Do Media Images Trigger Eating Disorders?
Claire Wiseman Study Shows Strong Relationship Between Body Dissatisfaction and Media Images    

Although mental health practitioners have always suspected that images of extremely thin models impact young women, viewing “plus-size” models decreases young women’s body dissatisfaction, thereby reducing a critical risk factor for eating disorders.  Dr. Claire Wiseman, assistant professor of psychology at Trinity, presented the findings of her study regarding the impact of media images on people who are already prone to eating disorders at the 2003 meeting of the Eating Disorder Research Society in Ravello, Italy. 

Funded by the National Eating Disorders Association and authored by Wiseman, Drs. Suzanne R. Sunday and Diane W. Mickley, and Trinity undergraduates Ali R. Cohen and Karen Huebner, the year-long study randomly assigned undergraduate college women to one of three groups. One group viewed images of “plus-size” professional models, one viewed “super-thin” professional models and the control group viewed images of non-human objects.

All subjects were tested to assess risk factors for eating disorders—including drive to diet and body dissatisfaction—both one week prior to viewing the slides and immediately after viewing.  While the “plus-size” viewing group felt a 16.5 percent drop in body dissatisfaction, and a 12.8 percent reduction in drive to diet, and a rise in body esteem, the group that viewed the “super-thin” models had a significantly stronger 23.8 percent jump in desire to diet and experienced lowered body esteem. 

“This study shows that viewing thin images has a negative effect while viewing plus-size images has a demonstrably positive effect on young women,” Wiseman says. “Based on this research and given the scarcity of plus-size models in magazines and television shows targeting the adolescent audience, we can conclude that the media may inadvertently increase the risk of pathological dieting and eating disorders among adolescent females.”

While the study proves what harm the media can do, Wiseman has suggestions for counteracting that effect. “Women are currently being pummeled in primetime by unrealistically thin images,” she said. “Increasing the number of plus-size models seen by young women may inoculate them against eating disorders by decreasing their dissatisfaction with their bodies.”

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