congressional hearings on the
safety and efficiency of weight-loss programs. However, despite these difficulties the
diet industry is growing rapidly (Lavine, Sweeney, & Wagner, 1999). Prolonged
semistarvation produces many symptoms including- irritability, fatigue, and obsession with
food. Women whose body fat falls below 22 percent commonly experience infertility and
hormonal imbalances that promote ovarian and endometrial cancer (Shaw & Waller, 1995).

Many males report being unhappy with some aspect of their body. Still, concern about body
weight appears to be a far more common and more important aspect of body dissatisfaction
experienced by females than males (Brumberg, 1988). Survey data indicates that about
one-half to three-quarters of females who are normal in weight consider themselves to be
too heavy, whereas only about one-quarter of males consider themselves to be overweight.
In their survey, Cash, Winstead, and Janda (1986) found that 40 percent of underweight
women consider themselves to be normal. Furthermore, 44 percent of the female
participants chose an ideal body shape that was 20 percent underweight (Stuhldreher &
Ryan, 1999). The American female’s obsessive quest for the perfect body is both reflected
and promoted by advertisements. Promises of body changes bordering the impossible are
everywhere in magazines and on television. For example, the advertisements for diet pills
promoting the loss of 20 pounds in two weeks. Such advertisements and advice to young
women nourish an obsession that carries with it an array of psychological and behavioral
problems (Stephens & Hill, 1994). Whether or not they are too heavy, females who see
themselves as overweight show decreased satisfaction with their bodies.

Body dissatisfaction in females appears to encourage disturbed eating behaviors. In a
survey by Mintz and Betz (1988), 33,000 females aged 15-35 were questioned regarding their
attitudes toward their body and their methods of weight control. Only 25 percent of the
females were overweight, yet 75 percent believed that they were fat. Of the females
surveyed, 18 percent controlled their weight through the use of laxatives or diuretics and
15 percent used forced vomiting. They also found that the degree of disturbed eating
depended strongly on the level of dissatisfaction . One-third of their respondents
reported using laxatives or self-induced vomiting at least once a month for
weight-control purposes (Lake, Staiger, & Glowinski, 1999).

American culture’s intense preoccupation with weight is undoubtedly encouraged by its
stereotype of overweight individuals. In the united States, an extremely negative
stereotype of overweight people exists. Larkin and Pines (1979) provided evidence for
this stereotype by asking their participants to read and evaluate written descriptions of
individuals who differed only in terms of sex and weight. The subjects rated overweight
more negatively than when they rated individuals of average weight. These findings
support that there is a negative stereotype of overweight individuals (Murray, Touyz, &
Beumont, 1996).

Overweight individuals are also stereotypically thought of as less intelligent, outgoing,
or popular than those who are slimmer. Overweight people are often labeled as lonely and
dependent. Stereotypes are influential, especially when they are the only information
that an observer has about a particular person. The American culture often views
excessive weight as evidence of a character flaw associated with self-indulgence and
laziness. Many individuals view fat as self-induced and controllable (Dejong & Kleck,
1986).

Although the overweight stereotype seems to apply equally to both females and males,
females are more fearful of being considered fat. This may be attributed to the
differences in how males and females view their body. Researchers have observed that
while a boy learns to view his body as a means for achieving power and control in the
world, a girl learns that a main function of her body is to attract others (Koff, Rierdan,
& Stubbs, 1990). Many children’s advertisements reflect this idea. For instance,
Saturday morning cartoon programming include commercials focusing on appearance
enhancement, nine out of ten of which are directed at females (Ogletree, Williams,
Raffield, Mason, & Fricke, 1990). Many advertisements leave a girl to believe that she
must be found thin to be attractive. Puberty related body changes may be a major blow to
a girl’s self esteem. Thus Freedman (1984) observes that

puberty transforms a girl into a woman without her consent: it betrays her by making her
both more and less feminine at the same time. The hormones that inflate her breasts,
also layer

her thighs with “unsightly” fat, and cover her legs with “superfluous” hair. The size,
contours smells, and texture of an adult woman contradict the soft, sweet, childish
aspects of feminine beauty standards emphasized by the media (Norton, Olds, Olive, &
Dank, 1996).


In a study of body image, Girgus (1989) illustrates some of the consequences of this
intense preoccupation with physical appearance. As young girls grow older and their body
changes, they become increasingly dissatisfied with their bodies and consistently desire
to be thinner. Boys, on the other hand, welcome the process of puberty, they look at it
as though it is a step n the direction of manhood (Borzekowski, Robinson, & Killen, 2000).

Women who are very dissatisfied with their bodies may be particularly vulnerable to
advertising that portrays female models who exemplify thinness as a necessity for feminine
beauty. Research on the persuasion process has shown that individuals who receive a
persuasive message are more often to accept it if they find the communicator of the
message to be physically attractive. Advertising researchers have found that an
attractive model or product endorser may possibly influence the recipient’s attitude
toward the brand of the product and the purchase intentions (Cabellero & Pride, 1984).
Research supports that physically attractive individuals tend to be more persuasive in
part because others credit them with desirable traits such as sociability, poise, and
popularity. Thus, attractive communicators appear to be better at persuading others
because they are attributed with socially desirable traits (Chaiken, 1979).

Another important aspect to consider is the societal emphasis placed on a woman to look
good not with just body shape, but also with the use of the latest trends in clothing and
make-up. Compared with a man, a woman’s physical attractiveness is more likely to affect
her social opportunities. In the united States culture, an appearance has important
social consequences. In many cases, attractive people are selected more often as work
partners, more often for hiring, and more often for dating partners (Lennon, Lillethun, &
Backland, 1999). According to traditional gender type roles, not only is a woman’s value
judged by her attractiveness, an active quest for beauty is also expected of women.
Hence, women are socialized to be interested in maintaining an attractive physical
appearance, a major attribute of which is a thin body (Lavine, Sweeney, & Wagner, 1999).
In this type of environment, it is reasonable to expect women to be concerned with their
appearances and to compare themselves to other women on that basis.

Advertising, retailing, and entertainment industries produce images of beauty that
pressure women to conform to the current ideal body type. Research shows that thinness in
women is emphasized in media presentations. Media images, particularly those of high
profile fashion models, only reinforce a cultural ideal for women. Media images are
everywhere in daily life and because models in advertisements are highly attractive,
comparison with such standards generally result in lowered self-esteem, dissatisfaction
with appearance, eating disorders, and or a negative body image (Lennon, Lillethun, &
Backland, 1999).

The social comparison theory developed by Festinger (1954) explains some of the reasons
that females feel compelled to be thin. The social comparison theory explains how and why
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