Mass Media and Body Dissatisfaction: Root Cause or Just a Reminder?

Beliefs in links between “thin ideal” media and body dissatisfaction among women, perhaps even full-blown eating disorders, has been one of the “truisms” or sacred cows of media psychology for at least a generation or two. But just as the media violence/video game debate has spiraled into confusion and chaos, debates about the extent to which media actively cause body dissatisfaction and eating disorders can often leave readers confused and sometimes mislead. It’s not at all uncommon to hear it expressed that there are no doubts media ideals cause body dissatisfaction, but we used to hear this with video game violence too. Just as with most areas of media effects, looking at the data reveals that the truth is complex.

First, let’s dispense with the obvious. There’s little question that the beautiful, airbrushed, sometimes even absurdly computerized folks we see on TV or in magazines are unrealistic standards of beauty. Second, there’s equally no doubt that many people find this state of affairs to be morally offensive (although what people say about media publicly and how they talk with their wallets are often two different things). Indeed, I’ve written on this second issue myself . Third, it’s clear that some women and men, when presented with media images of attractive folks, may, at least in that moment, be reminded about body dissatisfaction issues they may already have. But are media portrayals of beauty a root cause of body dissatisfaction or eating disorders?

Despite some claims to the contrary, it turns out the research evidence on this is less than clear. For a meta-analysis I conducted in 2013, I read through over 200 papers that existed at that time. These papers could be divided into three roughly equal groups: —> Read More