The Mass Media Impact On Body Image

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Body image is a major concern affecting young women and girls. According to Grabe, Ward and Hyde (2008), body dissatisfaction for females in America accounts for about 50% of the population and this number is currently on the rise. The mass media has been responsible for distributing sexualized images and promoting the thin-ideal which influences young girls and women to be dissatisfied with their bodies as this creates a thinness schema in society. This motivation then leads to the development of a negative self-esteem when females search for further guidance from the mass media to enhance their image which thus complicates health. This insecurity also can lead to the mass media’s stigmatization of overweight individuals who do not belong to this category and create challenges for them in society. Therefore, the mass media is a major contributor to body image as it promotes body dissatisfaction for females and a thin-ideal for young women and girls which can reduce well-being and contribute to a social stigma for overweight individuals.

To begin, the mass media’s portrayal of the thin-ideal promotes a false idea of beauty that causes young women to engage in upward comparisons to reinforce beauty. For example, Prieler and Choi (2014) found that social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook that show thin females often encourage young women to compare themselves with them as it creates more interest to use the company’s services and it provides a thin definition of what being physically attractive means. This shows that the mass media is creating inappropriate means to communicate as it distracts attention away from forming close bonds with other people into the need for self-enhancement. By using social media apps for information on one’s standing in comparison with other thin models, this prevents forming connections with others because young women become ingrained into the need to fulfill the thin-ideal. As a result, they place all their attention into wanting to look physically attractive to self enhance their current state and ignore the main usage of these apps to connect with people. Since there are desired outcomes with beauty like gaining more attention from the public, this supports Sigall and Ostrove (1975) who explain that beauty can be a form of positive reinforcement as being physically attractive can promote desired outcomes like decreasing punishment in crime. This relates to the idea that when the media presents young women with thin models, this encourages their comparison with thin models to want to align their own thin standards with them. As a consequence, young women begin to elicit further actions to meet the media’s expectations to obtain desired outcomes of thinness. Therefore, the upward comparisons women engage in are problematic since the mass media’s portrayal of thin individuals on social media apps can reinforce young women to increase their self-enhancement to feel positive as thinness is a critical factor for beauty and be desired by society.

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As a result, comparing oneself to the standards of the media can encourage the development of eating disorders to boost self-esteem. As Andsager (2014) notes, the thin-ideal is now deemed as an important goal to achieve and be recognized for many women in society. By holding this perspective in mind, young women begin to implement actions to focus on their goal to meet the societal expectations of the thin-ideal. As an example, Slevec and Tiggemann (2010) found that young middle-class women are the most likely to develop eating disorders. The most common eating disorders according to López-Guimerà, Levine, Sánchez-Carracedo and Fauquet (2010) are bulimia and anorexia for young women. According to the source, bulimia and anorexia have devastating impacts on women’s bodies because they generate a body shape that is inconsistent with the body’s physiologically regulated shape. This demonstrates that taking actions to support the thin-ideal and help women boost their self-esteem in gaining recognition can have serious implications for their body and thus create long-term consequences for health as changes are made to the body that do not align with its basic physiological needs. This is important because it shows that the mass media creates a strong influence on people as it pressures young women to adapt to its perspective on the self by promoting thinness as a goal to attain and idealize. Because the media is readily accessible by the public, women who already have eating disorders can be pulled into an endless cycle of body dissatisfaction by wanting to continue to find ways to regulate their body to societal expectations. Therefore, by continuing to find reassuring information that confirms their perspectives, this can have future consequences such as the inability to have a flexible mind or consider other alternatives other than the negative self-representations created by the media.

