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Television, magazines, radio, and social media pervade our lives and our time. On average, adults spend 7.5 hours and children and adolescents spend six to seven hours per day consuming media. Undoubtedly, media consumption plays a significant role in our day-to-day lives and has far-reaching impacts, including impacts to body image and eating disorders.
Numerous articles and studies have revealed that media can negatively influence one’s perception of their body. Aggregated analysis of more than 25 studies examined how exposure to media images, particularly of thin women, impact body image. Among these studies, results illustrated that viewing media imagery of thin models negatively impacted body image, while viewing average-sized models, plus-size models, or inanimate objects had far lesser effect.
Media companies are aware of this negative relationship, and aware of increased risks for teens and adolescents. As one recent Wall Street Journal article revealed, Instagram was aware of, and documented, how exposure to body related content on their platform negatively impacted the mental health of teen girls.
Many factors contribute to the adverse relationship between media consumption and body image.
Evolving Physical Ideals Portrayed in Media
Over decades, media has evolved to portray increasingly thin women and muscular men as ideal physical figures. Furthermore, written media has placed increasing focus on fitness, exercise, and diet as means to achieving an “ideal” figure, particularly within media outlets targeted toward adolescent girls. The perpetuation of these ideals among online and offline media outlets creates dangerous and often unrealistic expectations of thinness and muscularity. Given the volume of media that consumers, teens and adolescents consume on average each day, consider how many of those hours include viewing unrealistic body standards.
Social comparison theory indicates that people have an innate tendency to evaluate themselves in relation to others. Naturally, when viewing magazines, imagery or written media portraying thinness or muscularity, individuals tend to compare their bodies to those portrayals. Even though each of us possesses unique bodies with unique needs, natural social comparison instincts can take hold when viewing media imagery, resulting in a negative perception of one’s body as compared to the bodies promoted by modern media.
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Reality versus Photoshop
Though social comparison innately drives us to compare ourselves to the images we see of others, sometimes those images are not real. Photo augmentation through filters or photoshopping drastically alter the visual image of a person and can create body portrayals that are not only unrealistic to achieve but unreal in and of themselves.
While many adults understand the impact of photoshop on imagery, many teens and adolescents do not. Children often do not know when an image has been “re-touched” to create a particular aesthetic or ideal. Without being able to accurately assess real imagery from altered imagery, children can be particularly vulnerable to considering unreal, photoshopped images as achievable body standards. Even teens and adolescents who intellectually understand the existence of filters and photoshop may not yet possess the developmental maturity to consider how photo augmentation tricks the eye and exacerbates social comparisons.
Social Media Algorithms
Social media algorithms, while extremely complex, function on a common goal: keep the viewer on social media. Algorithms achieve this objective through many means, but a central method for encouraging continued social media consumption is to suggest content that will likely be of interest to the social media user based on their viewing history and engagement data. In the case of body-focused content, this can mean that a social media user who starts engaging with harmful imagery of unrealistic beauty standards will continue receiving increasing volumes of this type of content, further inundating their social media feed with impossible standards.
These factors, among others, coalesce to create a correlation between mass media exposure and negative body image, particularly among more vulnerable populations like teens and adolescents. While media consumption doesn’t always lead to negative body image, a clear connection exists, driven by the factors noted above and many more.
Taking the impact one step further, much research exists on the relationship between negative body image and the development of an eating disorder. Those who suffer from a negative body image are at increased risk of adopting disordered eating or exercise habits in an effort to change their bodies. As those disordered eating and/or exercise habits continue, an eating disorder may form. Keep in mind, that eating disorders can occur without negative body image, too. While media consumption, negative body image, and eating disorders may be correlated, they are not always causally linked. Eating disorders can occur based on a wide array of factors, including but well beyond media exposure.
How to Mitigate the Impact of Media on Body Image
Understanding the negative impact of traditional media imagery on body image is a first step toward approaching media with increased awareness. Furthermore, curating media consumption to avoid unrealistic or unhealthy imagery can help cultivate a more positive and nurturing perception of the body. Rather than filling a social media feed with images of unrealistically thin or muscular models, consider engaging with and following media outlets and accounts who promote healthy bodies in many shapes and sizes. Invite yourself to experience and celebrate the diversity of the human body in your media consumption and, in turn, honor the uniqueness of yourself.
- Brown JD, Witherspoon EM. The mass media and American adolescents’ health. J Adolesc Health. 2002
- Groesz LM, Levine MP, Murnen SK. The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Int J Eat Disord. 2002;31:1–16.
- Katzmarzyk PT, Davis C. Thinness and body shape of Playboy centerfolds from 1978 to 1998. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001;25:590–2.
- Guillen EO, Barr SI. Nutrition, dieting, and fitness messages in a magazine for adolescent women, 1970–90. J Adolesc Health. 1994;15:464–72.
- Festinger L. A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations. 1954;7(2):117-140.
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Reasons Eating Disorder Center offers a full continuum of care for patients struggling with anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and co-occurring issues such as trauma symptoms, substance abuse, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression.
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 August 9th, 2022 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on August 9th, 2022, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC