The Thin Ideal

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The impact of media images on men and women in America is a formation of an unrealistic illustration of the thin ideal. The media has painted a picture of “the perfect body”, people who choose to accept these ideals develop a fantasy and fictitious image of what the ideal body is. In our society, where the mass media is the single strongest transmitter of unrealistic beauty ideals, it is often held responsible for the high proportion of women and men who are dissatisfied with their bodies.

The Thin Ideal
There is an obsession to be thin in America. It is an obsession that affects our lifestyle like never before. This lifestyle has affected our relationships, activities, and our way of life. Seid (1989) points out “We pursue thinness and fitness in response to a now-invisible aesthetic and moral structure. We believe them to be healthier, more beautiful, and good. The unusual alliance between our beauty and health standards gives the imperative to be fat-free a special potency and has bred an ancillary conviction that thinner is also happier and more virtuous” (p.52). There is a fine line between healthy and thin. Sometimes we try to associate these media driven beautiful bodies as being healthy, when in essence they are just a fabrication of what is actual health.

The thin ideal is body type’s men or women portray through the media which encompass a thin build, a model look, and an acceptable standard of beauty. This ideal increased rapidly through publications such as Playboy centerfolds and Miss America Pageants. Kalodner (2003) explains, “Alarmingly, they found that approximately 60 to 70 percent of these models weighed 15 percent below their expected body weight” (p.25). This brings huge health concerns, and what the media portrays to be perfect and ideal is really sick and unhealthy. Kalodner continues, “The majority of models have 10 to 15 percent body fat, while the normal percentage of body fat for healthy women is 22 to 26 percent” (p.26). The question now becomes why would we strive so hard to place ourselves at such a health risk?

America maintains many socio-cultural and psychological factors in Western society which generates a preoccupation with the body. These factors encompass perceived fitness/health, attractiveness, and a feeling of self-worth. Society places an emphasis on appearance and the so called slim factor; this creates a preoccupation and a willingness to try almost any weight-loss strategy. Aligned with the cultural issues there are many psychological concerns that fall into the idea of being slim and fit. Attractiveness figures prominently in an individuals feeling of self-worth. “More attractive persons are likely to have been more popular and to have been rewarded as children and to be more successful in school, career, and intimate relationships” (Garner, et al., 1985). In addition, the cultural view of attractiveness is directly associated with perceived attractiveness and self-worth. Conversely, people who suffer from psychological struggles such as low self esteem, relate their deficiencies in all areas relevant to appearance.

Social Interactionism
Today, there is new added pressure to not only be lean but to be fit. Since ancient times, society has praised those who embody the ideal of what is beautiful. We associate this thin ideal of beauty to hold many positive attributes, which makes a person more desirable. This social value of attractiveness can be better understood under the symbolic interactionism theory. Closely related to the thin ideal, this theory, developed by Erving Goffman in 1961, is the idea that individuals learn about and assess themselves by comparing themselves against one another and adopt the values of their community (Weitz, 2007, p.36). There is a pragmatic relationship between social comparison and body image. The linkage between social comparison and body image is best seen when individuals rate themselves against models and celebrities existing in the media. According to one view by Marsha Richins (1991), “consumers see these idealized images and (consciously or unconsciously) compare their more mediocre selves and lives with the idealized images” (p.71). Social comparisons to these idealized images then appear to promote a discrepancy between the attractiveness of self and other, leading to a more negative evaluation of self. Symbolic interactionism theory helps explain why people yearn to emulate the models they see in the media.

Effect of Media on Body Image
Media images that help to create a cultural definition of beauty and attractiveness are often acknowledged as being among those factors contributing to the rise of eating disorders. Media messages promoting the thin body-type are a direct cause to promoting eating disorders and help create a context in which people learn to put a value on their body. Body image influences behavior, self-esteem, and people’s psyche. When people feel bad about their bodies, their satisfaction and mood plummet. If people are constantly trying to push, reshape or remake their bodies, their sense of self becomes unhealthy. People lose confidence in their abilities. Unfortunately, the media pushes an unnatural body type, making it difficult for many people to accept natural beauty in others and themselves. Research has shown that there is a definite link between body image and the media, especially in advertising.

The media’s power over our development of self-esteem and body image can be incredibly strong. According to a recent survey of adolescent girls, the media is their main source on women’s health issues (Common Wealth Fund, 348), and researchers estimate that 60% of middle school girls read at least one fashion magazine regularly (Levine, 1997). Another study of mass media magazines discovered that women’s magazines had 10.5 times more advertisements and articles promoting weight loss than men’s magazines did (Guillen & Barr, 1994, p. 364). There was a study of 4,294 network television commercials which revealed that one out of every 3.8 commercials send some sort of “attractiveness” message, telling viewers what is or is not attractive (Myers, 1992, p.114). These researchers estimate that the average adolescent sees over 5,260 attractiveness messages per year, through television alone.

