Junkfood Science: “Weighty Issues”

November 15, 2006

“Weighty Issues”

The University of Ottawa’s ninth annual Frontiers in Research Lectures is today. This year’s program is titled: “Weighty Issues.”

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Professor Emerita at Cornell University and author of The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, is speaking on eating disorders:

Fasting girls: then and now

In the 1980s, most Americans “discovered” anorexia nervosa. Today, it is a familiar part of the repertoire of contemporary female psychiatric disorders. Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg takes an even longer look at the disorder, assessing what has happened to anorexia nervosa from its emergence as a modern disease entity in the 19th century until today.

Brumberg explores the issue of changing presentation, symptoms, and treatment in anorexia nervosa. Her analysis demonstrates that while anorectics in the Victorian Era expressed themselves in a somewhat different voice than girls today, there are still some continuities. Brumberg posits that we need to know more about the nature and processes of “psychic epidemics” in order to understand what is happening now, and what will happen in the future to young women and their psychopathologies.

Helga Dittmar, of the Department of Psychology, University of Sussex, England, is sharing her research on socio-cultural influences on body image, including the impact of media images. She writes in her lecture abstract:

Does size matter? The impact of idealized media models on girls’, women’s and men’s body image

The mass media typically use ultra-thin female models, yet there is growing evidence that exposure to such an unrealistic beauty ideal leads to body dissatisfaction in many girls and women.

First, vulnerability factors make women more or less responsive to thin media models, particularly whether or not they have internalized the socio-cultural thinness ideal. Second, the psychological process through which women come to feel bad about their bodies in response to thin models centers on discrepancies between their actual self (how they look) and their ideal self (how they would like to look). Third, advertisers typically defend the use of ultra-thin models with the argument that these images “sell,” but we can demonstrate that alternative models with a healthy body size are equally effective in advertising. Fourth, girls as young as 5-7 years old reported lower body-esteem and a greater desire to be thinner after seeing ultra-thin Barbie dolls.

Finally, there is new evidence to suggest that men also experience lowered body image after exposure to muscular ideal models. This evidence converges in suggesting that idealised media models are a significant cause of body dissatisfaction, which can lead to unhealthy consequences, including negative self-perception, depressed mood, and extreme body-shaping behaviours. Yet, advertising effectiveness is not compromised by using alternative, average-size models, at least as far as women are concerned. These findings (a)support the use of more responsible advertising policies, and (b)interventions to educate individuals to be critical of unhealthy media images, and to treat body size/muscularity as a less central source of self-worth.

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