A woman's perception of her ideal body shape is strongly associated with the body mass index (BMI) of women she sees in commonly viewed images such as those in magazines and on the television, show study findings.
The researchers suggest that ensuring that models have a healthy BMI, ideally reflecting the population average, may help reduce the risk for body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
"This really gives us some food for thought about the power of exposure to super-slim bodies. There is evidence that being constantly surrounded through the media by celebrities and models who are very thin contributes to girls and women having an unhealthy attitude to their bodies," commented lead author of the PLoS ONE study Lynda Boothroyd (Durham University, UK) in a press statement.
"Although we don't yet know whether brief exposure to pictures of larger women will change women's attitudes in the long term, our findings certainly indicate that showing more 'normal' models could potentially reduce women's obsession for thinness," she added.
To assess the effects of exposure to pictures of high or low BMI women on bodyweight preferences of observers, corresponding author Martin Tovée (University of Newcastle, UK) and team recruited a group of 57 (mean age 26.4 years; all mostly/exclusively heterosexual) and of 69 women (mean age 19.4 years; all mostly/exclusively heterosexual) to take part in two overlapping studies.
In the first study, half the women were shown a selection of pictures of thin models (BMI 11-14 kg/m2) and the other half of the group viewed a selection of pictures of large models (BMI 36-42 kg/m2) before being asked about body size preferences. There was a significant interaction between the type of photos seen initially and post-test preferences, such that preferences changed from those measured before testing to reflect the type of pictures shown during the test.
In the second study, the researchers looked at whether "aspirational" status, as conveyed by being healthy, attractive, and dressed in clothes associated with a high status, would influence the participants' view of pictures of low and high BMI women. Nonaspirational models were simply dressed in grey leotards and had eating disorders.
Overall, pictures of thin aspirational women were "liked" the most and those of large nonaspirational women the least. Nonaspirational thin women and aspirational large women were given similar, intermediate scores by the viewers.
"It seems that even so-called 'cautionary' images against anorexia might still increase our liking for thinner bodies, such as those featuring the late French model Isabelle Caro, who gained worldwide publicity for posing nude for an anti-anorexia campaign while suffering from the illness. These campaigns may not have the desired effect which is a sobering thought," said Boothroyd.
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