Body-Image Evaluation and Body-Image Investment among Adolescents: A Test of Sociocultural and Social Comparison Theories

By Morrison, Todd G.; Kalin, Rudolf et al. | Adolescence, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Body-Image Evaluation and Body-Image Investment among Adolescents: A Test of Sociocultural and Social Comparison Theories


Morrison, Todd G., Kalin, Rudolf, Morrison, Melanie A., Adolescence


Body-image may be conceptualized as a multidimensional construct that represents how individuals "think, feel, and behave with regard to their own physical attributes" (Muth & Cash, 1997, p. 1438). Researchers have identified two conceptually distinct components of body image. The first, body-image evaluation, denotes individuals' evaluative thoughts and beliefs about their physical appearance. The second, body-image investment, refers to the behaviors individuals perform to manage or enhance the way they look (Cash & Szymanski, 1995).

Two theoretical frameworks that attempt to explain variations in body-image evaluation and body-image investment emphasize sociocultural factors and social comparison, respectively (Stormer & Thompson, 1996). Research pertinent to each of these theories will be reviewed briefly.

Sociocultural Theory

Sociocultural theory contends that women's dissatisfaction with their physical appearance stems from: (1) the thin body ideal that is promulgated in Western societies; (2) the tendency for women to adopt a "body as object" rather than "body as process" orientation; and (3) the thin is good assumption which emphasizes the rewards that are accrued by being attractive (i.e., thin) and, concomitantly, the costs that are associated with being unattractive (i.e., fat). It should be noted that the thin body ideal and the thin is good assumption represent distinct constructs. The former denotes the ideal physical representation for women in North America; specifically, a thin body. The latter denotes the benefits associated with adhering to that ideal representation; specifically, the advantages women are believed to accrue as a function of thinness. Researchers contend that the strongest conveyors of each of these sociocultural assumptions (the thin body ideal, body as object, and thin is good) may be mass media (Stice, Schupak-Neuberg, Shaw, & Stein, 1994).

Thin body ideal. The disparity between North America's definition of the ideal female shape and the actual size of women's bodies is increasing (Hesse-Biber, Clayton-Matthews, & Downey, 1987). Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, and Ahrens (1992) report that, while the average American woman under 30 has become progressively heavier, media images of women have become progressively thinner. For example, a longitudinal examination of models appearing in the magazines Ladies Home Journal and Vogue revealed that their bust-to-waist ratios had decreased steadily since 1949 (Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, & Kelly, 1986). These researchers also found that 69.1% of female actors appearing in popular television programs were classified as thin in comparison to 17.5% of male actors. Finally, Morris, Cooper, and Cooper (1989) documented similar changes in the body shape of female models from 1967 to 1987.

Body as object. The emphasis media place on women's physical appearance and the ways in which media represent women's bodies may contribute to the adoption of a "body as object" orientation. For example, Rudman and Verdi (1993) content analyzed advertisements selected from a random sample of fashion and fitness publications. Results indicated that advertisements featuring female models were less likely to show the body in its entirety; rather, the emphasis was on parts of the body (e.g., eyes, legs, or hands). Similarly, Duquin (1989) examined activity levels of male and female models appearing in 14 popular women's magazines. The author found that females were more likely than males to be nonactive (i.e., the body was either deconstructed or the model was shown sitting, lying, or standing). Duquin argues that nonactive representations of women may reinforce the view that women's bodies serve an ornamental, rather than instrumental, function.

Thin is good. Few studies have explicitly examined the ways in which mass media promote the view that what is thin is good. However, this message may be subtly conveyed by the absence of females who deviate from the thin ideal in electronic and print media. …

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