The Effects of the Media on Body Image: A Meta-Analysis

Article excerpt

The media have been criticized for depicting the thin woman as ideal. Some argue these images create unrealistic expectations for young women and cause body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. This study cumulates findings of empirical studies that examine the effects of media on body image. An estimate of overall effect size, trends in the research, and the influence of moderating variables are examined and reported. Results suggest depictions of thin women may have little to no effect on viewers. However, images of overweight women seem to have a positive effect on women's body image. Suggestions for future research are offered.

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Highly publicized cases of celebrities with eating disorders, such as Princess Diana, Karen Carpenter, and Tracey Gold, have directed public concern to the causes of eating disorders. Women in particular are most plagued by eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, with the ratio of men to women afflicted somewhere between 1:6 and 1:10, according to the American Psychiatric Association Work Group on Eating Disorders (2000). In addition, eating disorders are becoming more prevalent in other cultures, even those in which the diseases were previously rare. Japanese and Chinese women are increasingly affected by eating disorders, and the incidence of these disorders is rising rapidly in other non-English speaking countries such as Spain, Argentina, and Fiji (American Psychiatric Association Work Group on Eating Disorders, 2000).

The increasingly evident problem of eating disorders amongst young women has led to speculation about its cause. One prominent theory is that the media's constant depiction of extremely thin women leads women to believe they should try to meet this ideal. The claim that the media can cause eating disorders has led researchers to question whether this relationship exists. However, the results of studies designed to clarify this issue have been far from conclusive. Though public concern is directed mainly toward the cause of eating disorders, researchers have measured media's influence not only on eating pathology but also on other constructs, such as body dissatisfaction and body size estimation. For the purpose of this study, these constructs will collectively be called "body image."

Some researchers claim that media have an effect on young women's body image (e.g., Baker, Sivyer, & Towell, 1998; Botta, 1999; Harrison & Cantor, 1997; Hofschire & Greenberg, 2002). Specifically, these researchers report that results from their studies indicate a relationship between media consumption and eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, or a number of other related outcomes. However, other researchers have come to contradictory conclusions. In fact, results of studies by Crouch and Degelman (1998) and Myers and Biocca (1992) have indicated that rather than causing an increase in body dissatisfaction, media promote positive body attitudes in young women. Other researchers claim that no relationship exists between media and body image (e.g., Borzekowski, Robinson, & Killen, 2000; Cusumano & Thompson, 1997; Jane, Hunter, & Lozzi, 1999; Stice, 1998).

At this point, a meta-analysis is a useful step toward sorting out these conflicting results. Meta-analytic reviews are more systematic, explicit, and exhaustive than qualitative reviews (Rosenthal, 1991). The number of variables included in this meta-analysis will allow for the examination of trends among studies including the use of different media types, media exposure lengths, outcome measures, comparison stimuli, and participant ages. Meta-analysis at this stage of research on the relationship between media and body image can offer a greater understanding of the consequences of the prevalence of thin images in the media, as well as provide direction for future studies.

Literature Review

Theory

Researchers have used various theoretical underpinnings for studying the relationship between media and body image. …