What Effect Does the Media’s “Thin Ideal” Have on Society? Magazine articles, TV shows, advertisements, and music videos continually depict images of unreasonably thin models and celebrities. Many of these celebrities suffer from eating disorders, and yet they remain the iconic symbols of our society. American men and women strive to obtain the perfect body, or the “thin ideal,” that the media presents as normal. This was true for my friend, who dreamed of going to fashion school beginning in middle school when she was overweight.
That is when she began to develop an eating disorder. She has incessantly gotten thinner, to the mint where she has been hospitalized, and has gone to therapy; yet she maintains that she does not want to gain weight. She is now at fashion school in LA, where she is bombarded with images of rail-thin models and celebrities. As I help her through her mental illness, I question whether her dedication to fashion has influenced her mindset and desire to lose weight. My questioning prompted me to research this topic, and find out whether the media’s “thin ideal” causes eating disorders.
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However, I also researched whether the media’s “thin ideal” has an effect on our investment in body image. Anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating are all mental illnesses that now “affect an estimated 35 million Americans” (Para 1). These people become “obsessed with food” because of the idea that they are overweight, and are afraid of being fat (2). In addition to those with eating disorders, 40 to 50 percent of women who are not inflicted with eating disorders, have body dissatisfaction (Ferguson 20).
Another issue that came up in my research was initialization. The classification of initialization is “to take in and make an integral part of one’s attitudes or beliefs” (defenestration. Com). In the case of eating disorders, this would be taking in the “thin ideal. ” For women, the “thin ideal” is defined by mass media as “young, tall, thin, and white, with at least moderately large breasts,” and for men it is defined as, “tall and lean… Well groomed and expensively fashionably dressed; and/or exceptional muscularity’ (Cash 102).
This ideal woman has been created from the “thinness schema,” which maintains that “(1) women are naturally invested in their beauty assets; and (2) the slender beauty ideal is not an enjoyable fantasy… But rather is normal, healthy, and achievable through personal dedication” (102). The article “Eating Disorders: Is Societal Pressure to be Thin to Blame? ” by Pamela Para provides a chronology of connections between the media and eating disorders as well as lays out background information .
According to Para, there is a complicated combination of biological, psychological and social factors that cause eating disorders, and our culture continues to endorse thinness (3). Over time there has been a shift in the way that society views being thin. Starting at the end of the Middle Ages, “women who fasted were thought to possess evil spirits and were accused of being witches bent upon destroying the Catholic Church” (12). Next, in the 17th and 18th centuries, when women were too thin, they were thought of as being “victims of poor health” (12). Then in the sass and the sass, the full figured woman became the ideal (13).
When Twiggy, a famous model who stood 5’9″ and weighed 90 pounds, Lee, very curvy and round” (Vagabond), because that was the optimal body. But today, our society not only approves of being thin, but idealizes it. Before Twiggy, “the average fashion model weighed Just 8 percent less than the average American woman, but today fashion models are thinner than 98 percent of American women” (13). The exposure starts at an early age; children are being exposed to the “thin ideal” with dolls such as Barbie, who “would stand 59″ and weigh a mere 110 pounds” if she were a real person (13).
This early introduction makes a big impact because as girls’ bodies develop, they become worried about the places that they are gaining weight where they didn’t have fat before (14). A sickening figure depicts that more than 50 percent of 9 and 10-year-olds say that “they feel better about themselves when they’re dieting” (33), and research found that girls who were as young as 7 years old thought that the thinner women in drawings were more popular ND happier (34). These girls look at the media and observe and emulate the figures that they see (23).
Many also get ideas for losing weight from the media, like “model Kate Dillon, [who] said she got the idea to purge from a TV movie” (24). Para, however, concludes that while society associates being thin with being beautiful (33), the media and Hollywood alone can’t cause eating disorders, even though they do contribute to them (24). In a 2010 study done in Spain by Maria Clad et al, participants were assessed based on their disordered eating attitude and media exposure (417).
The study was made up of 1,165 evenly distributed male and female students, between 14 and 16 years old, from a total of 30 public and private schools (419). The study was conducted using a demographic questionnaire with age, gender and body mass index (IBM), and six surveys: mass media exposure; body dissatisfaction; disordered eating patterns; social comparison; initialization of the “thin ideal;” and self-esteem (419-421). Consistent with other studies, the male students presented a 6. 6% frequency of disordered eating while the females were at 13. 6% (424).
The results of the study offered three core findings. The first was that ales with eating disorders watched more television than those without eating disorders, however females with eating disorders did not (425). Second, men with eating disorders tended to be more interested in health sections of the media, and women with eating disorders tended to be more interested in dieting or fitness sections (425). And finally, males and females that had eating disorders presented more body dissatisfaction, initialization, and awareness of the thin ideal than those without (425).
