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The Detrimental Effects of Mass Media on Body Image


Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:01 am

By Marina Holmes

The aforementioned idea of the possible damaging effects that media can have on people has been shown to be true. It is supported by William Thatcher and Deborah Rhea, who conducted a research study for the American Journal of Health Education, in their article, “Influences on Body Image and Disordered Eating Among Secondary School Students.” This article provides a report of their findings, which includes evidence supporting their claim that mass media negatively influences the individual’s perception of his/her body. This consequently can lead to unhealthy outlooks and practices. “…media was the most influential factor in eliciting one or more of the predictor variables…exercising, dieting, fasting, or all.” (Thatcher and Rhea, 346). The study showed that media, out of all the potential influences included in the study, was the most common factor that was responsible for prompting unhealthy behaviors pertaining to dieting and exercise, among the surveyed adolescents. The article goes on to provide support for their claim through explanations of common mindsets of young people in regards to their bodies. “Several recent studies have supported media influences on one’s likelihood to develop a warped body image, engage in disordered eating and dieting methods, and to have lower self-esteem through reading beauty and fashion magazines for women and fitness magazines for men.” (Thatcher & Rhea, 343-344). It is evident that negative body image is present in both males and females; although, it can present itself differently, as a result of the gender-specific ideals and expectations regarding appearance in society, which is perpetuated and reinforced by different forms of broadcasting.

Additionally, the presence of objectification in the media, specifically with women, which has plagued society for decades, instills damaging practices and ideas into the fabric of society, prompting an unrealistic norm and forming an unhealthy culture. The environment that is developed and the exposure to the promotion of these negative messages has damaging effects. This idea is pursued by Barbara L. Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts, of the University of Michigan and Colorado College. In their article entitled, “Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks,” Fredrickson and Roberts analyze objectification, and describe the harmful consequences that these messages have on females, as they perpetuate a norm of sexualizing women in society. “…girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves…[which] can lead to habitual body monitoring,…shame and anxiety,…[and] an array of mental health risks that disproportionately affect women: unipolar depression, sexual dysfunction, and eating disorders…” (Fredrickson & Roberts, 173). The authors describe how a female’s body image is often influenced by the way in which others may view her, which is normalized by messages displayed in television and western broadcasting. This state of mind can cause mental and physical health issues and disorders, as well as misguided views of an individual’s self. While it is stated that these influences can have a heavy impact on teens and adolescents, aging women are also greatly impacted by the ideal of young-looking women. “Representative images of older women hardly exist in the media…aging women are instructed that in order to maintain social regard, they must remain in the objectification limelight.” (Fredrickson & Roberts, 194-195). The focus on youthful beauty in media and thus in society is predominant, and women exiting their youth often become overlooked. This imparts within them the negative and unrealistic ideology that they must remain young and, by the standards of western culture, attractive, in order to remain relevant and valued by society. This belief is supported and encouraged by advertisers, prominent societal figures, and companies promoting anti-aging products or remedies that target this audience, as well as by the overwhelming lack of realistic representation in media. Additionally, the effects of lack of representation can not only be applied to aging women, but to those who’s ethnicity, body type, or other aspects of appearance or status do not align with those that in this culture are frequently regarded to as the supposed ideal.

As society progresses, many believe this issue to be improving, as it is becoming more common for companies to take on body positive and inclusive values and to be called out for misrepresentation in content, although mass use of social media continues to slow this needed progression. While it is necessary to acknowledge growth, these issues are still very much present today, and are evident especially in the digital world. The effects of social networking on body image among the youth are explained in an article summarizing a section of the “Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health,” written by Deborah Richards, Patrina HY Caldwell and Henry Go. “The studies identified that the health impact of social media on children and young people was greatest on mental health and… self-esteem and well-being...” (Richards, Caldwell & Go, 1152). The findings support the idea that the media negatively affects the mindsets of the youth, who are especially susceptible to this influence. Social media was proven to affect the health of these individuals, and impact their view of self. This is further supported by Grace Holland and Marika Tiggemann of the School of Psychology of Flinders University in Australia, in their article, “A systematic review of the impact of the use of social networking sites on body image and disordered eating outcomes.” The purpose of this article was to determine the effect of mass media and Social Networking Sites (SNSs) on users, and find if there is a connection between SNSs and distorted body image as well as unhealthy eating habits or disorders. “…use of SNSs is associated with body image and disordered eating…viewing and uploading photos and…status updates, were identified as particularly problematic.” (Holland & Tiggemann, 100). The findings of Holland and Tiggemann align with those of Richards, Caldwell and Go, in that the use of social media was shown to negatively impact those exposed to the content on the programs. Various studies found correlation between digital information exposure and an impacted body image, as well as the manifestation of eating disorders, which can have detrimental effects on health.

