While many young women spend time counting calories and worrying about what they eat, some suggest that they should be paying more attention to what their minds are consuming during primetime television binges and fashion magazine cravings. Studies have revealed that images of thinness in the mass media encourage poor self-image. The consumption of these hard-to-reach ideals can perpetuate the current problem of eating disorders and negative attitudes towards eating in American society.
“Media images send a message not only about what kinds of bodies are valued and attractive, but that attaining these kinds of bodies is both possible and obligatory,” said Dara Greenwood, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University. Greenwood is interested in how the ultra-thin ideal of characters in the media impacts women’s self-image.
Specifically, she has studied characteristics of women who engage heavily with the media. “I found that women who are preoccupied with and anxious about close relationships were more likely to identify with and idealize female media characters,” Greenwood explained. “Idealization of characters, in turn, was associated with increased body anxiety.”
For example, young women who might identify with the female leads of “Desperate Housewives,” “Alias” or “The O.C.” and are also concerned with their own personal relationships may find themselves anxious about their bodies. When nearly every television show represents leading ladies with thin figures, it is difficult for women to escape the message to lose weight, Greenwood said.
While most eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa stem from a variety of problems such as personal trauma and family conflict, the mass media provide the benchmark images that perpetuate these diseases. To gain control of their lives in times of crisis, women often look to the media for guidance, Greenwood said.
Greenwood suggests that at first, it might be pleasurable and comforting for women to view images of thinness in the media, but eventually the gap between the actual self and the ideal self grows too wide.
However, the media would suggest that gap is never too wide to be bridged. The recent wave of reality television programs dedicated to making women feel good by giving them a new body and a new face suggests that looking good is an easy solution to any problem. “The Swan” for example takes several ‘ugly duckling’ contestants and gives them drastic makeovers, including liposuction, plastic surgery and workout regimens, to find a beautiful princess in the end.
These shows present the idea of altering one’s body as a rewarding experience, Greenwood said. “In reality, being excessively preoccupied with your appearance can interfere with life satisfaction and enjoyment and reduce the degree to which we are authentically absorbed in activities and interactions.”
The correlation between media intake and disordered eating attitudes has also been proven outside of the United States. In a study done in Fiji, Anne Becker, a professor at Harvard Medical School found that after the introduction of television in previously “media na