There is a proliferation of research today which suggests that mass media, and particularly images used in advertising, suggest that for a woman to be “attractive” it is necessary to be skinny, tall, and usually fair-skinned, with “tubular” bodies and fair hair dominating advertising imagery (Dittmar and Howard, 2004). This paper explores the impact of such visual suggestion on women’s health. It examines the body-image promoted for women in three different media images, before discussing the impact of the promotion of specific body-images on women’s nutritional health, through the promotion of unhealthy relationships with food, unhealthy diets, and eating disorders.
As a first example of media imagery of women, Figure 1 effectively demonstrates the promotion of the idealised and sexualised female body (Weisman, 2015, n.p.). This advertisement for Direct TV features a model so thin that her rib-cage is clearly visible; her pose is both sexually suggestive and submissive – messages reinforced by her lack of clothing. The setting – a sandy beach on a glorious day – juxtaposed to the perfection of the model’s make-up, figure, clothing, and hair-style equates this body-image with glamour, happiness, and an idealised life. The message conveyed subtly by the image is that physical conformity to this body-image will lead naturally to an ideal lifestyle. However, for the average woman, the skeletal thinness and air-brushed perfection of this body are neither realistic, nor healthy.
Images such as this one proliferate in the media: on TV, in films, in magazines, on billboards, and so on. Their use, particularly in advertising, equate body-image to the acquisition of other desirable traits, encouraging women to reject certain products – usually food-related – and obtain others – in this case, TV – and thereby control their physical shape and their happiness. Dittmar and Howard write that “Ultra-thin models are so prominent that exposure to them becomes unavoidable and ‘chronic’, constantly reinforcing a discrepancy for most women and girls between their actual size and the ideal body” (Dittmar and Howard, 2004, p. 478). The result is that women develop an unhealthy relationship with food, viewing it as a means of controlling other aspects of their life, and thereby damaging their nutritional health.
A good example of the direct impact of media body imagery on women’s bodies can be seen in Figure 2: this cover image from Women’s Health Magazine portrays a slim and skimpily-dressed model surrounded by articles promoting slimming practices, success tips, and sex advice (JED, 2013, n.p.). The flat stomach and hour-glass figure of the model dominate the visual space, promoting this stereotypical image of beauty. At the same time, the juxtaposition of captions suggests that this figure can be obtained only through buying into the types of dieting practice being promoted by the articles, and that such a body-image will equate naturally to professional success and sexual gratification. The message here is unequivocal: as with Figure 1, this image insinuates that to be successful and desirable depends on a woman’s physical appearance, which must be rigorously controlled.
The impact of this type of image in the media on women’s health is, however, even more extreme than that discussed for Figure 1; the blatant marketing of “thinness” alongside other social markers of success can lead women beyond an unhealthy relationship with food and towards actual unhealthy eating practices. One research article, for example, describes this type of body-image presentation as “skewed,” and suggests that the acceptance of these images as reality for young women can “lead to decreased satisfaction with their own bodies, a strong desire to be thinner, and disordered eating behaviour” (Schooler et al., 2004, p. 38). These images, therefore, not only negatively affect the self-esteem and mental health of women, but also lead to practices which are damaging to physical health.
Figure 3 provides the most extreme example of the way in which media images of women’s bodies can be damaging to their health: in this Budweiser advertisement a slim figure is equated directly to sex-appeal and to the consumption of a particular product (Ashbug1, 2011, n.p.). As with Figure 2, the model is so thin that her skeleton is clearly visible, while her submissive and inviting pose suggests her sexual availability; the figure has been air-brushed to suggest not only thinness but also physical perfection. The image suggests that the ideal body-image for a woman is a thin figure, large breasts, smooth, and hairless skin: an ideal that is both unrealistic and, fr most, unobtainable. Nevertheless, the imagery attempts to sell this image – and the resulting sexual attractiveness – to women as being obtainable through the consumption of Budweiser Beer.
By equating body-image to consumption, this type of media imagery not only promotes an unhealthy relationship with food, but furthermore actually promotes the consumption of physically harmful substances in pursuit of physical beauty and sexual attractiveness. The result of the combination of these three types of image is to push women towards actual eating disorders. Research provides provable evidence of a correlation between media imagery and eating disorders: Ossola, for example, cites a study which indicated that for young adolescent girls between the ages of seven and twelve,“ greater overall television exposure predicted both a thinner ideal adult body shape and a higher level of disordered eating one year later” (Ossola, 2010, n.p.); what such studies suggest is that the constant exposure to messages equating body-image and social success manipulates women’s eating practices to suit the designs of the consumer industry.
By persistently marketing both the idealistic body-image of skinny perfection and the consumption of products to control body-image and achieve the idea, media presentations of women actively damage women’s physical and mental health by distorting their perception of food and drink.
- Ashbug1 (2011, April 4). “A Libidinal Economy.” Retrieved from: https://ashbug1.wordpress.com.
- Dittmar, H., and Howard, S. (2004). “Professional Hazards? The Impact of Models’ Body Size on Advertising Effectiveness and Women’s Body-Focused Anxiety in Professions that do and do not Emphasize the Cultural Ideal of Thinness.” British Journal of Social Psychology, 43(4), 477-497.
- JED (2013). “Judy Ann Santos Covers Women’s Health Magazine September 2013 Issue.” Retrieved from: http://www.showbiznest.com/2013/09/judy-ann-santos-covers-womens-health.html.
- Ossola, A. (2010). “The Media’s Effect on Women’s Body Image.” Retrieved from: http://www.hamilton.edu/news/story/the-medias-effect-on-womens-body-image.
- Schooler, D., Ward, L. M., Merriwether, A., and Caruthers, A. (2004). “Who’s that Girl: Television’s Role in the Body Image Development of Young White and Black Women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28(1), 38-47.
- Weisman, A. (2015, February 11). “People are not Happy about these DirecTV Ads Featuring Frumpy Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Models.” Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/directv-ads-with-sports-illustrated-swimsuit-models-causing-controversy-2015-2.