When the topic of weight comes up, many American women will cringe. An extraordinary amount of women feel that they weigh too much or are even fat; but why? In addition to feeling bad about their image, some females will develop harmful disorders such as Anorexia and Bulimia. This paper argues that not only do television shows and magazine advertisements influence the ways in which females view their body but social media is now having more influence on the topic than ever. The mobile phone application “Instagram,” as well as the latest social media website Pinterest allows users to showcase their bodies and share pictures and quotes about how to achieve the “perfect body.” Also, a look at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show will expose examples of the media posing false perceptions of beauty on females as well.
Body Image and the Media
It is first important to understand how eating disorders can be defined. Anorexia Nervosa, most commonly known as Anorexia, is an extremely serious and potentially life threatening eating disorder in which a person performs self-starvation followed by excessive weight loss (NEDA, 2013). According to the National Eating Disorders Association, common symptoms of Anorexia include fear of weight gain or becoming fat, extreme weight loss, and denial of the seriously low body weight. People suffering from Anorexia experience dramatic weight loss with a denial of hunger. They also make excuses for avoiding meals and may take themselves out of social situations with friends or activities. Consequences of Anorexia include a slow heart rate and low blood pressure, reduction of bone density, fainting, fatigue, as well as dry hair and skin along with many other complications.
The second most common eating disorder is known as Bulimia Nervosa known as Bulimia. This eating disorder is different than Anorexia in that sufferers ingest a large amount of food but then make themselves vomit it up, use a laxative, or partake in obsessive compulsive exercise (NEDA, 2013). This life threatening disease cause severe weight loss as well electrolyte imbalances that can lead to heart failure, inflammation of the esophagus from frequent vomiting, chronic irregular bowel movements, tooth decay and a number of other complications. According to the National Eating Disorders Association website, Bulimia affects 1-2% of adolescent to young women and 80% of those affected are female (NEDA, 2013).
A Look Around the World, and Back in Time
Since the beginning of time, women have felt compelled to look, act and talk a certain way in order to fit in. In order to understand social media’s effect on body image, it’s important to understand what has been going on in past years concerning female body image and the role the media has played. Every country has body image stereotypes including Latin American’s want for petite women with curves, Asia’s desire for an oval face and black hair, as well as Indian and African American women’s appreciation for having a healthy weight (Poorani, 1). The perfect American woman is ‘supposed’ to be tall, thin, with full locks of hair and a blemish free face.
The Renassance Era was the last time women favored a full figure, according to an article on stylecaster.com by Andrea (2010). It was then that larger women were considered sexy and were prized for their natural bodies. Moving into the Victorian era, body consciousness first began to show in women. Girls wore corsets to have an extremely small waistline. Some women went as far as making their waistline 12 inches wide resulting in broken ribs to achieve a slim look (2010). Moving into the 20th century, the 1920s inspired women to have small chests, using strips of cloth to achieve a ‘little boy look.’ From the 1930s-50s, women started to really watch what they ate and began lifting weights to build muscle tone and definition. To show off feminine curves, famous designers such as Chanel, Dior, and Elsa Shiaparelli created clothes that would accentuate feminine curves (2010).
Next, the 1950s inspired styles like Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly with hour glass figures. Women were taught that their main goal in life was to get married and raise children, something that isn’t as prevalent today. Women always felt the need to dress well no matter where they were going, no sweat pants like young adults today wear to the grocery store. The 1960s is really when being thin began to be an important factor. According to Andrea, Women were introduced to models like Twiggy who was extremely thin. The 70s were all about being thin with a full head of hair and the 80s introduced us to the Material Girl (2010). In 1990, shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Saved by the Bell took over TV screens of women of all ages. These teen actors were very thin, attractive, and forever had their belly buttons showing forcing the bullet theory on those who watched them.
