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Women’s body-size preferences shaped by media, study finds

REUTERS/Susana Vera
A new study found that women seemed to adjust their perception of what was an “average” female body size based on the accumulation of the images they were viewing.

Women might become less obsessed with being thin and have a healthier attitude about their own bodies if the media showed more full-figured models, a new study from Britain suggests.

These findings are sure to add support to the growing call for fashion designers and advertisers to stop using too-skinny models. Earlier this year, for example, economists at the London School of Economics and Political Science endorsed government restrictions on the use of underweight models in the fashion industry. They said their own research had led them to conclude that social pressure — including through media images—was the most important factor in the development of anorexia among women.

For the current study, which was published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One, a team of British and Dutch psychologists asked 126 women, aged 18 to 27, about their body-size preferences before and after viewing images of slim and plus-sized female bodies. To manipulate the participants’ preferences, the images were sometimes presented as “aspirational” (attractive models in high-status clothes), sometimes as non-aspirational (ordinary people in gray leotards), and sometimes as a combination of the two.

It’s important to note that all the women who participated in the study were “Westernized,” and, thus, the findings apply only to that demographic. Attitudes about the ideal female body shape vary among cultures.

“To Westernized individuals, thinness is associated with high socioeconomic status, high prestige (in terms of others’ approval) and better health,” write the study’s authors. “On the other hand, in nutritionally stressed environments, body fat is believed to be an indicator of wealth and prosperity, with obesity as a symbol of economic success, femininity, and sexual capacity.”

An adjusted perception

The study found that after viewing images of thin models, whether aspirational or not, the women participants increased their preference for thinness. But the opposite was also true: viewing a stream of images of plus-sized models increased the women’s preferences for fuller bodies.

The women seemed to be adjusting their perception of what was an “average” female body size based on the accumulation of the images they were viewing.

And it didn’t matter whether the women were shown fashion models and beauty queens or ordinary women of either size.

‘Food for thought’

This was a small study, and even its authors call the findings “preliminary.” The authors note, for example, that the study was not designed to determine whether the effects observed in the laboratory could be long lasting.

Still, “this really gives us some food for thought about the power of exposure to super-slim bodies,” said lead author and Durham University psychologist Lynda Boothroy in a statement that was released with the study. “There is evidence that being constantly surrounded through the media by celebrities and models who are very thin contributes to girls and women having an unhealthy attitude to their bodies.

“Although we don’t yet know whether brief exposure to pictures of larger women will change women’s attitudes in the long term,” she added, “our findings certainly indicate that showing more ‘normal’ models could potentially reduce women’s obsession for thinness.”

PLoS One is an open-access journal, so you can read the study in full online.

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