Adolescents in the United States are constantly surrounded by the media. Whether through the internet, television, or magazines, they are always seeing images and messages aimed towards them. A fair amount of advertisements adolescents are subjected to consist of society’s standard for the “idea” body time. Social comparison, by definition, is the process of comparing yourself to others who are similar to you in order to measure your worth and value (Beebe, Beebe & Redmond, 2011). This post will cover what messages the media sends to adolescent females and how it influences them to socially compare themselves to females in the media.
Much of the research on media effects on body image has been guided by the social comparison theory of Leon Festinger, which holds that people are driven to evaluate themselves through comparison with others. Self-evaluation is a normative phenomenon yielding information important to survival in and adaption to one’s environment, social interactions and relationships, cognitive self-exploration, and affective self-assessment (Buunk & Mussweiler, 2001).
One way humans self-evaluate is through a social comparison process whereby individuals compare themselves on a given dimension (e.g., ability, attitude, physical appearance) to others. This process can be conceptualized as having three main steps:
- Acquisition of social comparison information
- Thinking about the information in relation to the self; and,
- Reacting to the information
When individuals gather information and compare themselves to another person viewed as “better” on the comparison dimension, this process is referred to as ‘upward comparison.’ Conversely, when comparisons are made against individuals thought to be “worse” on the dimension, the process is labeled as ‘downward comparison.’ (Wills, 1981).
Adolescent females are very impressionable; concern over weight and appearance related issues often surface early in their development and continues throughout their lifespan (Serdar, 2005). There are many different sources to which individuals can look for social comparison, but mass media is seen to be one of the most commanding influences, especially for females.
The media is a strong influence in all of Western society. As Denis McQuail states in his 1994 publication titled “The Influence and Effects of Mass Media”:
“With the media, there is the consistent picture of the social world which may lead the audience to adopt this version of reality. There is also a continuing and selective interaction between self and the media which plays a part in shaping the individual’s own behavior and self-concept. We learn what our social environment is and respond to the knowledge that we acquire. We can expect the media to tell us about different kinds of social roles and the accompanying expectations; we can expect certain values to be selectively reinforced in these and other areas of social experience.” (p.2).
Since the 1990’s advertisements in printed media as well as television have been documented as being the most powerful fource in creating society’s perception of the tall, thin, and toned ideal for females (Rabak-Wagner, Kelly-Vance & Eickhoff-Shemeck, 1998). Examples of such media images are innumerable. In a study examining the size of Playboy and Miss America Pageant contestants from 1977 to 1996, Spitzer, Henderson, and Zivian (1990), found that almost all models were underweight, with 17%-33% meeting weight criteria for anorexia nervosa. The media is littered with images of females who fulfill these unrealistic standards, making it seem as if it’s normal for women to live up to this ideal. Dittmar and Howard (2004) made this statement regarding the prevalence of unrealistic media images:
“Ultra-thin models are so prominent that exposure to them becomes unavoidable and ‘chronic’, constantly reinforcing a discrepancy for most women and girls between their actual size and the ideal body” (p. 478).
It has been repeatedly shown that constant exposure to thin models fosters body image concerns and disordered eating in females. In a sample of various aged females, Richins (1991) found that 71.3% reported that they think about how they look compared to models when viewing clothing advertisements. Almost all forms of the media contain unrealistic images, and the negative effects of such idealistic portrayals have been demonstrated in numerous studies.
Particularly for females, it is difficult to go through a day without viewing images that send the message, “you’re not good enough.” The pervasiveness of the media makes it very challenging for most women to avoid evaluating themselves against society’s standard of ‘ideal beauty.’ Research has found that females who report frequently comparing themselves to other females, especially females in the media, are more likely to show signs of negative mood and body disturbance (Schooler et al., 2004). It has also been proposed by many researchers that social comparison may be the mechanism by which unrealistic media standards are translated into actually body image disturbance in an individual. Women who report higher levels of social comparison are at greater risk to develop extreme preoccupation with weight and appearance, and are also more likely to display disordered eating patterns and/or clinical eating disorders (Tiggemann, 2003).
Whereas thin women are idealized, obese women are negatively stigmatized to the degree that obesity stigma has been referred to by some scholars as the last socially acceptable form of discrimination in the United States. Overweight women are more likely than normal-weight women to report being the target of interpersonal and institutional discrimination, including being viewed as less desirable as friends, rejected by peers, and described as lazy, stupid, weak, sloppy, and ugly. The message from the media is clear: a thin woman is attractive and socially valued whereas an obese woman is unattractive and socially rejected (Carr & Friedman, 2005).
Mainstream magazines and advertisements are a major source of idealized images of women. This is disturbing, because many women, especially adolescents, have been found to read such material on a regular basis. Findings of one study indicate that 83% of teenage girls reported reading fashion magazines for about 4.3 hours each week (Thompson & Heinberg, 1999). Adolescents read these magazines because they’re supposed to make them look and feel better, however, it was found that consistently reading them correlated with higher levels of body dissatisfaction and disturbed eating (Tiggemann, 2003).
Adolescent females are very impressionable and subject themselves to innumerable amounts of messages from the media saying that they aren’t pretty or good enough unless they are thin. While older women may be able to disregard these messages, adolescents are more prone to social comparison and therefore feel the need to embody the ‘ideal’ woman of the media. Female’s drive to be like these ‘ideal’ women in the media correlate with higher numbers of body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, disordered eating, and even potential eating disorders.
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