"The traditional assumption about body image is that exposure to thin images in the media makes young women feel bad about themselves, leading to dieting and, in extreme cases, to eating disorders," says co-author and psychology professor Peter Herman. "But our findings suggest that these images may actually make young women feel good about themselves because they treat that image as a fantasy goal, thinking, She looks great and I could look like that, too. However, although this fantasy may make them feel good initially, young women who are really super-invested in trying to emulate this image may be the ones who go on to develop a true eating disorder."
The study, by lead author Ramona Joshi, a former U of T student supervised by Herman and psychology professor Janet Polivy, appears in the April International Journal of Eating Disorders. Female university students reported on their self-image while viewing different types of images on a computer screen. Their most positive measures of self-image came after viewing photos of thin models taken from popular magazines. This effect was most pronounced in those who were dieters, although it was also present to a lesser degree in non-dieters. This finding may give clinicians some insight into the motivations of people with eating disorders, suggests Herman.
"The idea that these thin media ideals are inspiring rather than depressing is almost necessary to account for the fact that young women - and just about everybody else - spend a lot of time voluntarily exposing themselves to these images," says Herman, noting the study confirms similar findings from other work.
Professor Peter Herman
Department of Psychology