Furthermore, the media’s portrayal of sexualized images of thin female athletes can cause women to develop a sense of self-objectification which is seeing oneself as a sexualized object to be admired. According to Linder and Daniels (2018), compared to male athletes, female athletes are shown to receive less attention on the sport they play and more on their physically attractive thin appearance. This means that the main focus of playing sports does not support a female role but on how sexualized their bodies are to suit the sports and the audience’s expectations. It shows that for females, there is more attention and approval on having a physically attractive and sexualized body rather than on the sports they play. This can be a serious problem in society because it creates the desire for women to pursue sports not because they like it, but to obtain the same body as female athletes to be recognized and feel good (Linder & Daniels, 2018). As a result, they may push their bodies harder while exercising in order to achieve the same results and instead see themselves as sexualized objects to be gazed upon by the public. This causes a problem in society since sports is shifting from a focus on performance and teamwork into the need to expose and sell the body to obtain a sexual appeal from others. Therefore, the sexualized images of female athletes show that our world is changing from the importance of talent to physical attractiveness in playing sports.

Besides the media having a negative impact on young women, girls as young as 5-8 years of age can have body dissatisfaction and a loss of self-esteem from their environment. In a study conducted by Dohnt and Tiggemann (2006), the authors found that glancing at magazines depicting thin models and the encouragement of mothers and older sisters of the thin-ideal at home can create body dissatisfaction and dieting awareness in young girls. This shows that young girls have formed this remark at a young age and are aware of their environment in supporting their choices to be thin. This demonstrates that the mass media can target all age groups including young girls, who are just as vulnerable as young women. It also reveals that the media is a very powerful contributor in the world today as it has the ability to engrain into people’s thoughts the importance of being thin and by teaching younger generations the appropriate gender roles and expectations of how females should appear in public. Because of this, the environment also plays a role in dictating the decisions of young girls since it provides the support in creating opportunities that increase the exposure to thinness and prescribe ways of thinking of what it means to be beautiful that are consistent with the media.

Although media literacy programs have served as an important tool to change perspectives about the thin-ideal, the mass media’s websites and blogs still exert a more powerful influence on decisions. Researchers have made attempts to change perspectives in young women through campaigns such as media literacy. According to Andsager (2014), media literacy programs have been proven to be effective in educating young women and girls about the mass media’s negative influences on body image and how to negotiate the media’s messages, instead of being passive listeners. These programs are important because they help reconstruct and educate future generations to transform the many false beliefs that revolve around physical attractiveness about thinness into positive and realistic views. By doing this, it helps remind young women and girls that true beauty can be more than being thin and that it is possible to effectively analyze media imagery to not succumb to them as easily. This demonstrates that media literacy can help reduce body dissatisfaction by providing ways to enhance well-being by providing tools to counteract the thin ideal. However, even if these media literacy programs can help change perspectives by promoting a more realistic view of one’s body, the mass media still exerts a more powerful influence by promoting blogs and websites that encourage anorexia and bulimia in young women (Perloff, 2014). According to this source, these blogs promote the thin-ideal as normative and help set the norm for what is deemed acceptable in society which in fact reverse the effect of media literacy programs because they continue to reinforce “the embrace of unrealistic, dysfunctional body image ideals” (Perloff, 2014). Therefore, media literacy programs are not as effective for reconstructing the body’s true self as many women in society are still embracing the thoughts of a thin body in order to look physically attractive as there is still the increased and easy access to the thin-ideal.

Other counterarguments consistent with demonstrating the shift from the mass media’s support for the thin ideal are that some developing countries view body fat as an important symbol of health. For example, Swami and Tovée (2005) found that in developing countries such as Malaysia, body fat is important to signal health and the self-care of one’s body which are independent of the mass media’s persuasion in many Western countries. This shows that body fat is an important belief in some cultures as well as, important for their own values and traditions. These cultures represent a world where the mass media often does not interfere or change the beliefs of existing attitudes and views. However, this does not explain the research found in India as a developing country, that women also experience body dissatisfaction after being exposed briefly to Western media images depicting the thin-ideal (Gupta, Chaturvedi, Chandarana, & Johnson, 2001). This reveals that the strong societal demands for thinness promoted by the mass media still exert a more powerful influence on women and their decisions about what to do with their bodies as its message of the thin-ideal can be extended to countries around the world. Even though there are signs in some developing countries that body fat is important, this should not be ignored as there are still those who listen passively to the media’s portrayal and value the thin-ideal as shown in research even from few exposures.

