It is an inarguable fact that the media play a pivotal role in the modern society as the primary source of information. Companies use media platforms to promote their brands and reach target markets through advertising.
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Modern consumption, lifestyles and spending culture are largely determined by what people see, read or hear from traditional media channels such as televisions, radios, newspapers and magazines, and social media platforms. Although mass media have become an important part of people’s lives, it is unclear how media ads have changed people’s lifestyles. It is through advertising that ideas and identities are created and maintained within a society.
While media ads and marketing promotions are beneficial to the economy, unrealistic content in media ads often affect the society negatively. Critics blame media advertising for a range of social ills, including moral decay, entry of harmful commodities in the market, sexism and intellectual degradation (Levine & Murnen, 2009).
Media advertising often targets people (men and women) with particular cultural values, attitudes and beliefs, and thus, the packaging of ads often represents the dominant culture. In particular, physical appearance or beauty is depicted in a way that appeals to most people.
According to Thompson and Heinberg (1999), beauty stereotypes appeal to more women than men as most women desire to look attractive. It is worth noting that the commercials often center on physical beauty and lay less emphasis on the product. The media images of a perfect or a ‘model’ body in advertising aim to increase the demand for the products by appealing to the emotions of the audience.
In the Middle Eastern society, body image perceptions are shaped by a number of socio-cultural and religious factors. Body representations in the media influence body image development, attitudes and behaviors of the audience. Therefore, it can be concluded that media advertising plays a role in the creation of cultural and sexual stereotypes in societies. In view of this, an alteration of any socio-cultural factor (like body image) would affect behavior and attitudes.
Understanding the connection between media ads and body image development would help identify the possible causes of body image preoccupation among teenagers and the likely consequences of idealized cultural values. The aim of this paper is to understand the influence that mass media has on the body image (self-esteem) of Middle East teenagers and young women.
How is Body Image Created by Media?
Thompson and Heinberg (1999) look at the problem of eating and shape-related disorders from the standpoint of the influence of media on people’s food preferences and lifestyle. The results of this research show that the media has a negative influence on people’s health. The authors found that the internalization of media portrayals of physical attractiveness causes body image dissatisfaction and eating disorders in teenagers.
The authors argue that social marketing campaigns can be used to reverse this negative trend and counteract the negative impacts of media ads on people.
They suggest the use of social activist approaches that “offer hope for a paradigm shift away from media that model and promote body image disparagement and eating-disordered behaviors to those that espouse realistic appearance values and non-dysfunctional eating patterns” (Thompson & Heinberg, 1999, p. 172). They posit that such intervention strategies would promote healthy dietary habits and encourage body image satisfaction.
On their part, Van Vonderen and Kinally (2012) focus on the influence of the media on body image dissatisfaction and self-esteem. The study involved a survey of female undergraduates regarding the influence of the media on their perception of beauty and a perfect body. Regression analysis of the responses revealed a strong correlation between the media and the students’ perception of a perfect body (Van Vonderen & Kinnally, 2012).
This finding underscores the need for social initiatives aimed at prevention of the negative media influence. Khan, Khalid, Khan and Jabeen (2011) examine the impact of media ads on college students’ perception of body image. The study, which was conducted in Pakistan, found that “individuals with a high media exposure have a higher statistically significant prevalence of negative body image dissatisfaction” (2011, p. 7).
In this context, body image dissatisfaction (BID) refers to the negative perception of an individual towards his/her body or appearance due to exposure to idealized cultural attributes. The study revealed that high media exposure creates unrealistic expectations of body image, which increase BID among university students.
Body Image Ads and Self Esteem
Low self-esteem among younger people has become a serious public health problem in the 21st Century. In particular, among teenage girls, body perceptions have been found to affect their self-image, which predisposes them to unhealthy dietary habits. Thus, body image is closely intertwined with self-esteem. Body image is how one perceives his/her physical appearance or body shape (Thompson & Heinberg, 1999).
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A person’s body image influences his/her confidence and self-esteem as negative body image often leads to low self-esteem. If a young girl or woman does not like how she looks, she subconsciously develops low self-esteem, which is an irreversible change in the minds of young girls and women. The pressure to have an attractive body drives many to evaluate their appearance based on idealized body figures displayed on the media. Hence, their self-esteem is affected when they perceive themselves as less attractive.
Studies associate low self-esteem with poor physical and psychological health. Arnst (2002) identified depression, anxiety, obesity and eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia as the negative effects of low self-esteem. Body dissatisfaction and low self-image lead to unhealthy eating habits as people try to transform their bodies into ‘idealized’ body shapes. Thus, poor body image can have a devastating effect on an individual’s mental and physical health.
