The Beauty Myth and Female Consumers: The Controversial Role of Advertising

Article excerpt

Eleven million women and one million men in the United States suffer from eating disorders--either self-induced semistarvation (anorexia nervosa) or a cycle of bingeing and purging with laxatives, self-induced vomiting, or excessive exercise (bulimia nervosa) (Dunn 1992; Fairburn, Cooper, and Cooper 1986).(1) A 1990 nationwide survey of 20 high schools showed that 11 percent of the students have eating disorders (cited in Dunn 1992). At least nine out of ten eating-disorder sufferers are female (Wolf 1991). According to the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association, 150,000 American women die of anorexia each year (Wolf 1991).

Research indicates that chronic dieting in the presence of low self-esteem, adolescent turmoil, and a family history of affective disorders is especially likely to lead to anorexia or bulimia nervosa (Hsu 1990; Nylander 1971). Most eating-disorder specialists agree that chronic dieting is, in turn, a direct consequence of the social pressure on American females to achieve a nearly impossible thinness (Hesse-Biber 1989; Strober 1986). Advertising has been vilified for upholding--perhaps even creating--the emaciated standard of beauty by which girls are taught from childhood to judge the worth of their own bodies (Freedman 1984; Nichter and Nichter 1991; Solomon 1992). As Solomon points out, "the pressure to be slim is continually reinforced both by advertising and by peers. . . . We are continually bombarded by images of thin, happy people" (1992, 226). Ethnographic interviews of junior and senior high school girls found the "ideal girl" resembles Barbie: 5 feet 6 inches, 110 pounds, a size 5, and "eats whatever she wants and never gains weight"--a cogent description of bulimia (Nichter and Nichter 1991, 261).

Recently, a small number of consumer researchers voiced concern regarding the question of how and to what degree advertising involving thin/attractive endorsers is linked with chronic dieting, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders in American females (Peterson 1987; Richins 1991; Solomon 1992). Richins (1991) found that while exposure to ads with highly attractive models can indeed increase women's dissatisfaction with their facial and overall attractiveness, such exposure does not appear to increase dissatisfaction with body shape in particular. Richins observed that college women who participated in her study were far less satisfied with their physique than with their face or overall attractiveness. Thus, she pointed out, it may be that "college-age females are already sufficiently dissatisfied with their bodies that advertising exposure has no impact" (Richins 1991, 81).

The causality may be reversed: that is, American females with high levels of body dissatisfaction may respond more positively to products in ads featuring physically attractive (hence thin) female endorsers, when compared to their not-so-dissatisfied counterparts. This question has not been addressed either theoretically or empirically.

In an attempt to explore the broader context of these important and controversial issues, this paper draws upon research from a variety of disciplines and suggests directions for future research. First are a discussion of the diet industry and an examination of the problems associated with chronic dieting. Next is an exploration of the prevalence, concomitants, and origins of body dissatisfaction in American females. The paper discusses existing advertising research that gives rise to several important propositions regarding the nature of the link between advertising and body dissatisfaction. It concludes with recommendations for research and a brief discussion of public policy implications.

FOOD AND DIETING IN AMERICAN CULTURE

Americans share a marked ambivalence toward and preoccupation with food.

On the one hand enjoying rich, luscious, expensive meals is portrayed as a fitting reward for hard work, as a way of socializing, and as a way of being sensual, indulging a physical appetite. …