How Romanticized Cultural Ideals Influence Body Image

Woman struggling with orthorexia and Exercise Addiction

Cultural ideals of the female and male body have long been implicated in the development of eating disorders in the Western world. One of the more important studies highlighting this connection was conducted by Dr. Anne E. Becker of Harvard University, who examined how the introduction of American television impacted the island nation of Fiji.

Historically, the comment “you’ve gained weight” was a traditional compliment in Fiji. However, over a period of three years following the introduction of American television shows, researchers saw a marked increase in body dissatisfaction, dieting, and eating disorder behaviors. [1]

Cultural Body Image Changes

It has also been observed that the ideal body image for males and females within a culture changes over time. For American women, the ideal has morphed from larger, curvier shapes in the early 1900s, to the thinner shapes of the “flappers” in the 1920s, back to the fuller figured Marilyn Monroe, and back again the waif-like shape of the model Twiggy in the 1960s. [2]

Current body image ideals are influenced by film and TV. The recent success of the Marvel movies featuring superheroes like Captain American, Thor, and the Hulk have spawned workout regimens for men who want to look like them. Unfortunately, the workouts actors go through for movies are extreme and unsustainable. The stunt double for Chris Hemsworth’s Thor revealed in an interview that he had to eat 35 times a day to bulk up for the role. [3]

Disney princesses have long been animated with unrealistic proportions. Of course, these are cartoons, but many have criticized Disney for not creating more realistic characters for young girls to admire. Several websites have observed that the width of the characters’ eyes is often wider than their waists. [4]

Female staff writers at Buzzfeed challenged the unrealistic standards of Disney when they dressed up as some of the princesses and had their images photoshopped to fit princess-like proportions with awkward and disturbing results.

For both men and women, the ideal body image is becoming more muscular and fit, contributing to excessive and dangerous exercise regimens. Frances Boznik, Ph.D., and Brooke Bennett, Ph.D. authors of a study on body image, write, “It seems as though the quest for a toned body adds just one more thing to strive for – another layer of pressure for women. Not only do they need to restrict caloric intake, but they also need to add a muscle-building exercise routine.” [5]

Social media icons used in marketing a body imageThe growth of social media, fitness models with large followings, and more screen time, all contribute to more exposure to idealized images, which, in turn, causes decreased mood and negative body image for viewers.

The good news is that several companies are making efforts to present greater diversity in sizes and shapes to more accurately reflect human diversity. Target, Old Navy, and Nike are two companies beginning to use more realistic mannequins in their stores. While the majority of mannequins remain slighter in size, this trend is encouraging. [6]

Likewise, the toymaker Mattel has introduced the Barbie Fashionista line, which not only adds variety to body shape and size but also includes dolls with diverse skin tones and physical abilities. The Mattel website states that they have “176 dolls with nine body types, 35 skin tones, and 95 hairstyles,” including dolls that are bald and their newest doll with vitiligo (light spots on darker skin tone). Let’s hope this trend continues, and we see more realistic standards in the future.


[1] Goode, E. (1999, May 20). Study Finds TV Alters Fiji Girls’ View of Body. Retrieved February 22, 2020, from
[2] Howard, J. (2018, March 9). The ever-changing ‘ideal’ of female beauty. Retrieved February 22, 2020, from
[3] Smith, C. B., Smith, C. B., & Smith, C. B. (2019, February 11). Big-orexia: Why 90 Percent of Steroid Users Are Regular Guys. Retrieved February 22, 2020, from
[4], V. S. F. (2015, June 25). Website highlights unrealistic proportions of Disney princesses. Retrieved February 22, 2020, from
[5] Bozsik, F., Bennett, B. L., University of Hawaii, & Manoa. (2019, October 6). The ideal female body type is getting even harder to attain. Retrieved February 22, 2020, from
[6] Jones, C. (2020, February 5). Barbie gets more diverse: Mattel unveils dolls with no hair, vitiligo. Retrieved February 22, 2020, from

About the Author:

Travis Stewart Headshot PhotoTravis Stewart, LPC has been mentoring others since 1992 and became a Licensed Professional Counselor in 2005. His counseling approach is relational and creative, helping people understand their story while also building hope for the future. Travis has experience with a wide variety of issues which might lead people to seek out professional counseling help.

This includes a special interest in helping those with compulsive and addictive behaviors such as internet and screen addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, and perfectionism. Specifically, he has worked with eating disorders since 2003 and has learned from many of the field’s leading experts. He has worked with hundreds of individuals facing life-threatening eating disorders in all levels of treatment. His website is

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published February 26, 2020, on
Reviewed & Approved on February 26, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.