Brown and Witherspoon (2002) found a correlation between low self-esteem and complex health problems among American teenagers. The health complications were associated with dieting practices among the youth. Thus, parents should protect their young ones until they acquire good decision making skills as young boys and girls are vulnerable to media portrayals of ‘ideal’ body images. When most young people engage in dieting, they do not worry about its effects on their health.
This is especially true for young girls with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Arnst (2002) found that 14-year-old girls are two times more likely to try smoking than boys primarily because of concerns about weight. Moreover, peer pressure makes girls to become conscious about their weight and thus, take up smoking as they believe cigarettes can prevent weight gain.
Besides the media, parents and peers also influence self-esteem in adolescents. A study by Van Vonderen and Kinnally (2012) identified media exposure and peer pressure as major risk factors for body image dissatisfaction among the youth. Media depictions of ‘ideal’ body weights and shapes influence eating habits such as dieting in adolescents, which lead to health-related problems. Therefore, the media should package the ads in a realistic and positive manner to promote self-esteem among the younger audience.
Body Images and Social Media
In this modern era, most teens are exposed to a variety of social media. Research indicates that mass media such as movies, television, the internet, and magazines pervade the daily lives of individuals, especially teens across the world. In their study, Tiggemann and Slater (2013) found that one of the effects of this media overload is the continuous spread of beauty ideals and images.
They explored how the body image in different media stages such as magazines and social media affects teens. They found that social media users (Facebook users) have high concerns about their body image and appearance compared to non-users. This implies that social media platforms play a role in teenage girls’ body image development.
Media marketing also affects teens in a number of ways. One study discovered that teenage girls who watched commercials showing women with thin bodies felt less confident and more dissatisfied with their beauty and appearance (Levine & Murnen, 2009). This demonstrates that media body images affect teenagers psychologically, which makes them dislike their own bodies. Also, youth is a stage of life where teenagers acquire values, models, and develop their personal concepts.
So, the images that they are exposed to in the media affect the norms and values they acquire. The teenagers are susceptible to all forms of messages, which can be freely accessed on different media platforms (Levine & Murnen, 2009). The study also estimated that seventy percent of college girls felt bad about their own looks.
Moreover, in this study, the young women (participants) did not appreciate themselves after reading feminine magazines as they were influenced by the content they saw in magazines, and learnt from these images how perfect or ‘model’ bodies should look like. This indicates that the information that adolescents come across in the social media has an impact on their personal lives.
Body Images and Traditional Media
A study by Brown and Witherspoon (2002) discovered that teens are influenced by media ads regarding relationship norms. They acquire various tips on how to be sexually attractive, and strategies for establishing relationships (Brown & Witherspoon, 2002). The tendency of teens to internalize and practice media body images demonstrates that the content provided on different media platforms is attractive to the audiences and influences behavior.
The authors argue that the advertisements of cosmetics and fashion shown through traditional media platforms, such as magazines and television, have a significant influence on how youths perceive and think about themselves. Traditional media channels have a huge effect on the teenagers’ opinions about body image. The researchers argue that prolonged media exposure and the use of ‘model’ body images endear popular media platforms to teenage girls who rely on them for information about fashion and beauty.
A study by Tiggemann and Slater (2013) discovered that exposure to traditional mass media (television) and social media (Facebook) is connected to negative body image and obesity. The teens internalize the body images (thin body for girls and muscular body for males) and strive to make their body conform to the body shapes they see in the media (Tiggemann & Slater, 2013). Moreover, adolescents undergo biological development, which transforms their bodies and physical appearance.
Despite this, their body image perceptions are influenced by what they see, hear or read in the media. They evaluate their bodies based on the media images. This creates a negative or positive body image perception, and dissatisfaction among teenagers. Levine and Murnen (2009) argue that media images influence teens to develop negative opinions about themselves and attempt to follow the lifestyles of celebrities.
Tiggemann and Slater (2013) also state that exposure to media makes teens to view their bodies based on the ‘ideal’ or standard body shapes portrayed in the media. Thus, the cultural constructs of ideal body images influence their self-image leading to low self-esteem and dissatisfaction among teenagers who perceive themselves as being overweight.
To acquire the ideal body image, teenagers engage in unhealthy dietary habits and artificial body modification such as weight loss pills. The study also found that regular users of social media are more likely to engage in unhealthy dietary habits than those who use other forms of media.
