What’s Really to Blame for Our Skinny Obsession?

Hint: Watching TV is heavily implicated.

Posted Feb 24, 2016

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While obesity reaches epidemic proportions in the Western world we simultaneously aspire to ever skinnier ideals. This mismatch leads to widespread body dissatisfaction; 50% of girls and young women are unhappy with their bodies, which itself predicts low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders. What gives?

If we were a bit hungrier, things would be different. Research shows that all you have to do is remove a guy’s lunch and his liking for fuller figured women in photos increases [1]. And in parts of the world where food is regularly in short supply you won’t find much desire for stick thin women. When I lived some years back in KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, for instance, it was pretty clear that Zulu men were particularly partial to the largest ladies.

But clearly the local culture and social norms play a part too. A study of Zulu men who moved to the UK, carried out by Viren Swami of Anglia Ruskin University and his colleagues, found that they soon adopted preferences for the size of women closer to those the local men liked [2]. That is, thinner.

It seems though that cultural pressures are pushing us too far. Swami says that the preference that we find among most men in Western societies is for a woman who has a BMI that’s so low to be technically unhealthy. And if you think that’s worrying, women’s idea of what men want is even skinnier.  

Many think the primary driver of these ideals comes down to our visual diet from the media, and it’s a view supported by the work of Lynda Boothroyd of the University of Durham and her colleagues which shows in a sample of young women that simply seeing lots of pictures of either overweight or underweight women’s bodies in plain leotards shifted their ratings of the attractiveness of different body shapes in the direction of what they’d seen [3]. So if they saw lots of pictures of thin women, they would see average looking women as overweight.

Boothroyd found that there was an additional effect of how aspirational the pictures of women looked, so for example, if she showed participants pictures of rich and successful looking overweight women, their liking for heavier women increased by more. Such is the power of the media.

But of course as we know – the media is full of very thin aspirational women - all those sexy skinny girls shaking their booty - so it’s not surprising that people have the idea that thin is good and women feel they have to starve themselves to be attractive.

But how much can we blame Western media? If people prefer skinny, how do we know it’s the fault of what we see on our screens and not other cultural factors, or even whether or not we know where the next meal is coming from?

With this in mind, Boothroyd and her team have carried out another, just published study where they quizzed 151 men and women in two remote, Nicaraguan villages, as well as in the capital, Managua, about the kinds of body sizes they thought were most attractive and about their dietary habits [4]. The villages are situated in the Pearl Lagoon basin on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast and are very similar in most respects aside from the fact that residents in the village of Kakabila watch TV while people living in Square Point don’t. This is simply a consequence of the fact that Kakabila managed to secure a supply of electricity 6 years earlier. Neither village has much access to other western media such as magazines or internet.

Anyway, what the researchers discovered was that in the TV-watching village, Kakabila, people tended to watch soaps, US films and music videos, and had thinner body ideals to those in Square Point. Residents of the city of Managua who have unfettered access to Western media and culture had the thinnest body preferences of all. It also turned out that where women preferred thin bodies, the more likely they were to be trying to lose weight and the more TV they watched, the more likely they were to feel this way.

Comparing the remote villages, given their similarity in all respects other than TV watching it seems pretty clear what the culprit is here. Boothroyd says the link between TV access, body shape ideals and weight loss attempts in the study population suggests that we’re pretty likely to see the same kinds of patterns in terms of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders playing out here in the long term as happens in the West.

So, what to do?

There’s no point in telling people not to watch TV, says Boothroyd. And anyway, people get lots of useful information this way.

But for the people that produce TV, it’s quite straightforward, she says: 

“There’s plenty of evidence now to show that the television and film industry tends to show a disproportionate number of very slim figures, and to stigmatise overweight. Including a more representative range of healthy weight actors, in all kinds of roles (i.e. stop making the overweight character the funny sidekick/villain/anything but the lead), could potentially make a big difference.” 

“But then, sadly, I’m pretty sure they know that already,” she adds. 

References:

1. Swami, V. & Tovee, M.J. (2006). Does hunger influence judgments of female physical attractiveness? Br J Psychol. 97: 353-63.

2. Tovee, M.J., Swami, V., Furnham, A. & Mangalparsad, R. (2006). Changing perceptions of attractiveness as observers are exposed to a different culture. Evol Hum Behav. 27: 443–456.

3. Boothroyd, L. G., Tovée, M. J., & Pollet, T. V. (2012). Visual Diet versus Associative Learning as Mechanisms of Change in Body Size Preferences. Plos One, 7(11).

4. Boothroyd, L.g., Jucker, J., Thornborrow, T., Jamieson, M.A., Burt, D.M., Barton, R.A., Evans, E.H., & Tovee, M.J. (2016). Television exposure predicts body size ideals in rural Nicaragua. British Journal of Psychology. Doi: 10.1111/bjop.12184