It’s not news that images of women in the media—think magazines, Instagram influencers, actresses, and so on—don’t always reflect what most women look like. And we know that seeing these images, or growing up with them, can negatively influence how we define the “ideal body.” Now new research suggests that this process might happen faster than we thought: researchers showed images of objectively thin women to a population with limited media access and found that within 15 minutes, their thoughts on what an ideal body should look like changed.
Before diving into the findings, it’s important to note that this study hasn’t been peer reviewed, meaning it hasn’t gone through the process of being analyzed by other researchers. But the potential implications are still worth noting, and as the study points out “experimental research has never shown that the thin ideal and the media can induce a change in body size ideals in a non-WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic), media-naive population.”
Lead researcher Jean-Luc Jucker of the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and his team visited villages deemed “media naive,” according to the study, on the remote Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. The study notes that while this population has likely seen media (like television and magazines) before, their villages have “no grid electricity and very low to non-existent media access.”
The researchers asked 80 men and women between 16 and 78-years-old to manipulate a computer image of a woman’s body. They used the arrow keys to make the digital body look like how they personally thought an “ideal” body should look. (Of course, there is no such thing as an “ideal body,” but it’s the term the researchers used.) After creating the models, half of the volunteers were shown images of thin women, which the study described as being between a UK size 4 and 6, from popular women’s magazines. The remaining volunteers looked at images of models who were between a UK size 16 and 28.
The participants looked at the photos for a total of 15 minutes, then repeated the computer modeling task. Those who’d been shown the thinner women subsequently modeled bodies that were thinner than the body types they had created the first time. This worked the other way, too: participants who saw images of larger-sized women created models that were bigger than their initial version.
While, as we’ve already noted, the research bears some scrutiny, it supports something many of us know first hand: looking at media representations of body types can shape our idea of what “ideal” means.
This is especially concerning in light of how many images we’re viewing on social media, where platforms already encourage people to present their most curated and filtered version of themselves.
It’s not hard to imagine how seeing constant “ideals” on platforms like Instagram or Facebook could shape someone’s perception of what ideal means in relation to their own body, something especially true for teens girls, who use visually-oriented platforms more than teen boys, according to the Pew Research Center. The researchers say that their findings suggest viewing these types of images could lead to everything from low self-esteem to an “increase in body dissatisfaction and pathological eating attitudes.”
The findings are alarming in that they hint at how an increasingly plugged-in world will be exposed to images of women that could shape their body ideals. But on the other hand, the study suggests that we can reframe what “ideal” means by exposing ourselves to different sorts of body types, not just the thin ones that society has long equated with ideal.
The good news is that the media industry is slowly but surely starting to shift in this direction, casting and showcasing bodies that more accurately reflect the vast array of body types in the real world. And while of course, there are still criticisms to be made about how the media represents diverse body types—and what they consider that to mean in the first place—it’s still progress.
Plus, ideal means different things to different people. And the more we can showcase a different variety of body types on the platforms we interact with daily, the better.
Read the whole study here. And while an obvious solution to the social media problem is using less social media, while you learn how to set healthier boundaries, try to fill your feed with a more diverse array of shapes. Find some of my favorites on Instagram here, here and here.