Comparison between the Media Body Image Effects on Boys and Girls
Although body image portrayals in the media tend to affect girls, in recent times, boys have also become preoccupied with body image ads. Shallek-Klein (1999) state that “many males are becoming insecure about their physical appearance as advertising and other media images raise the standard and idealize well-built men” (p. 8).
It has been observed that preoccupations with body image in boys “have seen an alarming increase in obsessive weight training and the use of anabolic steroids and dietary supplements that promise bigger muscles or more stamina for lifting” (Shallek-Klein, 1999, p. 8). Women, on the other hand, are known to compare their bodies to those they see in the social or print media. Dittrich (n.d.) writes that “exposure to idealized body images lowers women’s satisfaction with their own attractiveness” (Para. 5).
Because of body image preoccupation, many women attempt to modify their bodies to appear like that of the ideal body figures in ads. Dittrich (n.d.) argues that body image ads affect the self-esteem of both boys and girls. Traditionally, women have been under pressure to maintain attractive bodies, but in recent times idealized male images have pressured men to also look attractive.
Body image ads can also affect boys and girls negatively because of the pressure to maintain ideal male and female bodies as portrayed in the media. The media depicts an ideal masculine body as “tall and blemish-free, have broad shoulders, toned arms, six-pack ABS, and a small waist” (Center on Media and Child Health [CMCH], n.d., Para. 4). Those who lack these physical attributes use artificial means such as steroids, dieting and weight lifting to try and attain a perfect body.
The media also portrays a perfect female body as one with “a big chest, small waist, lean hips, no blemishes, no stretch marks, and no wrinkles” (CMCH, n.d., Para. 5). Girls lacking in these physical attributes often resort to unhealthy eating practices (dieting) and cosmetic surgeries to try and achieve a supermodel body.
However, such practices have negative consequences on the health of young people. Therefore, teenagers often feel like their bodies do not match with the ideal female or male body and thus, tend to have low self-esteem, which affect their development at this age.
Based on the literature reviewed, the current study sought to test the following three hypotheses:
- Exposure to fashion ads (skinny models) on magazines correlates with low self-esteem among young girls.
- There is a positive relationship between exposure to skinny models on fashion magazines and body image.
- There is an indirect relationship between self-esteem and body image dissatisfaction (BID).
To summarize, the problem of media influence on the young people’s body image has been a focus of many studies. Media portrayal of body images through ads affects the teenagers’ self-esteem and body image satisfaction. This review of literature has revealed that social media channels such as Facebook and print media channels such as magazines influence the values and behaviors of young women and men, and boys and girls, who are pressured to appear like the ideal body shapes on media ads.
Because the body image ads communicated through mass media affect more girls than boys, only female participants were included in the sample study. 10 girls (aged 14years and above) were selected to take part in the experimental research. Semi-structured questions in the form of a questionnaire were used to obtain the participants’ responses (data) about their self-esteem after viewing images of skinny supermodels. The variables for this study included self-esteem, body image dissatisfaction (BID) and demographic details (age and gender).
Materials and Equipment
The materials for this study included structured questionnaire forms, pens, chairs/seats, an empty room and fashion ads showing skinny models. The fashion ads were shown to the experimental group only.
The study involved an experimental research design. The study sample was selected from school girls in an elementary school in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The school’s population consisted of a population with diverse social characteristics. This means that the study’s findings can be generalized to other settings.
As the population is large, the convenience sampling technique was used to select a sample of 10 girls (study subjects) for this study. The sampling technique enhanced the representativeness of the sample and the external validity of the study’s findings. The participants were randomly selected into two treatment groups; the experimental and control groups.
The researcher selected 10 young girls, all aged 14 years and above. Since many girls met the inclusion criteria, the convenience sampling technique was used to select the participants or study sample. This allowed quantitative research techniques to be applied to the data collected from the study sample. The participants were randomly selected into two groups (the experimental group and the control group) using random numbers. Those who picked no. 1 joined the experimental group while those with no. 2 belonged to the control group.
The participants were ushered into an empty white room and requested to take their seats. The two groups were each ushered into two separate rooms after which the researcher explained to the participants the purpose of the study and instructed them to record their responses to the questions (questionnaires) without writing their names.
For the experimental group, printed fashion ads bearing pictures of skinny models were hung on the walls before the experiment begun while for the control group no pictures were hung on the walls. Similar questionnaires were administered to both groups of girls (see appendix). The research instrument (questionnaire) contained a set of semi-structured questions.
The respondents were required to give self-reports regarding their body image satisfaction and perceived pressure to conform to ‘idealized’ media body images. The data were analyzed using statistical techniques (the mean score).
