It's All Relative

How comparisons create self-knowledge, action, and emotions.

Altered Magazine Photos Hurt Our Self-Image

Altered photos impact self-image, even when we know they are artificial.

We all know that the models in magazines represent unrealistic images of women.  And, most of us know that most of the pictures in those magazines are also unreal - they have been edited, altered, and digitally finessed to remove blemishes, inches, and pounds.  Yet, these unrealistic and unreal images continue to influence the self-image and self-esteem of women around the world.

One solution that has been suggested is to require magazines and advertisers to include disclaimers with the photos either indicating that photos have been altered or providing specific details about how the photos have been altered.  Such disclaimers, it is thought, should remind women that the images in the photo are not real, and therefore should not be considered valid comparison targets.

While this a promising idea, given that people only make comparisons with similar and relevant others, recent research suggests that this solution may not be enough.  In a series of studies published in the journal Body Image, Marika Tiggemann and her colleagues tested whether disclaimers could neutralize the negative effects of altered photos.

In their first study, women students looked at glossy magazine pictures.  In one condition, the pictures included products, but no models.  In the other three conditions, the pictures included models.  In one, the ads included no disclaimer, in another the ads included a generic disclaimer ("Warning: This image has been digitally altered"), and in the final condition, the ads included a specific disclaimer ("Warning: This image has been digitally altered to smooth skintone and slim arms and legs").  After looking through the photos, students were asked how relevant the models were to them and about their body dissatisfaction. 

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While we might hope that these warnings would reduce body dissatisfaction and the relevance of the images, those disclaimers actually had the opposite effect.  It turned out that it didn't matter whether the ads included specific or general disclaimers, when ads included any kind of disclaimer, women reported that the pictures were more self-relevant.  That is, when they saw text informing them that the photo had been digitally altered, they were more likely to feel that the models in the advertisements were relevant for comparisons with their own appearance.  And, the disclaimers did not stop women from feeling less satisfied with their own bodies after viewing the pictures.  

In other words, simply reminding women that they are seeing digitally-altered photographs - in essence telling them that photos feature fictional people - did not prevent women from being negatively affected by the photos.  In fact, disclaimers might even have made the problem worse. 

 

Camille Johnson, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and Associate Professor of Organization and Management at San Jose State University.

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