Reviewed by Amy Baker Dennis, PhD, FAED
We live in a media-saturated world and do not have much control over the messages that we are exposed to. There is no single cause of body dissatisfaction or disordered eating. However, research is increasingly clear that media does indeed contribute and that exposure to and pressure exerted by media increase body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.1
Americans and Media Consumption
- Over 80% of Americans watch television daily, which accounts for 55% of the total time people spend on leisure activities in a day. On average, these people watch over three hours of television per day.2
- On a typical day, 8 – 12-year-olds use some form of media for about 5 hours and 13 – 18-year-olds use some type of media for about 7.5 hours. Most of this time is spent watching television or streaming videos, though children and teens play video games for approximately 1.5 hours and are on their computers for more than an hour a day.3
- A total of 81% of teens use social media, with 70% saying they use it more than once a day and about 40% reporting they use it multiple times an hour.4
- Social media use has increased significantly over the last several years with an average of 72% of American adults using at least one social networking site compared to 5% in 2005.5
The Effects of the Media
Mass media provides a significantly influential context for people to learn about body ideals and the value placed on adhering to what is considered attractive in our society. Whenever you use any type of media, think about who is paying for your attention and what their motive is. Consider how the message might affect someone’s body image and if it is a message you want to support.
- A content analysis of weight-loss advertising found that about 40% of all advertising for weight-loss products made use of false, unsubstantiated claims and 93% contained one or more deceptive statements.6
- Numerous correlational and experimental studies have linked exposure to the thin ideal in traditional mass media to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and disordered eating among women.1 Pressure from mass media to adhere to muscular body ideals also appears to be related to body dissatisfaction and increases the risk of engaging in excessive exercise, anabolic steroids misuse, as well as the development of muscle dysmorphia and eating disorders among men. This effect may be smaller than among women but it is still significant.7
- Of American elementary school girls who read magazines, 69% say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape. 47% say the pictures make them want to lose weight.8
- Social media differs from traditional media (e.g. television, print, movies) as it allows users to post their own content and then receive feedback from others. Furthermore, since social media is constantly available to people on their devices and more than 3.2 billion new images are posted on social networking sites each day there is a much higher risk of being exposed to thin and muscular body ideals than traditional forms of media.9 For example, studies have found that social media use, particularly engaging with appearance focused content that idealizes thin bodies, taking selfies and viewing and/or comparing oneself to images of celebrities, peers or family increase body dissatisfaction and can lead to disordered eating among both females and males, though rates are consistently higher for females.6,10,11,12
- A study of American high school students found that those who reported using social media more than 2 hours daily were 1.6 times more likely to experience body image issues than those who spent less time on social media.13
- Conversely, Black-oriented television shows may serve a protective function; Hispanic and Black girls and women who watch more Black-oriented television have higher body satisfaction. Furthermore, studies have shown that Black women experience less pressures to adhere to thin body ideals perpetuated in the media. It is believed this is in part be due to the historical under-representation of Black people in the media and the acceptance of larger body sizes in Black culture.15 However, other researchers have disputed these findings and suggest that lower rates of body dissatisfaction found among Black women are not accurate and are instead the result of racial biases and stereotypes held by the predominantly White researchers who create the assessment tools used to measure body dissatisfaction.16
- An individual’s sexual orientation has also been shown to impact how the media influences body image. Studies have found that gay and bisexual men experience higher rates of thin-ideal internalization and media appearance pressures than their heterosexual counterparts.17
- On the other hand, research has found that for transgender and non-binary individuals social media can improve body image.18 One factor could be that social media use allows gender diverse individuals to create safe and supportive communities they might not have access to in their daily lives. For example, studies have shown that posting images and messages on social media that align with their gender identity (e.g. selfies and pronouns) and receiving positive feedback that affirms their identity improves their body image and mental health in general.19
5 Tips for Media Self-Care
- Choose and use media mindfully. Be selective about your media use and choose media that supports your values and builds self-esteem and body confidence.20
- Limit screen time and social networking. Researchers studying body concern issues have found that the more time we spend in the media world, the more we are exposed to images of the thin body ideal, the more vulnerable we are to compare our appearance to these unrealistic body standards.1,21 Protect your self-image by monitoring the quantity and quality of your mainstream and social media time.
- Think critically. Use media literacy strategies to think critically about messages you consume and content you create on social media. Ask the following key questions: Are the body depictions realistic or digitally altered? What does the message really mean? Why are they sending it? How might it affect someone’s body image? Who created and profits from the message? Before you text, tweet, post comments, and share photos and videos, ask yourself why you are sending the message, who you want to reach, and analyze the message it gives about bodies.22
- Talk back to the media about body image. Tell people who profit from media and establish policies what you like and don’t like about their body representations, why you feel this way, and what you plan to do about it — take a stand and refuse to read, view or listen to media or buy advertised products until they make changes.23
- Advocate for safe and inclusive body talk. Use your social media capital to inspire others to use their voices to support and contribute authentic and diverse body messages, criticize unrealistic body ideals, and report body shaming. Shout out to media outlets, retailers, advertisers, and celebrity product endorsers or influencers who celebrate all body shapes and sizes, and call out ones that continue to promote harmful and artificial body norms. You can make a difference!24
Tips for Becoming a Critical Viewer of the Media20
We spend more time than ever using media and everywhere we turn there are messages telling us how we should look that can make us feel less confident about our appearance. While we’re probably not going to use less media, we can protect our self-image and body confidence from media’s narrow body ideals that reinforce the appearance ideal.
Media messages about body shape and size do not need to affect the way we feel about ourselves and our bodies. One of the ways we can protect our self-esteem and body image from the media’s often narrow definitions of beauty and acceptability is to become critical viewers of the media messages we are bombarded with each day. When we effectively recognize and analyze the media messages that influence us, we remember that the media’s definitions of beauty and success do not have to define our self-image or potential.
- Most media images and messages are constructions. They are not reflections of reality. Advertisements and other media messages have been carefully crafted and are intended to send a very specific message.
- Advertisements are created to do one thing: convince you to buy or support a specific product or service. To do this, advertisers will often construct an emotional experience that looks like reality. Remember, you are only seeing what advertisers want you to see.
- Advertisers create their message based on what they think you will want to see and what they think will affect you and compel you to buy their product. Just because they think their approach will work with people like you doesn’t mean it has to work with you as an individual.
- As individuals, we decide how to experience the media messages we encounter. We can choose to use a filter that helps us understand what the advertiser wants us to think or believe and then choose whether we want to think about or believe that message. We can choose a filter that protects our self-esteem and body image.
Learn more about how to share your story publicly and guidelines for safely covering eating disorders in the media here.