New research into how women view their bodies aims to challenge the as yet untested belief that thin, glamorous, perfect female models in advertising are socially desirable and "sell" products to the consumer more successfully than other body types.
The research, to be carried out by Dr Helga Dittmar, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sussex, with Emma Halliwell, from the University of the West of England, will also look at precisely how - and why - ultra-thin media ideals used in advertising have a negative effect in making many women feel dissatisfied with their own bodies.
The study will involve 400 female students at each university. They will first be asked to give information about how they feel about their own bodies before their reactions to various images are studied at three different stages, then compared to their original self-image.
One of the aims of the study, which will take about a year to complete and starts this September, is to discover whether the use of ultra-thin models in advertising actually helps to sell products. Although unrealistically thin young women are often used in advertisements for everything from soft drinks to cars, there has been no previous research to show that using such images actually increases sales of any product.
In fact, argues Dr Dittmar, previous research has already shown that such advertising contributes to negative body images among young girls and women.
Dr Dittmar, who has also recently carried out research into the tactics of door-to-door salesmen, says: "Body dissatisfaction can produce extreme body shaping behaviours, such as eating disorders. Women and girls can't help being exposed to ultra-thin models in advertising, whose body size is unrealistic and unhealthy. There is good evidence already that exposure to these unhealthy models leads a large proportion of women to feel dissatisfied with their own bodies. We still know little about who is most vulnerable, why or how these effects occur, and how we can best protect body esteem. This is what we are examining."
She adds: "Results from our studies so far suggest that average-size attractive models are equally effective in advertising as ultra-thin models. However, we need to conduct wider research before we can be confident that average-size models have good advertising effectiveness, but avoid increasing women's body dissatisfaction.
"We hope that the research will identify factors that make women particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of the thin ideal and help with the development of ways to protect women and girls."
The research is being funded by a grant of just over £44,000 awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which aims to provide high-quality research on issues of importance to business, the public sector and government, including economic competitiveness, the effectiveness of public services and our quality of life.