Advertising the “Perfect Body”
False perception of body image comes from many places; however advertisements are the most common way for a woman to see an image of a “perfect” woman and wish she looked like her. Each and every day we are swarmed with advertisements on TV, the radio, the internet, magazines and from many other places. Because of the cumulative effects theory which states no one can escape either the media or the media’s messages, it is impossible for us to not be phased by ads (Loporcaro, 5). On average, a United States resident is exposed to about 5,000 advertising messages each day (National Eating Disorder Association, 2005). Author Jean Kilbourne claims that advertising has a great cultural impact on women and also normalizes and glorifies eating disorders. This makes women and girls more susceptible to becoming anorexic or bulimic than girls who aren’t exposed to advertisements. (Poorani, 6). Also, Kilbourne adds that in 1979, fashion models weighed 8% less than the average female and in 1999 fashion models weighed 23% less. According to Renee Hobbs, EdD, associate professor of communications at Temple University, the average teen girl gets about 180 minutes of media exposure each day (Heubeck, 2012). These messages promote anything from toothpaste, to makeup, dish detergent, a brand of pens, or anything you can imagine. However, the advertisements for things such as beauty enhancing products or weight loss promotion tend to sink deeper into the mind of some people more than others. According to a survey done in 2005, the main source of information about women’s health issues comes directly from the media (National Eating Disorder Association, 2005).
Not only do advertisement messages promote a product, but they also encourage certain body images. It is unlikely to see an over-weight or even ‘normal’ looking girl on the front cover of a magazine, such as Vogue, untouched by editing software. Likewise, you won’t see a model with bad skin or yellow teeth grace the cover of Cosmopolitan. People see what media portrays through platforms such as print, TV, or websites as beautiful or ideal. About three out of four girls (73%) compare how they look to girls in the media sometimes, and three out of ten girls (29%) are comparing their body image to those seen in the media either a lot or all the time (Girl Scouts, 2012). This point brings up the term “Thinspiration”, a growing trend among young girls. Thinspiration was created through social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and especially the newest craze of Pinterest. These websites display images often of underweight and unhealthy looking thin women and encourage others to look the same (CBS, NY, 2012). Spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association, Claire Mysko, says Thinspiration’s content is filled with weight loss information that can glorify thoughts of eating disorders (CBS, NY, 2012). She also states that these websites are filled with tips, photos, and quotes that can trigger dangerous eating disorder behavior.
The Self-cognitive theory states that if an individual sees others, such as models or celebrities on a magazine, behave in a certain manner within the media and get rewarded for it then that person will develop a favorable attitude toward that action because of the outcome. An example of this would be that if someone, say an 18 year old female, is flipping through a Victoria’s Secret catalogue she may wish to look like those models because of the way men obsess about models. The models behave in a manner that is rewarded thus making others who observe the action want to be like them.
Thinspiration or Social Media Disaster?
The hottest social media sites known as Pinterest along with one of the most popular mobile phone apps known as Instagram have taken the perception of beauty to a new level. Pinterest, the internet’s latest social media power house, can be what some users refer to as addicting. For others, the way of life some pin boards promote is the addicting part. Never have eating disorders such as Anorexia or Bulimia been encouraged publicly until now. This can be argued by the bullet theory that states the media has a direct influence on the people who consume it. Thinspiration is a term coined after users on the site began to pin photos of thin girls and some boys, exercise tips, healthy food alternatives, and “motivational quotes.” The resemblances to pro-anorexia websites which consist of females with sever eating disorders showing off their bodies and being praised for their weight loss can be seen with Pinterest.
For the sake of the argument in this paper, I conducted my own mini research experiment on Pinterest. In the search bar I typed “Thinspiration” and thousands of boards with that title were found. The most interesting thing I found while looking for Thinspiration on Pinterest wasn’t the millions of pins within the boards but it was Pinterest’s message to users on the top of the page: “Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening.” The site then gives the phone number to the National Eating Disorders Association along with their website.
