Approximately 50-70% of adolescent girls report feeling dissatisfied with their body. This dissatisfaction has been associated with a number of negative consequences including increased negative affect, decreased physical activity, and eating disorders. Exposure to media portraying the thin ideal of beauty has emerged as a cause of body dissatisfaction.
Cognitive dissonance (CD) interventions have shown promising results in treating body dissatisfaction in adolescents and women over age 14. However, despite evidence that internalization of the thin ideal and body dissatisfaction occurs in girls 7-11 years old, no previous research has examined the effectiveness of CD interventions in early adolescence. A new study published in Health Psychology by Halliwell et al (2014) explores this issue.
It will be useful for us to have an understanding of cognitive dissonance in order to fully understand the intervention used in this research. Cognitive dissonance is a theory originally developed by Leon Festinger in 1957 that posits that when an individual holds a belief and acts in a way that is inconsistent with that belief, they will experience mental stress and discomfort. Humans strive for internal consistency and will attempt to resolve the dissonance by changing either their belief or behavior.
CD interventions for body image involve engaging participants in counter-attitudinal activities that require them to speak out against the thin ideal of beauty. This creates dissonance because the individual is acting in a manner inconsistent with his or her belief. The hope is that participants will change their beliefs about the thin ideal to correspond to their actions.
Participants in the study were 104 girls aged 12-13 years old. The sample was predominantly white (70%) and had an average body mass index (BMI) of 20. Half of the participants were assigned to a CD intervention and the other half was assigned to the control condition. The intervention consisted of 4 weekly 20-minute sessions focused on critiquing the thin ideal. Five weeks after the intervention, participants were exposed to advertisements featuring either models (thin ideal) or control images (product with no model).
Girls reported lower levels of body dissatisfaction and internalization after participating in the CD intervention, when compared to the control group. These girls who participated in the intervention were also protected from negative media exposure effects after the intervention, suggesting that the intervention may provide resilience from thin ideal media, which in turn may serve as protection from the development of eating disorders.
While not as effective as previous studies examining older adolescents, the CD intervention seems like a promising treatment for adolescents aged 12-13 years old. The authors emphasize that the study needs to be replicated and future research should examine other measures of body satisfaction, restraint, and the long-term impact of the intervention.
So, how will you try to combat the thin ideal? Join the discussion below with a critique or challenge to the thin ideal and start improving your body image today!
Halliwell E. & Diedrichs P. (2014) Testing a Dissonance Body Image Intervention Among Young Girls. Health Psychology, 33:2, 201-204
Dr. Conason is a clinical psychologist and researcher in New York City. To learn more about mindful eating and Dr. Conason's practice, please visit her website at www.drconason.com and follow her on twitter @conasonpsyd