Theory of Cultivation
Since the advent of television, the influence of the mass media had grown and changed many aspects of our life. Gerbner developed a theory of cultivation which theorizes television has a gradual impact on individuals and on society. It suggests that exposure to television, over time, subtly cultivates viewers’ perceptions of reality. Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli (1986) said that instead of religion or education, now, “Television is the source of the most broadly shared images and messages in history. Television cultivates from infancy the very predispositions and preferences that used to be acquired from other primary sources. The repetitive pattern of television’s mass-produced messages and images forms the mainstream of a common symbolic environment” (p. 17 – 18). For example, if we are bombarded with beautiful people, thin waists, and huge bust sizes everyday on television, Gerbner, et al., explain that’s all we will know and learn to expect. Therefore, we will fall victim to these conceptions of the world and create false ideals which lead us to the thin ideal.

Television is one of the biggest forms of mass media today and millions of women and men are affected by these images daily. Television creates particular labels, behaviors, and social values that can change a viewer’s perception of reality. Some programs, such as Baywatch, Nip/Tuck, and The Man Show, illustrate the perceived ideal body types. An area of particular concern is the ‘ideal’ body stereotypes presented in television advertising and programming.

An a 2003 study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers analyzed at least five episodes of each the 10 top-rated dramatic or comedic series from each major television network during the 1999-2000 season. The networks were ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, WB, and UPN. They analyzed 275 episodes from 56 series. The researchers measured the body type of major characters by examining their silhouettes. The study found only three percent of the major female characters was obese, while in reality, one in four American women is obese. One in twenty women is dangerously underweight, but one third of the women on television were. The numbers for males are not as staggering, but 65 percent of those on TV are of normal body type, compared to 39 percent in real life. Fifty-nine percent of American males are overweight, compared to 27 percent on TV. Researchers judged 49 percent of the larger women to be attractive, compared to 92 percent of the thinner women. In addition, the larger women were almost two times as likely to be the target of jokes as the thinner women.

While studies that examine the portrayal of obesity in the media are rare, the numbers cannot be ignored. Thus there is a strong correlation between the mass media and the effect that it has on the public. America has moved into a media friendly and populated arena in the past decade and it is virtually impossible to avoid these thin ideals presented to us everyday.

Television’s Effect on Children
In television we understand the effects and reason to why we feel and think the way we do, but an interesting thought surrounds the thin ideal and its consequence on children. Harrison (2006) explains, “…a study of children’s tendency to stereotype the obese, found that first, third, and fifth-grade girls and boys assigned more negative descriptors to endomorphic bodies on television. Such fat stereotyping was not restricted to figures of one gender or the other; participants evaluated both male and female endomorphic negatively. Moreover, the tendency for children to negatively stereotype the obese and to choose a lean body as their personal ideal suggests that they have already begun to adopt their cultures views of good and bad body shapes” (p.630). When the media has such an effect on children, this can only create negativity and self consciousness, thus generating psychological and physical problems for the future. The relationship between television and children should and will always be a major concern and the understanding of the psychological trauma and the sociological problems these images create further help us to understand the effects of the thin ideal.
Magazines have always been the ultimate judge of the perfect body. Reading fashion, sports, and health/fitness magazines is a huge predictor in the driving force to be thin. Magazines are full of weight loss advertisements and articles, which further the relation to body dissatisfaction. For example, adolescents take these images, learn what is beautiful, decide how they should look, compare their appearance to what the media set forth as perfect, and motivate themselves to grasp how they should look to match the models they see in the media (Botta, 2003, p.2). Unlike television, the magazine media medium exemplifies such a straight forward attack for the thin ideal. A magazine targets the thought of a ‘healthy’ weight as one that is low as possible.

In recent years, the magazine industry has promoted and perfected the definition of the perfect human. With the technological advances and computer programs such as Photoshop and Dream Weaver, magazines are now create the perfect human by removing any and every imperfection from highly stylized photo shoots. Comparing oneself to the physical appearance of these Photoshop created models develops lowered self-esteem, feelings of depression, body dissatisfaction and a preoccupation with dieting and exercise. The world has moved from chasing the attainable body to now pursuing the unattainable body. Photos are virtually flawless now, and transmitted into the minds of readers so fast, they can only retain these images as truth. This problem of editing and airbrushing beautiful women to unrealistic beauties is a major topic discussion amongst policy makers (Holmstom, 2004, p.196). They ask the question; is this artistic freedom of photo editors or a concern for public health?

Media’s Effects on Men
The thin ideal is mainly associated with women but the most overshadowed area is that the thin ideal affects men as well. There are many socio-cultural norms that are placed on men and women throughout their life. For example, men are typically characterized to be masculine, dominant, strong, aggressive, and protective. Conversely, women in general are thought to be feminine, emotionally vested, petite or fragile, and in need of protection. Advertisers feed off these stereotypes to develop marketing campaigns to sell products and introduce the thin ideal. For example Hatoum and Belle (2004) report, “as early as the 1960’s researchers found that boys frequently desired large chests, wrists, shoulders, forearms, and especially biceps”(p.1). Current research indicates many men wish to become more muscular than they currently perceive themselves to be, often desiring up to 26 pounds of additional muscle mass (Hatoum & Belle, p.2).