The responses from the two groups revealed that the experimental group (exposed to skinny model ads) had negative perceptions about their body images.
Body Image Satisfaction
A set of structured questions was used to measure the participants’ body image satisfaction. The responses were arranged on a three-point scale where “3” represented ‘always’, “2” represented ‘sometimes’ and “1” represented ‘never’. The researcher used a statistical measure (mean) to estimate the average value of the respondents’ body image satisfaction. In this measure, the control group recorded a high body image satisfaction score than their control group counterparts.
To determine how the media ads influence the self-esteem of young girls, the participants were asked a set of questions that explored their attitudes towards their appearance, attractiveness, confidence and weight. The mean score of the responses revealed that the control group subjects were more satisfied with their appearance, body weight, attractiveness and personality than the control group.
Pressure from the Media
The participants were also asked about their attitudes towards media ads and peer pressure. Again, the mean value of the responses from the two groups revealed that the control group was less influenced by the media ads or what others thought of them compared to the experimental group. Also, they were not under pressure to look attractive or conform to the ‘idealized’ body images of the fashion ads.
Media Perceptions and Attitudes
Using a three-point scale, the respondents’ perceptions about the media were measured. For the first group, the mean score of the respondent’s opinions about the media indicated a positive response while the control group’s mean score indicated that they had negative opinions about media ads.
The respondents’ perceptions of media influence represent their attitudes towards mass media depictions of female bodies. The different mass media platforms portray an ideal female body as one with a big bosom and a lean waistline. Women models used in popular ads have these body shapes. Young girls internalize these images and believe that such ‘model’ bodies are culturally appropriate. In this study, the participants in the experimental group held positive perceptions regarding the media portrayals of female body images.
In other words, after viewing the fashion ads, the experimental group internalized them; hence, their views towards body images in media ads were positive compared to those of the second group, which did not view the fashion ads. The mean score value of the first group was higher than that of the second group.
The media influence the attitudes and perceptions of young girls. When asked whether they would be happier if they were more attractive, the mean value of the responses of the experimental group was in the affirmative. This implies that the media depiction of an ideal female body in ads affects the young girls’ attitudes towards their physical appearance.
As a result, many girls aspire to have a ‘model’ female body as portrayed in the media. This finding is consistent with the findings of a study by Levine and Murnen (2009) who found that 70 percent of college girls dislike their own looks after viewing female body images on feminine magazines. In this regard, the girls in the experimental group were influenced by the images they saw in the fashion ads hung on the walls, and learnt how a ‘perfect’ body should look like. As a result, they were more dissatisfied with their looks than the other group.
Body image dissatisfaction is another variable measured in this study. It determines the participants’ level of satisfaction with their body shape, size and weight. The fashion ad images displayed women models with ‘idealized’ body shape, size, figure and weight. The figures represented ideal body sizes or silhouettes as portrayed in the media commercials. Often, overweight or obese people are perceived as unhealthy, unattractive and lazy while lean and agile people are perceived as physically fit, attractive and healthy.
Thus, overweight and obese individuals will strive to lose weight through physical exercises, change of eating behaviors and use of weight loss supplements (CMCH, n.d.). In this study, the girls in the experimental group scored high in body image dissatisfaction as their responses to the questions regarding their weight and attractiveness were negative. They idealized the skinny model figure that was displayed on the fashion ads.
Self-esteem is closely related to body image dissatisfaction. Individuals who have no body image dissatisfaction often have a high self-esteem while those with high body image dissatisfaction have low self-esteem. In this study, it was found that the girls in the experimental group were more dissatisfied with their looks than those in the control group. Their mean scores on questions about self-confidence and satisfaction (happiness) revealed that the experimental group participants were less confident and unhappy with their looks.
This implied that they aspired to have a ‘model’ body figure, not their current body figure. Thus, their self-esteem and self-confidence was low due to dissatisfaction with their body figures. The results obtained in this study supported the hypothesis that exposure to skinny models ads lowers self-esteem.
It was expected that the girls who were exposed to beauty or fashion models would score low in the self-esteem measure compared to those who were not exposed to fashion model images. Indeed, a positive correlation was found between self-esteem/confidence and exposure to skinny models ads. Therefore, the study’s hypothesis was supported.
The results were also consistent with the findings from other studies. For example, Arnst (2002) found a positive relationship between low self-esteem and depression, anxiety, obesity and eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia among teenagers. On their part, Brown and Witherspoon (2002) found a correlation between complex health problems and low self-esteem in teenagers.