Despite fatness displaying positive signals in some developing countries, the mass media’s promotion of the thin-ideal can also contribute to the perpetuating of negative stereotypes of overweight individuals. For example, according to Raisborough (2016), there has been an increasing number of TV shows that associate fatness with being lazy, greedy and unattractive while those who are thin are often depicted as having desirable attributes like success. This shows that people who are fat are often portrayed by the mass media in a negative light as it perpetuates false beliefs and stereotypes that do not apply to every overweight individual. This, in turn, leads to serious consequences because individuals are not seeing the equal potential of overweight individuals and are thus attributing negative qualities to them which alienates them from the rest of society. By perpetuating the negative stereotypes associated with fatness, the mass media is dictating the appearance value of individuals by assigning favourable attributes to those who meet the criteria and ridiculing those who do not. This is unacceptable because it creates a stigma that can prevent overweight individuals from advocating the media’s false portrayals of them as they will always be seen as an out-group who are unable to fit into the prescribed thin norms of society. In addition, the mass media’s perpetuation of negative stereotypes through its advertisement of weight loss programs can create false beliefs in overweight individuals and confusion about one’s identity. To demonstrate, Puhl and Heuer (2009) further explain that weight loss programs often encourage its audience to realize that weight is easily controllable and manageable even though obese people do not engage in it, demonstrating their lack of effort or awareness. Therefore, it is through these advertisements that can also create stigmatization and the loss of identity for obese individuals as it depicts them in a negative image that conforms to the stereotype of their lack of self-control to want to lose weight. This disrupts the cognitions of society because weight loss programs serve as an avenue to support stereotypes rather than providing support or showing concern for weight management of obese individuals. As a result, confusion and a loss of identity can arise in overweight individuals as they are aware that losing weight is not as simple but society believes otherwise and is exerting pressure on them to work harder to reshape their psychologically regulated bodyweight.

By stigmatizing overweight individuals due to their difference by the mass media, psychological stress can erupt which can impact performance related to the workplace and social skills. For example, Flint and Snook (2014) reported increased stress levels for obese individuals in the workplace as they are aware of social stigmas concerning their appearance from the media. By being in an environment where individuals are stressed, this can impact performance in social skills because of the expectations already set by society of how obese individuals should behave. This can cause obese individuals to be anxious in forming close relationships and thinking of how other coworkers will be judging them in the workplace as well as affect their job performance in not being able to work or concentrate successfully without being stigmatized. As a result, the negative discourse that the mass media attributes to obese individuals can lead to a dangerous approach for society in treating overweight individuals. Since the gap between inequality is widening, overweight individuals are left out of the picture as there is already a negative and false one portrayed of them. To conclude, the issue of body image and fatism form a strong link as they are topics that are held strongly by many people as the body is a strong representation of the self. If the mass media continues to promote the thin-ideal, the results can be devastating for young women and girls as it may lead to the possibility of losing a sense of identity in the world. In addition, not only does the thin-ideal affect young women, young girls and overweight individuals, it could also affect a large part of other distinct populations in the world such as those outside of the Western culture.

This topic is important as it is likely to progress into the future since the world is undergoing globalization where news feeds from the mass media are important to keep the world connected and informed about many issues like obesity and supporting the thin-ideal. As most of the world is exposed to the mass media in the 21st century, body image will be a very prevalent factor in shaping how future generations perceive the thin body and its benefits in society. Therefore, informing people of the devastating impacts of the mass media through education can shift perceptions and cognitions to open individuals’ minds to become more active listeners who can discover truths for themselves about what it means to be beautiful in their own way which are independent from the mass media’s advice.

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