Another percieved critical component of a man’s physique is his body fat percentage. Hatoum and Belle suggest, “Some men suffer from a syndrome comparable to anorexia” (p.1). They termed this syndrome “reverse anorexia,” defined as “a condition in which normal to overweight men perceive themselves as too small and go to extreme lengths, such as intense body building and the use of steroids, in order to ‘bulk up’”(p.2). Their research has suggests this relationship between muscle and masculinity may begin early in life, as boys’ action figures are often depicted as super-muscular, often beyond the actual limits of human physiology. Now more than ever men are the targets in many ad campaigns to create this ideal body image.

Rise of Body Dissatisfaction
In our society we grasp images the media provides of men and women who are offered as near perfection. The relationship between the media exposure and eating disorders is no secret. The increase in eating disorders through the years has coincided with a drop in women’s ideal body weight as portrayed in the media (Wiseman, et al., 1992). The desire to lose weight is closely tied to poor body image, which typically means that more women have a poor body image than men. In recent decades, there has been an increase in eating disorders which closely corresponds with the number of articles and advertisements promoting diets and weight-loss programs. In addition, these diet and weight-loss associations support the exposure to the media’s thin ideal.

Eating Disorders
Body dissatisfaction is very common among women. The biggest concern for women is how one is regarded by others. This creates negative affects including stress, guilt, depression, shame, and as well as a lack of confidence. There is a strong correlation between the thin ideal and disordered eating. The three important eating disorders implanted through the media are anorexia, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder (compulsive over eating).

Men and women both suffer severely from eating disorders. Eating disorders are much more common among females than males. Generally speaking, “for every 1 male that has an eating disorder, 10 females have eating disorders” (Kalodner, 2003, p.25). Women suffering from anorexia and anorexia nervosa have a fear of becoming fat, obtain a distorted body-image, and curb their appetites by starving themselves. “Anorexic women are defined by weighing less than 85% of expected body weight for their age or having a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 17.5 % or less” (Wardlaw & Smith, 2003, p. 416). Anorexia can be life-threatening as victims commonly refuse to eat and drastically lose weight in which causes a lack of nutrients within their body.

Like anorexia, bulimia is another serious eating disorder, but is classified through binge eating and purging cycle. In addition, people affected by this disorder consume large quantities of food in one sitting. This is followed by purging, or vomiting, and abusing laxatives or enemas. Also, bulimics often have alternative methods to balance the consequences of excess calories, such as forceful exercise or over-exercising. Binge eating is a very serious disorder categorized by a feeling one has lost all self control over his or her eating patterns. Binge eating is usually jumpstarted by tremendous anger, anxiety, hungry, helplessness, depression, and frustration. Binge eating is most common in America because of our fast pace lifestyle and easy to get food such as vending machines, and fast food (Stephens, et al., 1994, p.137).

Additional Factors In The Thin Ideal
Although media exposure plays a major role in eating disorders, Brumberg (2000) argues that “The current cultural models fail to explain why so many individuals do not develop the disease even though they have been exposed to the same cultural environment” (p.28). She believes there are two phases in the development of eating disorders: the initial recruitment phase and the fulfillment of psychological or biological needs. Brumberg claims the first phase is when a person begins to restrict his or her food consumption because of social and cultural reasons, such as body image. In this phase, the media plays a substantial role in shaping one’s understanding of an aesthetically valued body. In the second phase, Brumberg believes the restriction of food fulfills a biological or psychological need, for a small percentage of individuals. Think of a large funnel in which many individuals may be recruited at the top of the funnel but only a small number come out the bottom with an eating disorder (p.28). While it is easy to see the relationship between media and the thin ideal, the media’s effect on causing eating disorders is not as clearly defined, but still exists.

The media frames us with fast food, junk food, soda, and candy advertisements while at the same time it surrounds us with virtually flawless, thin female body images. The media promotes both forbidden foods and an ultra-thin body image. Individuals who binge often feel angry, frustrated, and depressed. There are many contributing factors when someone develops an eating disorder, but more often than not it is the role of the media, and their portrayal of the thin ideal that has the most impact.

The thin ideal is not only apparent but a true problem that has yet to be addressed. Rodin (1992) explains, “We’ve become a nation of appearance junkies and fitness zealots, pioneers driven to think, talk, strategize, and worry about our bodies with the same fanatical devotion we applied to putting a man on the moon”. Now more than ever, society is standing in front of a mirror judging oneself, or watching television and contrasting someone else, or absorbed in a magazine finding a comparison to someone who is a fabrication. We have declared war on our bodies and with the growing statistics it will probably get worse before it gets better. Limiting advertisement and images portrayed in advertising is a violation of a first amendment right. With the media, television, and magazines all promoting the thin ideal, we are cultivated into a society that accepts this image as the norm.

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