Therefore, the hypothesis that there is an association between the amount of media exposure and disordered eating was only partially supported. The results indicate that those with eating disorders are more likely to seek out body image related media and have higher “body dissatisfaction,” however they do not indicate that the media can cause eating disorders (425). Although the “thin ideal” is involved in the media, the research presented does not support the idea that eating disorders are caused by the media. However, this prompted me to research whether there is an effect on women who internalize it.
The findings showed that women who have internalized the “thin ideal” are seriously affected by the media. These findings re consistent with an earlier study from 2005 organized by Amy Brown and Helga Dimmitt at the University of Sussex. The study included 75 female students with an students were randomly assigned to groups, and were asked to concentrate on various advertisements with differing exposure times (1096). They then completed a questionnaire concerning weight-related anxiety, “thin-ideal” initialization measures, and a word-stem completion task (1097).
This generated three main findings. The first was that anxiety related to weight was increased after exposure to thin models for those with a strong “thin ideal” initialization (1108). The second was that women who paid full attention to the thin images experienced more anxiety related to weight than those who did not pay as much attention (1108). And finally, when women with high and low levels of initialization were exposed to the images, this activated their appearance schemata, which then created a “think thin’ and feel bad sequence” (1109).
Any exposure to ultra-thin images produced an escalation in the processing of appearance-related information for 80% of the subjects (1109). The researchers came to the conclusion that there is a relationship between body satisfaction and initialization of the “thin-ideal. ” Dimmitt also published a Journal in 2009 in which she analyzed the evidence that there is a causal link between media and body image. She explains that there is a difference in the way that individuals view themselves, which leads to differing vulnerability levels (1).
When someone has greater body dissatisfaction or vulnerability, this creates negative emotional states, which can lead to dieting or “other unhealthy body-related behaviors” (2). Through the evaluation of three meta- analyses, Dimmitt came to the conclusion that there are two different ways that individuals can process the appearance of models. The first is that the viewer compares themselves with the model (4), and if it becomes their ideal, a gap will form between their actual body and their ideal body, creating a negative impact (6).
The second is that the viewer identifies with actually being the model (4). This then creates a “lack of comparison with the model, and [a] lack of focus on differences between [their] actual and ideal body,” which could in turn produce positive feelings (6). Though these are two different processes, they can occur simultaneously (6). This egging to clarify why women are invested in the unrealistic images despite the ultimately negative effect they can have on vulnerable women (6). Dimmitt explains that there is a direct correlation between how women perceive their degree of vulnerability (6).
Those who are more vulnerable may be “more likely to seek out and adopt external norms of ideal beauty as part of their own identity’ (5). Similar to Tamari’s findings, a 2013 meta-analysis done by Christopher J Ferguson found that the media significantly affects those with pre-existing body dissatisfaction, yet there was no effect on those without pre-existing body dissatisfaction (35). 04 studies were found using an index search that looked for certain terms related to body image or the media (24). Then, each of those studies had to be matched as a magazine or print media, TV or visual media, or a music video (25).
Ferguson notes that while most of the male studies were done with heterosexual college students, so there may have been a bias, those men showed no effect from exposure to muscular ideals (31). For females, the experimental studies showed that the media had a greater effect than the correlation and longitudinal studies did (32). With that being aid, there may not have been an effect population wide, but that doesn’t mean that influence on women with preexisting body dissatisfaction was significant, but there wasn’t a significant effect on those with low preexisting dissatisfaction (32).
Therefore the conclusion was that the effects of “thin-ideal” media can only be restricted to those women who have preexisting body dissatisfaction (35). More recently internet sites have been launched called “pro-Ana” and “pro-aim” sites that are used to promote eating disorders. These sites seem to be a more serious way that the media is affecting women. There are currently over 180 active sites that give emotional support and advice that can kill visitors (Cox 1). It has been concluded that “66% of teens that have looked at these sites claim that they have tried the tips” for how to lose weight (Para 10).
Some sites contain pictures of very thin models as “administrations” (Cox 1) while others contain images of overweight people to act as a reverse trigger (Para 10). The sites are becoming popular among eating disorder patients; one doctor said that every patient of hers who is over the age of 13 has either heard of or been on the sites (Cox 3). It is crucial for the survival f those with eating disorders that these sites are monitored in order to ensure that they are not acting as spurs in children’s mental illnesses.
Because we see the media everywhere, it is important that we make sure that it does not generate harmful effects for society. This research refuted my preliminary hypothesis that there was a direct correlation between eating disorders and the media. However it affirmed that there may be evidence to suggest that the media can have negative impacts on individuals who are already vulnerable. This conclusion furthered my concern for my friend in LA, because she already has an initialization f the “thin ideal,” and is surrounded by the media constantly.
The immense difference between the runway models and regular people is creating a society where those who are already susceptible to eating disorders are acting on their weaknesses. Even though the media is not affecting everyone, we need to celebrate women of all shapes and sizes in order to assure that those who are affected stop starving themselves. With so many studies showing that those with pre-existing body dissatisfaction are being negatively affected, I hope to see the fashion industry and the media taking more precaution in the future.