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Exposure to skinny fashion models and body image in women

A number of studies have examined what happens to girls’ or women’s ratings of their bodies if they are exposed to images of skinny fashion models in a laboratory setting.  Many of these studies have reported worsened body image among the participants, some have reported no change in body image and a few have even reported improved body image.  Groesz et al.(1; zip) carried out a meta-analysis of 25 such studies, i.e., grouped the samples to see overall trends.

Exposure to skinny models in a controlled laboratory setting was associated with somewhat worsened body image, and more so if: 1) the participants were teenage girls rather than women in their twenties, 2) the participants were exposed to fewer pictures of skinny models, 3) the participants had prior body image issues/concerns and 4) if the participants were randomly assigned to either viewing the skinny women only or control imagery only as opposed to the participants being exposed to both skinny women and control imagery; the control imagery comprised of normal-looking or overweight models or objects such as cars and houses.

When women compare themselves to models, the underlying motivation could be self-evaluation, self-improvement, self/ego-enhancement or some combination of the three(2; zip).  When the motive is self-evaluation (how do I compare to her?), the likelihood that body image will worsen is greatest.  When the motive is self-improvement, i.e., a woman considers a model as inspiration and aspires toward her looks, then anticipation of success may induce positive feelings and body image could be enhanced(3; zip).  When the motive is self/ego-enhancement (how am I better than the model or what flaw does the model have that I don’t?), there may also be an improvement of body image.  Therefore, not addressing the underlying motive would explain some of the inconsistency between different studies.

Given the high status of skinny high-fashion models, some girls or women associate skinniness with desirability and find high-fashion models inspiring.  Even if initially their body image is not worsened when they compare themselves to skinny fashion models, motivated by a need for self-improvement, the behaviors they will indulge in to acquire the looks of their thinspirations (thin inspirations) will be negative with respect to health.  In addition, exposing a number of these women to what feminists describe as “real women,” i.e., usually unimpressive and disproportionately overweight women, would strengthen their resolve to become skinnier.  Furthermore, many women whose body image is worsened by looking at skinny fashion models would be prompted to lose body fat, too.

It would be interesting to do these studies with pictures of feminine and attractive women rather than skinny models and see to what extent body image is lowered in women.  In this case, neither worsened nor improved body image would be corresponding to negative health behaviors because such behaviors will undermine feminine beauty...we are looking at more evidence that it would be better for exemplars of feminine beauty to occupy the highest status among models rather than skinny and masculine females.

Whereas Groesz et al. most extensively blamed the mass media for the thin ideal, there are people behind the media, and newcomers to this site should read about the people responsible for the thin ideal.


  1. Groesz, L. M., Levine, M. P., and Murnen, S. K., The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: a meta-analytic review, Int J Eat Disord, 31, 1 (2002).
  2. Wood, J. V., Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes, Psychol Bull, 106, 231 (1989).
  3. Martin, M. C., and Gentry, J. W., Stuck in the model trap: the effects of beautiful models in ads on female pre-adolescents and adolescents, J Advertising, 26, 19 (1997).