How to Stop Media from Making You Feel Bad About Your Body
New research shows focusing on what your body can do could buffer media effects.
Posted Mar 27, 2018
Thinking about what your body can do can help you to feel better in your own skin. For example, research from our lab has shown that when women are asked to describe all of the things that their body can do, and why those things are meaningful to them, they feel more satisfied with their body and appreciate their body more. At the same time, a wealth of research has shown that media can have a powerful, negative impact on how people feel about their body: Seeing images of “perfect-looking” female and male models can increase body dissatisfaction among women and men, and make them place an unhealthy amount of importance on physical appearance. This led my colleagues and I to wonder: Could focusing on body functionality protect people from these harmful effects of the media?
Testing the idea
To test this idea, we had a group of women complete a writing exercise wherein they described the various functions of their body, and why they are personally meaningful. Another group of women completed a control writing exercise that was similar in format, but that focused on a neutral topic instead (akin to a “placebo” in a drug trial). Next, all women viewed a series of advertisements featuring idealized female models. Researchers call this “media exposure.” Before the writing exercises and after the media exposure, women filled in questionnaires that measured how they felt about their body.
We found that women who wrote about their body functionality felt more satisfied with their body functionality and more appreciative of their body after the media exposure, compared to women in the control group. However, we did not find any differences between groups concerning how satisfied women felt with their appearance. Together, these findings suggest that focusing on body functionality can “buffer” at least some of the harmful effects of media images.
We recently published an article about our newest study that tested the impact of focusing on body functionality among women in the UK. To recap, we found that women who completed our body functionality intervention felt more positively about their body compared to women in the control (“placebo”) intervention. The effects persisted to one month after the intervention.
In this study, women also completed media exposure one week after the intervention. This time, women were exposed to either a series of advertisements featuring idealized female models, or a series of advertisements showing only products. As you would expect, we found that women who viewed the idealized female models felt less satisfied with their appearance than the women who viewed the products-only advertisements. Unexpectedly, we found that women who viewed the advertisements featuring the idealized female models felt worse about their appearance, regardless of whether or not they had completed the functionality intervention beforehand.
In another recent experiment, researchers in Australia had a group of women write 10 positive statements about either their body functionality or physical appearance. Immediately afterward, the women completed media exposure featuring either idealized female models or scenery (no models). The women completed questionnaires before writing the 10 positive statements, as well as before and after the media exposure. Their data showed that all women felt more satisfied with their body functionality and physical appearance, regardless of whether they wrote 10 positive statements about their body functionality or physical appearance. Unexpectedly, this did not protect the women from the impact of the idealized images afterward: All women who viewed the idealized female models felt worse about their body compared to the women who viewed the control images.
Making sense of the findings
Our first study showed that focusing on body functionality can buffer the effects of media images on functionality satisfaction and body appreciation, but not appearance satisfaction. In contrast, our newest research and the Australian study showed that focusing on body functionality does not buffer the effects of media images on functionality satisfaction or appearance satisfaction.
One reason for these inconsistencies might have to do with the timing of the functionality exercises. In our first study, women focused on their body functionality immediately before media exposure, but in our newest study, the media exposure took place one week after women finished the functionality intervention. So, it may be important for women to focus on their body functionality immediately before viewing media images.
Another reason might have to do with the aspects of body image that were assessed. All studies found no effects for women’s appearance satisfaction. Our first study did find effects for functionality satisfaction, but the Australian study did not. Our first study also found effects for body appreciation, but this was not measured in the other studies. So, focusing on body functionality might protect us from the impact of media images on how satisfied we feel about our body functionality and how much we appreciate our bodies, but it might not prevent us from feeling bad about our appearance.
There is some evidence that focusing on body functionality—immediately before viewing media images—can protect people from the effects of media images. It can help people to appreciate their body and feel satisfied with their body functionality, even though media images often encourage people to dislike their own body. Yet, not all studies have found these positive effects. More research is needed to understand why that is, and how we can improve our functionality interventions so that people are better protected from the effects of media.
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