It’s become something of a given that women’s attitudes about ideal body size are influenced by the images of female bodies they’re exposed to through the media.
But a new study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, teases out some subtleties in that situation. Does the relentless parade of images of thin women we’re exposed to “train” us visually to regard thinness as ideal? Or might our equation of thinness with benefits such as health, status and overall attractiveness encourage us to view being thin as better than being larger?
Researchers at Durham University in England recruited more than 100 young British women to take part in experiments designed to ascertain whether our preference for thin body types results from “visual diet” — exposure to a steady stream of images of thin women — or “associative learning” — the association of thinness with positive attributes.
Before — and after — taking part in the experiments, the participants completed surveys that indicated what body size they considered ideal.
In two related experiments, participants viewed different combinations of images showing women of different body sizes, from very thin to overweight, and of varying degrees of “aspirational” appeal. The images included attractive, healthy, well-dressed fashion-catalogue models and ordinary women dressed in grey leotards; in both categories, women’s body sizes ranged from thin to overweight.
In brief, women who entered the study preferring thin body types grew even more positive toward thin bodies after seeing repeated images of slender women but became more favorable toward larger body sizes after viewing a series of pictures of larger women. By and large, the influence of images of thin women vs. large women persisted regardless of whether participants viewed images of models or regular gals. That finding supports the “visual diet” hypothesis, the authors suggest.
The authors note that their work is preliminary and points to the need for further research — including studies involving men. Still, they say this study argues in favor of efforts to include women of all body shapes and sizes in ads, catalogues and fashion magazines as a means of curbing eating disorders among women.