Why have obesity and eating disorders become so common in children and adolescents? Along with an unhealthy obsession with food, diet, and appearance, there also seems to be an underlying belief in an "ideal" body weight and shape. For those young people who believe that they fall short of this ideal (as the vast majority do), the outcome is often low self-esteem, biased perceptions about how much food they should eat, and a tendency towards poor eating habits that can aggravate health problems.
Adolescents diagnosed with serious eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia often report that their symptoms can be linked to the bullying they often receive from their age peers as well as the unrealistic media images presented as an ideal for them to follow. When overweight people are shown at all, they are presented as comic relief and often ridiculed. The romantic heroes and heroines, on the other hand, typically have bodies that are smaller and thinner than average. This is especially true for female characters, while males are allowed the option of "bulking up" with greater muscle development.
Content analysis of female characters show a bias towards body weights well below the recommended size and weight for people in their age group. As a result, adolescent females who are unable to conform to the ideal being put forward by movie and television may find themselves taking extreme measures to be more like their role models. With thinness presented as the ideal body shape and a necessary prerequisite for health and happiness, anyone falling short of this ideal can be vulnerable to depression, poor self-esteem, and general body dissatisfaction.
The effect of media content on ideas of physical beauty appears remarkably robust with women reporting greater feelings of inadequacy regardless of their real body weight. Though the problem is most commonly seen in females, it is hardly limited to them. While there is slightly wider variation in body shapes among male characters in movies and television who are presented as ideals of physical attractiveness, obesity is still regarded as unattractive.
Though the impact of media exposure and body dissatisfaction appears strong in adult males and females, adolescent males and females appear just as vulnerable. A recent study published in the Journal of Media Psychology examined the effect of media exposure on body image in early adolescents. Conducted by two Israeli researchers, the study focused on adolescents since they are especially vulnerable to media influence due to the biological changes their bodies are undergoing during puberty. Media influences also play an important role in personality development, peer pressure, and the development of a sense of identity as adolescents make the transition to young adulthood. Brain development during puberty also means greater cognitive complexity and a need for developing individuality.
The study also represented a test of the social comparison theory first proposed by Leon Festinger during the 1950s. According to Festinger's theory, people rely on external models on which to form their self-perceptions. These models can come from people they know in real life or through the popular media. This can lead to downward or upward comparisons depending on whether the model makes them feel superior or inferior by comparison.
In the case of physical attractiveness, seeing media celebrities presenting a certain standard of beauty leads to upward comparisons which can lead to increased action to resemble that standard. Research has demonstrated the depression and despair that women often feel over falling short of the media models presented to them. While men are hardly immune to the social modeling effect, it is probably not a coincidence that women are often held to a higher standard and face greater criticism for falling short. This can be even more apparent with adolescent females and the pressure they receive from their age peers.
According to the tripartite model of social comparison theory, there are three basic motivations for self-comparison with others: self-evaluation (comparing yourself to others to evaluate your relative status, "Am I keeping up with the Joneses?"), self-improvement (looking to social models to learn how to solve a problem or improve a situation, "What would X do?"), and self-enhancement (looking at social models to learn how to feel better about yourself ("How can I feel better about myself?"). When comparing themselves to a favourite movie, television, or video game character, adolescents tend to rely on all three motivations to meet the ideal being set for them.
In the study, 391 middle-school students (182 males and 209 females) with an average age of 13 years completed anonymous questionnaires in a group setting. Along with being asked the number of hours they spent watching television, surfing the Internet, and playing video games, they were also asked to choose a favourite same-sex character. The media characters the students in the study selected were analysed for common features, as well as the extent to which the students compared themselves to these characters.
According to the study results, 191 media characters were identified in the study, most being from teen-oriented shows with some adult characters thrown in (e.g., Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother). In terms of character body shape, the bias was definitely towards thin characters. When rated for physical attractiveness, there was a strong negative correlation between perceived attractiveness and body shape with bigger characters considered less attractive.
Analysis of study results showed that social comparison with a favourite character strongly predicted level of body dissatisfaction compared to the ideal that the characters represented. As expected, females showed greater dissatisfaction with actual body weight and body image appears related to likelihood of dieting behaviour in the previous year.
By combining the different variables in the study, the researchers developed a prediction model that demonstrated the link between social comparison and body image. While the study results were consistent with previous research showing the impact of media exposure on body dissatisfaction, the study focused on favourite television characters and how they can affect the way adolescents view their bodies. Along with conveying the message that being thin was important, the characters reinforced that message by being likeable and easy to identify with by their adolescent fans.
According to the study authors, the appeal of these characters can work in one of two ways: either the character becomes a role model to be imitated as closely as possible, or the viewer develops a "one-sided friendship" with the character. Media research has shown that adolescents often depend on television characters to "find their way" in the world and to set a standard for them to follow. The stronger the perceived relationship with the favourite character, the greater the motivation to be as much like them as possible, including in terms of body shape.
Although the authors noted that basing their research on self-report limits their findings, the results indicate that the standard of beauty widely presented on television, movies, and video games is having a powerful effect on adolescents. This effect reinforces the low self-esteem that can lead to risky behaviour such as excessive dieting. By focusing on early adolescents, who are often vulnerable because their personalities and self-image are still forming, the research helps demonstrate the power of media on how young people view themselves.
Recognizing the risk associated with presenting adolescents with an unrealistic standard for beauty can help combat the current obsession with physical thinness. Popular media figures appear to play a strong role in promoting unhealthy eating habits that can endanger the health of young people. Though there are no simple solutions, parents and educators need to be aware of the social comparison process and encourage more appropriate lifestyle choices to prevent health problems.