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Home > Research Articles > Idealized Women in TV Ads Make Girls Feel Bad

Reuters Health

Saturday, July 13, 2002

By Alan Mozes

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - TV commercials that depict idealized images of rail-thin feminine beauty can send young female viewers--particularly those who place great importance on their appearance--into an immediate tailspin of increased anger and body dissatisfaction, Australian researchers say.

"Viewing television commercials containing images of the unrealistic thin-ideal for women caused adolescent girls to feel less confident, more angry and more dissatisfied with their weight and appearance," said study lead author Duane Hargreaves of Flinders University in South Australia.

Hargreaves and his team showed a compilation of TV commercials to a group of over 400 adolescent boys and girls attending high school in Adelaide, South Australia. The 40 clothing, food, cosmetic, movie and car commercials viewed were a one-week sample of spots airing on Australian networks in June 1999.

Half the students were exposed to between 10 and 11 minutes of commercials that relied heavily on images of idealized thin and attractive women to make their pitch. The other half watched spots that were deemed to be similarly engaging, but whose main focus was not on female appearance.

Both before and after watching the commercials, the students completed questionnaires to assess TV-viewing habits, the level of importance they placed on their appearance and their state of mind regarding body dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety and confidence.

In the current issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the authors report that overall exposure to TV was high among the students. The average student watched 2.7 hours of TV each day--translating into a daily viewing of approximately 96 television commercials.

The researchers found that girls shown commercials with a focus on female appearance experienced a higher subsequent decrease in confidence than those watching the non-appearance-related spots.

And females who saw ads with idealized female imagery experienced a higher increase in body dissatisfaction, negative moods and anger, the report indicates.

The researchers conclude that watching TV images of idealized women appeared to have an immediate negative effect on young female--though not young male--viewers. They emphasized, however, that this effect did not occur across the board. Those women who place greater importance on their appearance, they note, are more prone to the negative impact of such commercials than those less concerned with their looks.

"I think that the results confirm what many of us understand and observe in our everyday lives--that is, the media's bombardment of unrealistic images of attractiveness has a detrimental effect on many young people," Hargreaves told Reuters Health.

"And it is a great concern to see that exposure to just a small number of commercials can increase body dissatisfaction. We can only imagine what the cumulative effect of a lifetime of exposures must be," he added.

Hargreaves noted that future research might explore to what degree men are similarly prone to body dissatisfaction in the face of the rising visibility of idealized muscular male imagery in the media.

"The media is not the sole reason for the high level of body dissatisfaction in our society," said Hargreaves. "(But) I think the media's message needs to be challenged on an ongoing basis, starting from an early age, and continuing throughout the schooling years. This could include education about the media's goals and techniques, as well as encouraging girls to value themselves for reasons beyond their bodies and appearance."

SOURCE: Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 2002;21:287-308.