Women and body shape issues: study finds images matter

Images of different body shapes and sizes have a major influence on women’s preferences for their ideal weight. Shareen M

The images women see play a more critical role than aspirational goals in determining their preference for a particular body size, according to a new UK study.

The study, published in journal PLOS ONE today, sought to find out whether exposure to images of other women, or associating a certain body type with high status or better health, had a bigger impact on women’s body type preference.

It found that viewing one type of figure, either smaller or larger, increased women’s preference for that body type, regardless of whether they were depicted as aspirational or not.

Susan Paxton, professor of psychological science at La Trobe University said the finding is consistent with previous research, and helps to clarify mechanisms by which viewing images of thin bodies can have an effect on body dissatisfaction.

“It is a credible study by a well recognised group,” Professsor Paxton said.

“It emphasises the challenge individuals have in developing realistic expectations about healthy body size when in our culture we are exposed to a visual diet of extremely thin idealised figures.”

The lead author of the study, Lynda Boothroyd of Durham University, said the findings deliver sobering information about the power of exposure to super-slim bodies.

“There is evidence that being constantly surrounded through the media by celebrities and models who are very thin contributes to girls and women having an unhealthy attitude to their bodies,” Dr Boothroyd said.

“Furthermore, it seems that even so-called "cautionary” images against anorexia might still increase our liking for thinner bodies.“

The study would suggest the use of more normal sized female models by fashion companies and magazines could help reduce the desire by some women to be thin.

However the study authors also wrote that in all conditions all participants reported on average a preference for thinner-than average bodies.

They add that further research is required to investigate how body size preferences change over time, and to include men.