In the current study, the respondents in the experimental group scored highly on body image dissatisfaction and self-esteem. Thus, it is possible that the skinny fashion ads affected their self-esteem. The exposure to fashion models correlated with self-confidence and self-esteem as the girls who did not view the beauty ads were less dissatisfied with their appearance. Based on the concept of social comparison, individuals gauge their attractiveness by comparing themselves to peers or media models.
Therefore, the exposure to fashion ads made the girls to evaluate their attractiveness based on the appearance of these models, which resulted in body image dissatisfaction. However, the idealized images are often unrealistic. Thus, the girls who compare themselves to these models become disappointed and dissatisfied with their looks or body image. High body image dissatisfaction scores correlate with low self-esteem in young girls. Thus, the results were consistent with the study’s hypotheses.
Conclusions and Implications
This study found a correlation between exposure to skinny fashion ads and self-esteem. In this study, the results of body image dissatisfaction and self-image (mean scores) were significant. The skinny fashion ads depicted how an ideal female body should look like, which influenced the participants’ perception of their attractiveness. Thus, content in the mass media ads has a significant impact on self-image among school girls.
Idealized body images in feminine magazines, television and social media platforms cause body image dissatisfaction as, in this study, the participants who viewed these images were unhappy with their physical appearance. Self-evaluation based on the model images influenced the girls’ perceptions of their appearance and attractiveness. It is posited that prolonged exposure to skinny fashion ads will influence these girls to engage in unhealthy dietary habits such as dieting in a bid to attain thin figures associated with beauty.
In this study, the findings can be explained using the social comparison theory. The body image dissatisfaction scores in the experimental group indicate that the girls evaluated their appearance based on the fashion model images.
Thus, the negative self-evaluation in this group led to low self-esteem. In this study, the exposure to fashion ads was an important determinant of body image dissatisfaction and self-esteem. Furthermore, the role of peer influence was evident in this study as most girls indicated that they evaluated their appearance based on their peers’ opinions. It can be concluded that media ads cause dissatisfaction and low self-esteem in young women in the UAE, which lead to unhealthy eating habits.
The findings of this study have implications for media advertising and public health policy. It was found that young girls exposed to fashion ads bearing pictures of skinny models are more affected than those who are not exposed to such images. This implies that teens viewing these images become insecure and unhappy with their appearance, which leads to low self-esteem. Thus, media messages should portray realistic images that inspire confidence in the youthful audience.
Arnst, C. (2013). The Skinny on Teen Smoking. Business Week, 51(1), 3810-3817
Brown, J. D., & Witherspoon, E. M. (2002). The mass media and American adolescents’ health. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31(6), 153-170.
Center on Media and Child Health [CMCH]. Media can harm body image. Web.
Dittrich, L. About-Face facts on the MEDIA. Web.
Khan, A. N., Khalid, S., Khan, I. H. & Jabeen, M. (2011). Impact of today’s media on university student’s body image in Pakistan: a conservative, developing country’s perspective. BMC Public Health, 11(1), 379-382.
Levine, M. P., & Murnen, S. K. (2009). Everybody knows that mass media are/are not [pick one] a cause of eating disorders: A critical review of evidence for a causal link between media, negative body image, and disordered eating in females. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28(1), 9-42.
Shallek-Klein, J. (1999). Striving for the Baywatch Boy Build. Silver Chips Newspaper, pp. 8
Thompson, K. J., & Heinberg, L. J. (1999). The Media’s Influence on Body Image Disturbance and Eating Disorders: We’ve Reviled Them, How Can We Rehabilitate Them? Journal of Social Issues, 55(2), 339-353.
Tiggemann, M., & Slater, A. (2013). Net Girls: The Internet, Facebook, and body image concern in adolescent girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 46(6), 630–633.
Van Vonderen, K. E., & Kinnally, W. (2012). Media Effects on Body Image: Examining Media Exposure in the Broader Context of Internal and Other Social Factors. American Communication Journal, 14(2), 41-57.
(Tick (√) or Cross (X) where appropriate).
1- When I look in the mirror, I see flaws in my appearance:
___Always ___Sometimes ___Never
2- I believe that I am confident and value myself:
___Always ___Sometimes ___Never
3- I envy others:
___Always ___Sometimes ___Never
4- I believe my life would be better if I were more attractive:
___Always ___Sometimes ___Never
5- I believe I will never really be happy:
___Always ___Sometimes ___Never
6- How I feel about myself depends on what others think of me:
___Always ___Sometimes ___Never
7- I believe my weight is perfect:
___Always ___Sometimes ___Never