Western media is saturated with images and messages about the ideal body shape and size. It is clear in American culture there is a “thin ideal.” This means thin is considered to be the best body shape.
This cultural standard is communicated to viewers in a variety of ways. Whether through advertisements about weight loss or in more subtle ways, such as in film.
For example, in many television shows, characters in bigger bodies are often the victims of bullying. This sends a message that bigger bodies are bad or, at the very least, something to make fun of.
Research shows this impacts viewers’ body image satisfaction . This is important and potentially dangerous because body dissatisfaction can lead to disordered eating . While the majority of research has focused on girls and women, men are also negatively impacted by cultural body standards . Although the male body ideal also pressures men to be thin, men are also expected to be muscular and tall .
There are ways to limit the impact and potential harm from the media. Here are five tips for wise media consumption:
Become Aware of Internalized Beauty Standards
Being aware of your own beliefs about beauty is important. This awareness is useful in learning how to interact with media wisely. For example, if you believe that thin is best and you come across media that supports this idea, it is likely to be more influential. This can lead to more pressure to diet or to engage in disordered eating behavior.
If you are aware of what cultural messages you have internalized, you can begin to confront these ideas. Unraveling these beliefs can take the power out of the beauty standards that saturate Western culture.
Follow Body Positive Media
According to Perloff (2014), media that challenge the thin ideal can lead more people to reject this cultural standard . There are many body positive influencers on Instagram, such as @bodyimage_therapist and @bodiposipanda. Blogs like Eating Disorder Hope and materials from the National Eating Disorder Association are reliable sources of body positive information.
Limit Negative Media
Unfollowing, muting, or blocking media sources that promote body shaming can limit the frequency of exposure to harmful messages. While this may be more difficult if friends or family members post content like this, there are options to anonymously mute or unfollow. This limits exposure without deleting social media connections and creating issues with important people in your life.
The practice of limiting exposure can be applied to other media outlets besides social media. For example, film, magazines, or YouTube channels. Regardless of the source, limiting harmful media can be helpful. It is impossible to completely eliminate exposure, but minimizing it can be helpful for self-esteem and body satisfaction.
Be Aware of Your Emotional State
Research shows that someone’s emotional state can make them more vulnerable to media’s influence . For example, if someone is feeling anxious, and they see a triggering thin ideal image, it is more likely to be upsetting or lead to increased self-comparison.
It is beneficial to check-in to see if you are feeling stressed, sad, insecure, or any other distressing feeling before consuming media. If there are, take time to calm down. This can make it easier to cope if there is something triggering.
View Media Critically
Start thinking about media critically. Really consider what is communicated and the reason why. Critical viewing can increase awareness of the stereotypes and producers’ underlying motivation.
For example, a company that sells weight loss products benefits from people wanting to be as thin as possible. Companies like this may have advertisements that glamorize thinness. This is because people will be more likely to buy their products.
The ability to understand the hidden motivation behind media content can help someone filter through it. Understanding the difference between media that is intended to sell something versus factual information is important. This knowledge can help since media is a huge part of Western culture.
Knowing how to navigate media can help boost self-esteem and body satisfaction. Who wouldn’t want that?
References: Perloff, R.M. (2014) Social media effects on young women’s body image concerns: Theoretical perspectives and an agenda for research. Sex Roles, 71, 363-377. DOI 10.1007/s11199-014-0384-6  Duggan, S.J. & McCreary, D.R. (2004). Body image, eating disorders, and the drive for muscularity in gay and heterosexual men: The influence of media images. Journal of Homosexuality, (47), 3-4, 45-58. DOI:10.1300/J082v47n03_03
About the Author:
Samantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.
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 July 27, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on July 27, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC