We all know that fashion models have unrealistic bodies. Even if they aren’t photoshopped, most of us could never be that thin, at least not without making ourselves ill. Previous research has suggested that viewing pictures of unrealistically thin female models makes young women feel bad – leaving them dissatisfied with their own bodies, more sad, angry and insecure.
A crucial question is whether the effect of these thin-ideal images is automatic. Does the comparison to the models, which is thought to be the key driver in their negative effects, happen without our intention, attention or both? Knowing the answer will tell us just how much power these images have, and also how best we might protect ourselves from them.
There are at least two plausible reasons psychologists have for suspecting such comparisons might be automatic. One is evolutionary – we’re a social species, so perhaps we instinctively compare ourselves against the people around us, to figure out where we are in the social hierarchy. Our ancestors didn’t have photographs, but it’s possible that modern media is hijacking a process that was once useful in our biological history. The second reason is practice: things we do again and again become automatic. Maybe, especially for some people, comparing themselves with media images has become a habit.
To test the idea that comparing ourselves to thin-ideal images is an automatic process, Stephen Want and colleagues at Ryerson University, Canada, invited 116 female Canadian undergraduate students, with an average age of 19, and an average body mass index of 21 (the healthy range is between about 19 and 26), to take part in what they were told was an experiment testing how short-term memory is affected by mood, personality and exposure to images.
Under this cover story, participants were given a difficult memory task (remembering a string of different digits, such as 78639946) or an easy memory task (remembering an easy string, such as 11111111). They were told they would have to keep these digits in mind while they looked at images of several fashion models or cats. All participants were, in fact, shown pictures of fashion models, 12 of them for 10 seconds each. The purpose of this deception was to prevent the participants guessing that the researchers were interested in the effect of the images – this reduces the likelihood that the participants performed in a certain way to meet the researchers’ expectations.
But the memory task wasn’t just part of the cover story, it was central to the study design. One feature of automatic processes is their efficiency: automatic processes can occur when you are mentally occupied whereas non-automatic processes require your attention. Following this definition, the idea was that the difficult memory task group would only be able to make automatic social comparisons, whereas the easy memory task group would be able to make both automatic and effortful social comparisons. If images have negative effects automatically, they should be seen in both groups – they might even be stronger in the harder memory task group, if the distraction of the task stopped participants from having reasonable thoughts about why they shouldn’t compare themselves to the models.
The results were clear. Participants who were preoccupied by the difficult memory task were unaffected by the images – afterwards their mood and satisfaction with their appearance was indistinguishable from their feelings at the beginning of the experiment. But the easy memory task group showed the classic effect of thin-ideal images – they felt worse in terms of their mood, and they felt worse about their appearance specifically.
A second experiment, recruiting 177 participants, replicated the first with different images, and also showed that it wasn’t merely having the mental capacity to think about appearance that produced the effect. A group that was given the easy memory task but shown pictures of coloured rectangles rather than fashion models didn’t suffer any negative effects on their mood or appearance satisfaction.
In addition, participants in this second experiment rated the importance of media images as a source of information about appearance, and the pressure they felt to emulate celebrities and other media figures. The researchers’ logic was that if the comparison process is automatic through practice, it is participants who scored highly on this questionnaire who would be most likely to show the harmful comparison effect from looking at models.
As you would expect, in the easy memory condition, it was those participants who rated themselves most highly on this questionnaire who were most affected by the images. But in the difficult memory condition – the one in which only efficient, automatic, processes could be generating comparisons to the thin-ideal images – the media-engaged participants’ mood and satisfaction with their appearance was unaffected, just like their peers who felt less pressure to emulate celebs.
Taken together, the two experiments are a strike against the idea that we automatically compare ourselves to thin-ideal media images, even those of us most likely to feel like we ought to – young women who rate themselves as preoccupied with the media and their appearance.
Perhaps this is grounds for optimism. It might mean we can starve these images of their negative power by not paying them attention. But despite this, it shows again that when we do focus on these images they make us feel bad. Thin-ideal images are so prevalent in our society that even a temporary effect could produce a consistent load of misery for individuals who attend to them. So the deeper question is how society would need to change so that such images are less prevalent, or so that paying attention to them is no longer celebrated as a priority.
Want, S., Botres, A., Vahedi, Z., & Middleton, J. (2015). On the Cognitive (In)Efficiency of Social Comparisons with Media Images Sex Roles DOI: 10.1007/s11199-015-0538-1
Video protects girls from the negative effects of looking at ultra-thin models
By age three, girls already show a preference for thin people
How do women and girls feel when they see sexualised or sporty images of female athletes?
Post written by Tom Stafford, a psychologist from the University of Sheffield who is a regular contributor to the Mind Hacks blog. He is on twitter as @tomstafford and his latest book is 'For argument's sake: evidence that reason can change minds'.
Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!