According to an article by Megan Gibson, the heavily female user based website is well enough aware of the situation on its site that on March 23 of 2012 Pinterest announced a ban on pro-Anorexia content. The site updated its acceptable use policy and no longer allowed pins that encourage self-harm or self-abuse (Gibson, 2012). Although this was a good decision for the site to make about not allowing pro-eating disorder content within its pin boards, it doesn’t stop the millions of pictures of skinny women, and quotes such as “Are you sure you want that cookie?” from being seen by millions of females globally. Lynn Grefe, president of the National Eating Disorder Association says “It’s appalling to people who are in the throes of their sickness, at that stage, it’s like a competition- ‘I can get skinnier than that picture, I can beat her.” (Tillotson, 2012).
Victoria’s Secret “Fashion Show”
Model Kate Moss once said “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” This quote obviously gives the wrong idea in which many people believe. Also, there are multiple versions of an image with Moss wearing a white t-shirt that says “I beat obesity” that can be found on Pinterest. Celebrities have a huge influence over the way in which body type is portrayed in the media, another example that the bullet theory can explain. One of the most viewed annual televised events is the Victoria Secret Fashion Show. The marketing for this event is impossible to miss. It’s seen everywhere from TV to magazines, newspapers, billboards, radio commercials, and more and is watched by people from all over the world. In the 2012 show, pop singer Rihanna stated she needed “to hit the gym after seeing these girls..” which can really influence a lot of her fans because Rihanna is already thin and toned. Adriana Lima, Victoria’s Secret Model, admitted prior to the show that she had to work out twice each day and only drink protein shakes for 9 days before the show. She also stated that she didn’t eat anything at all for 12 hours before the show. Lima also said, “No liquids at all so you can dry out. Sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds from that.” According to British Fashion editor and chief stylist for the 2012 show Sophia Neophitou says about Lima’s annual slim down, “”Adriana works really hard at it. It’s the same as if you were a long-distance runner. They are athletes in this environment — it’s harder to be a Victoria’s Secret model because no one can just chuck an outfit on you, and hide your lumps and bumps.” (O’Dell, 2012). These models have nutritionists who measure them to make sure they are a specific size and if they aren’t they are instructed on how to get down to that size. According to an article by Amy O’Dell, the models see nutritionists who measures their body’s muscle mass,fat ration, and levels of water retention. The nutritionist then prescribes vitamins and supplements to keep the model’s energy up during the training period (O’Dell, 2012).
It can be seen as ironic that the models are referred to as “Angels”, because angels are supposedly perfect. A sense of perfection is always associated with these girls because of their stick thin figures which set bad examples for girls who aren’t six feet tall and weigh 110 pounds. This also supports the cognitive theory in that other females see the perception of the “Angles” and want to be like them to be rewarded as the Victoria’s Secret Models are. There are also a lot of celebrities that are advocates for embracing your true body type. Tyra Banks, a former Victoria’s Secret model, said “Today you are expected to be a size zero. When I started out, I didn’t know such a size even existed.” (Mitzeliotis, 2012). She believes it’s important for girls to feel beautiful the way that they are and not starve themselves or be unhealthy to feel beautiful. Not only do men and women alike watch the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, they bring their comments to social media sites like Twitter and Pinterest. On Pinterest, if you search “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show,” thousands of boards from thousands of users appear on the screen. Millions of pins within those boards offer false perceptions of beauty to those who idolize the models and want to look exactly like them. During the show millions of users tweet about the models. For example, according to an article by Maria Vultaggio, user @Kylayyyy wrote “insert cliché tweet about looking like a potato and crying cause you’re not Adriana Lima* #vsfashionshowprobs” (Vultaggio, 2012).
