We live in a society bombarded with aspirational images of youth and beauty. Yet these ideals are often less like goals to be aimed for and more like mirages — projections of a manufactured "perfection," unachievable by more than a small percentage of the population and utterly contrary to our innate sense of what is beautiful. But does TV really dictate our notions of beauty? For the first time, a team of scientists has been able to pinpoint television as having a direct link with unrealistic female body ideals.
According to the University of Washington, studies show that, by the age of 13, 53% of girls in the U.S. are "unhappy with their bodies" — a figure that climbs to 78% by the time they reach age 17. Add to this the 1995 study that suggested "up to 35% of normal dieters will progress to pathological dieting and, of those, 20 to 25% will progress to partial or full-blown eating disorders," and the threat these ideas of perfection pose to health becomes clear.
Yet, despite the understandable controversy that rages over the way female body image is controlled by the media — especially on TV — until now there have been few attempts to accurately analyze the effects by looking at the variables of the equation objectively to isolate the influence of media exposure from other cultural and environmental factors. Scientists from the University of Newcastle in northern England began looking at the television consumption of men and women in Nicaragua to look for any correlation to preference for body size and shape.
The Central American location was chosen because it allowed the assessment of groups with different degrees of access to Western media. The participants included people from an urban area and two villages: one with television access and one with little access to TV. The villages, in the Pearl Lagoon Basin on the remote Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, were selected because their inhabitants have differing access to electricity and to the media, while at the same time sharing similar environmental and cultural constraints.
The research — published in the British Journal of Psychology — was co-led by Dr. Martin Tovee, a reader in visual cognition at Newcastle's Institute of Neuroscience. "Nicaragua provides a unique opportunity to study media effects as we were able to minimize variance in potential confounding factors and focus on the influence of visual media," he says. "The differences in television access allowed us to explore how media exposure affects the size and shape women aspire to be."
The study looked at more than 150 participants across the three locations, testing each person individually and recording how much television they watched. Those with access to TV reported watching programs such as soap operas, imported U.S. films and music videos. Pictures of various women's bodies were then shown to the participants who were asked to rate them for attractiveness on a scale of one to five.
The participants were also asked if they themselves were trying to lose weight at the time of the study. Across all three locations, the team noted, these levels of dieting matched overall Body Mass Index (BMI) preferences in the rated pictures as well as levels of television consumption. It was found that the highest BMI preferences were found in the village with least media access, while those living in urban areas preferred thinner female bodies.
"Our study shows that television is having a significant impact on what people think is the ideal woman's body," Tovee says. "Findings revealed that the more television exposure people receive, the thinner a female body women and men prefer — the amount of media access directly predicts body ideals. Overall, these results strongly implicate television access in establishing risk factors for body image dissatisfaction."
"Most people in the rural sample still hold body ideals within the healthy range. However, the fact body shape ideals may mediate a link between television access and weight loss attempts in this population suggests we could potentially see the same kind of patterns play out here in the long-term as in the West," says Dr Lynda Boothroyd, psychology professor at Durham University, and co-leader of the study. "Internalization of a thin ideal is a well-established risk factor for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in the West. Our data strongly suggests that access to televisual media is itself a risk factor for holding thin body ideals, at least for female body shape, in a population who are only just gaining access to television."
Further studies are needed, the team says, to establish whether these idealized body expectations negatively affect psychological well-being, self-esteem and eating attitudes.