The culture of the west, popularized and reinforced through television, has impacted people in other areas of the world as well. Anne E. Becker, in her article entitled, “Television, Disordered Eating, and Young Women in Fiji: Negotiating Body Image and Identity During Rapid Social Change,” conveys the heavy impact that television with western influence has on girls that were previously unexposed to it. The article describes eating disorders and the warping of beauty standards, which are then applied to the individual largely by his/herself. “Study respondents indicated their explicit modeling of the perceived positive attributes of characters presented in television dramas, but also the beginnings of weight and body shape preoccupation, purging behavior to control weight, and body disparagement.” (Becker, 533). Fijian girls, who were previously not exhibiting these behaviors, developed eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food as a result of the perniciousness of the western media they were exposed to. The girls strived to appear as television stars, as they act as living representations of success and high social position. Becker continues to describe the gravity of this issue, and how the overall culture of media and advertisement is rooted in methods that impart unhealthy messages for the sake of successful business. “A remunerative strategy for marketing health, beauty, and fashion products, for example, is to create an awareness of a “gap” between the consumer and the ideal, and then to promise (and sell) the solution in a product.” (Becker, 534). Companies strategically sell products with the purpose of targeting a sensitive area in the consumer. Through ensuring that the product will provide improvement in this area of self-consciousness, the present damaging culture is fueled and negative feelings an individual has of his/herself are reinforced. Becker goes on to explain how American adolescents can be especially susceptible to and heavily affected by these methods, as adolescence is a time where the young person is bombarded with differing cultural expectations, gender specific ideals and societal pressures. This can take a toll on the person’s well-being, as depicted among the Fijian school girls following their exposure to western media.

Mass media, particularly stemming from western culture, has detrimental effects on society and the overall wellness of the public. Unrealistic standards, objectifying portrayals, and inadequate exposure of those straying from the idea of what society has dubbed as ideal, broadcasted to millions by the media, all contribute to the pushing of unattainable standards. This subsequently leads to the formation of poor body image and unhealthy relationships with food, as well as deepened feelings of inadequacy about an individual’s self. This culture has been rooted deep within western society, and continues to be perpetuated by powerful media influences, although body positive messages are becoming more common as time goes by. For the sake of the health and safety of the people, this gradual increase of body positive messages must continue to progress. The individual should not compare his/her appearance to that of another, as this would be unrealistic and unhealthy. Societal awareness of the consequences of negative body image is in need of improvement as well, and the personal acceptance of an individual’s natural self must be encouraged by mass media and thus, society as a whole.

Works Cited

Becker, Anne E. “Television, Disordered Eating, and Young Women in Fiji: Negotiating Body Image and Identity during Rapid Social Change.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, vol. 28, no. 4, 2004, pp. 533–559., doi:10.1007/s11013-004-1067-5.

Fredrickson, Barbara L., and Tomi-Ann Roberts. “Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 1997, pp. 173–206., doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x.

Holland, Grace, and Marika Tiggemann. “A Systematic Review of the Impact of the Use of Social Networking Sites on Body Image and Disordered Eating Outcomes.” Body Image, vol. 17, 2016, pp. 100–110., doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.02.008.

Richards, Deborah, et al. “Impact of Social Media on the Health of Children and Young People.” Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, vol. 51, no. 12, 2015, pp. 1152–1157., doi:10.1111/jpc.13023.

Thatcher, William, and Deborah Rhea. “Influences on Body Image and Disordered Eating among Secondary School Students.” American Journal of Health Education, vol. 34, no. 6, 2003, pp. 343–350., doi:10.1080/19325037.2003.10603575.

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