“Image is Powerful, but also Image is Superficial”- Cameron Russell
Victoria’s Secret, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar model Cameron Russell has a lot to say about the way in which models promote an unattainable ideal body image. Russell first admitted her guilt of promoting an unattainable body image on the January 2013 Ted Talk entitled, “Cameron Russell: Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model.” Russell came onto the stage in a short, black mini dress and then performed an outfit change right on stage joking, “If some of you women were really horrified when I came out you don’t have to tell me right now, but I’ll find out later on Twitter. I’d also note that I am privileged to be able to transform what you think of me in a very brief 10 seconds, not everybody gets to do that” (Ted, 2013). Russell also admits that the way she became a model isn’t that she was scouted, but that she is the winner of a genetic lottery. She states that becoming a model is the equivalent of winning the Power Ball and that it is out of your control (Ted, 2013).
Dove Campaign for Real Beauty
In addition to Russell coming forward about the false perceptions media places on body image, Dove, a personal care products brand, created the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. A global study Dove had conducted in 2003 provided evidence that inspired the creation of this global campaign. Research revealed that less than two percent of women feel beautiful and 76 percent of women wish media portrayed beauty more than just through physical characteristics (Murray, 2). Alessandro Manfredi, Dove’s Global Brand Director, suggested that the results of this study led to “a great opportunity to differentiate the brand from every other beauty brand” (Murray, 2).
The Dove Campaign is known globally and is discussed in many class rooms in regards to false perceptions of beauty. An extremely popular Dove advertisement that can be found on YouTube is a video entitled Dove Evolution that was released in 2006. With over 30 million views, Evolution is a 60 second journey of a women’s transformation from regular to flawless. After going through hair, makeup, and a photo shoot, the photo of the women is manipulated in Photoshop, making her neck longer, eyes larger, and overall enhanced (Piper, Evolution). The video then shows the edited version of the photo on a billboard in public and follows up with a very powerful statement: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.”
This campaign is unlike any other beauty campaign people have seen. Instead of using underweight six foot tall models, Dove uses real women, less photo shop, and true feelings on beauty. Dove captures older women, women with wrinkles, women with freckles, curvy women, full figured women, and healthy looking women in their advertisements to show the world that there is more to beauty than skin and bones, and it worked. According to Millard, Dove conducted several older-women focus groups to find out if people liked the new pace of their advertisements and discovered they were (Millard, 157). One woman stated: “I think they did a tremendous job with this campaign. I personally think it makes people realize it doesn’t matter what you look like, or what color you are, or how bug or how small you are, or how old you are, you’re still beautiful.”(Millard, 157). The Real Beauty campaign is a good example of how to reverse the bullet theory and put good body images in the minds of women. Instead of seeing think women, they now see real women, which can change their perception.
Instagram’s Negative Influence
Instagram is one of the hottest mobile applications on phones today. On this app, over 80 thousand users are able to create accounts and share whatever photos they want from what they’re eating, where they are, what their cat is doing, or what they look like that day (Goldberg, 2013). Much like Pinterest, Instagram has also taken steps to ban hash tags and images that promote eating disorders. For example, the site does not allow users to search “Anorexia.” As a result of banning the search for self-harming content, over 30 thousand photos were removed, according to Instagram. However, much like Pinterest, users are able to search “Thinspiration” as a hash tag and find thousands of photos of skinny girls that people strive to be like.
Beat, a British nonprofit organization that helps people struggling with eating disorders, claims there is still a large concern about the ability to post photos that promote starvation and eating disorders. A spokesperson for Beat thinks, “It’s worrying that with the powerful medium of social networking and the growing popularity of phone apps such as Instagram, people are able to easily access images that encourage the individual to believe that an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice and to avoid treatment.”
The inevitable truth about media’s influence on body image is that it will never go away. Men and women will forever be forced to stare at those who are perceived as perfect for the sake of selling products. Social Media will also remain a major influence on body image because of society’s obsession with being thin. Televised events, such as the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show will remind women everwhere of unattainable goals. Until media decides it’s time to let diverse beauty shine, we will all be questioning whether or not we should eat that cookie.
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