Thin Ideals and the Way We Feel
With such a wealth of research showing that women’s magazines are consistently presenting unrealistic and underweight images of bodies as average and attainable, and with such an intense focus on thinness as the key to health, the corresponding health implications should not be surprising.
Along with dangerous levels of eating disorders, a startling trend of the past two decades is the dramatic rise in obesity. Though these two extremes in women’s health might seem opposite and unrelated, I argue they both can be partially linked to the misrepresentation of healthy bodies in media, and particularly in popular women’s magazines. I argue that the anxieties incited by unrealistic thin ideals perpetuated by mass media are manifesting themselves in the form of two dangerous health extremes: women turning to disordered eating as an attempt to fit the ideal on one end of the spectrum, and on the other end, women surrendering to unhealthy overeating and sedentary lifestyles in response to a perception that they are too far from the ideal to ever achieve an average or healthy weight as presented by mass media.
The latter group of women may be comprised of the 50 percent of women who say their bodies “disgust” them (Dove International, 2004) or the whopping 90 percent of women who are dissatisfied with their appearances (Women’s Health Network, 2004). This rampant self-loathing, which can be partially attributed to women’s self-comparisons to unrealistic and unattainable body ideals in mass media, may very well encourage women to give up on achieving healthy body weights altogether due to the perception that “healthy” or “average” is unreachable. Recent studies are helping to confirm this idea.
Newsweek reported on a study from Cornell University in 2007 that examined how people’s perceptions of their size and shape motivated them to lose weight. The authors assumed that the further someone was from a healthy weight, the more dissatisfied they would be with their body and the more pounds they would want to lose to achieve an ideal weight (Kantrowitz & Wingert, 2007), but the results didn’t turn out quite as they had expected. Although overweight and obese women expressed the greatest dissatisfaction with their bodies, the amount of weight they said they would ideally like to lose was so low that they would still be categorized as overweight, the researchers found.
They attributed this to the idea that women who are very overweight might feel that the amount of weight loss needed to attain a healthy weight might seem unattainable, and those women might need to achieve small weight loss goals before they can envision more major losses and make the corresponding lifestyle changes (Kantrowitz & Wingert, 2007). Interestingly, the same study found that the underweight women in the group believed they were at their ideal weight, and didn’t seem to understand the health risks associated with being underweight. The authors attributed this to the supportive cultural messages very thin women receive that help to keep them in that weight category.
Real Health is at Stake Here!
Because obesity is associated with increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, cancers and heart problems (CDC) and eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental health disorders (Fouts & Vaughn, 2002), there is so much at stake in turning this women’s health crisis around. Understanding the psychology of weight loss and its correlation to mediated health information in media may be one way to contribute to the solution of this major problem. Perhaps most supportive of my argument that misrepresentations of women’s bodies in mass media are contributing to extremes in women’s health is a study on a group of teen girls (Van den Berg & Neumark-Sztainer, 2007). This study found that girls who were more comfortable with their bodies — regardless of their weight or size — were less likely to gain weight in the future and more likely to be physically active and pay more attention to what they ate. Though they didn’t lose much weight, the girls made healthy lifestyle changes that at least prevented them from gaining more weight in the future.
Meanwhile, the researchers found that the girls who were the most dissatisfied with their size tended to become more sedentary over time and paid less attention to maintaining a healthy diet. Those who were unhappy with their bodies were, in fact, more likely to gain more weight (Van den Berg & Neumark-Sztainer, 2007). These findings may hold a major key to future research and more definitive links between mediated representation of women’s bodies and the current women’s health crises of eating disorders and obesity.
Women’s magazines depictions and definitions of healthy bodies should not be dismissed as entertainment or harmless publications that motivate women toward bodily ideals. Over the past century, these prominent and long-standing publications have shaped the way the public views women’s health in significant and damaging ways, and work must be done to combat this influence on women’s self-views and perceptions of what “healthy” really means.
What YOU Can Do
Protest with Your Pocketbook: If you don’t agree with the serious misrepresentation of women’s health in these magazines, don’t subscribe to them or buy them. If you have friends or family that subscribe to these titles, forward them this link and recommend that they protest with their pocketbooks as well.
Use Your Influence: If your favorite salon, gym or doctor’s office offers these magazines for free reading in their waiting rooms, recommend that they be removed or placed behind the counter where young girls or children won’t be so easily exposed to their harmful messages about women and their bodies. Turning the magazines around in the checkout stand or placing something in front of them at the grocery story is another great way to protect young people from the images and headlines.
Keep this Conversation Going: Share this link with friends and family that read these magazines or may be influenced by their messages so they can start to recognize the difference between beauty ideals and true health and fitness. Spark discussion. What kinds of more empowering and accurate representations of bodies and health have you seen? Where? What do you think of the argument that these magazines are doing a good thing for women by providing them with goals to reach for in terms of what their bodies can look like? Are these magazines actually inspirational or just degrading and harmful to body image? Keep the conversation going here and anywhere people can get involved!
Proceed with Caution: If you enjoy reading women’s magazines or other idealized media, as many people do, please continue to do so with a critical eye. Recognize the bodies they choose to feature, the ways they depict them and the words they use to describe them as very intentional decisions to uphold unrealistic ideals and objectified ways of viewing women. Being aware of these strategies is a great step toward breaking free from these harmful ideas in your mind, even as you enjoy your favorite media. A boycott of all media is often an unrealistic expectation for most people, so learning to be more critical of the messages we’re exposed to can be a great way to be more aware of the profit-driven ideas we’re being sold about women’s bodies.