Body image a serial problem

New research adds weight to the claim that watching television makes people prefer thinner female bodies.

Researchers led by Durham University in the UK worked with both men and women in remote villages in the Pearl Lagoon Basin area of Nicaragua who had very similar backgrounds and lifestyles but differing exposure to TV.

The 299 participants completed a questionnaire about their ethnicity, education, income, hunger, language and TV exposure, then were asked to rate the attractiveness of pictures of female bodies with varying body shapes and sizes. 

Those with very limited access to TV preferred figures with a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) whereas regular viewers – who tended to watch a mixture of soap operas, Hollywood action movies, music videos, police reality shows and the news – preferred thinner bodies.

The team then carried out another study with those who had little or no TV access. 

“We showed the villagers a series of pictures, either showing larger women or thinner women. We found that after viewing these images, the villagers’ body ideals adjusted in the same direction,” says Tracey Thornborrow from the University of Lincoln, UK.

“Our findings clearly demonstrate that perceptions of attractiveness are highly changeable and are affected by what we are visually exposed to.”  

Not surprisingly, the researchers say this is further evidence that TV exposure can have a powerful impact on what people perceive as the ideal body.

The representation of a “thin ideal” in the media can lead to body dissatisfaction and play a part in the development of eating disorders and depression, they write in a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“TV and advertising bosses have a moral responsibility to use actors, presenters and models of all shapes and sizes and avoid stigmatising larger bodies,” says Durham’s Lynda Boothroyd, the paper’s lead author.

Boothroyd has found the same effect in women in Western societies but says it has never been tested outside industrialised societies before.

Being able to show that perceptions of attractiveness are very changeable in even “media naïve” participants is a major step forward in our understanding of cultural variation, she says.

“If there’s something that’s universal about attraction, it is how flexible it is,” Professor Boothroyd added.

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