This image could be harmful to your health

You can’t avoid the magazines. You can try, but the images are everywhere: the grocery store check-out aisle, the book store, the corner newsstand. And almost every single one–especially those magazines that are household names or otherwise extremely popular–has a digitally altered celebrity or model on the front. I don’t have an objection to mild uses of Photoshop to smooth out that nasty-looking zit on your chin or something similar. Photography is a form of art, after all.

But when the models are sculpted by software, when they are more digital than human, when there is no possible way for the clothes/perfume/whatever to be reflective of what actually happens when a real human uses or wears that product, then I call foul. It’s false advertising, if nothing else. It also really, really messes with our heads.

We are told this is what we are supposed to look like, the ideal we are supposed to achieve. This is the gold standard for femininity or masculinity. It’s total bollocks, of course, but we’re still drawn in. Very few humans have the physiological proportions to be these models, and none of these models actually look like the images in the magazines.

Write scientists Marika Tiggemann and colleagues in a new paper in the journal Body Image:

Even a casual flick through any women’s fashion magazine will reveal a plethora of young, tall, long-legged, large-eyed, and clear-skinned women with typically Caucasian features. But the more obvious and consistent feature shared by the models is that they are also very thin. Not only are the models naturally thin, but digital modification techniques are now routinely used to further elongate legs and slice off kilograms and centimetres from waists, hips, and thighs, as well as to eliminate any other blemishes (Bennett, 2008). Thus the media-presented ideals are artificially rendered even less realistic and attainable for the average girl or woman.

Lots of people have implied that these overly thin models–not a small portion of whom have EDs themselves–play a role in the causation of EDs in the general population. Certainly it’s a factor, especially in perfectionists. I would disagree that the media actually causes EDs, but as a significant environmental factor, we can’t ignore it, either.

Countries around the world have proposed legislation that would require the labeling of digitally altered images and advertisements. The thinking is that if we knew the images were fake, if it were thrown in our faces, then we would give the images less (ahem) weight. But new research by Tiggemann et al. shows that these labels are not as helpful as policymakers had hoped. In fact, they’re a big, fat failure.

What the researchers found

warning labelThe researchers asked 120 undergraduate women between 18 and 35 to view 15 full-page fashion magazine advertisements with images containing either no label, a generic warning label (“Warning: This image has been digitally altered”), or a specific warning label (“Warning: This image has been digitally altered to smooth skin tone and slim arms and legs”). They were placed in the bottom right- or left-hand portion of the ad in 11-point, clearly visible font. The researchers also had a control group that viewed ads involving products rather than bodies (ie, an ad for a car that didn’t have any people in it). After viewing the ads, the women were asked a series of questions about mood and body dissatisfaction, including their current state of body dissatisfaction as well as their general state of body dissatisfaction.

The women who looked at the ads with models scored higher on current body dissatisfaction than those who looked at the product ads. However, the severity of body dissatisfaction didn’t differ based on the presence of either warning label. The women felt just as poorly about themselves even when they knew the image was fake. In fact, the women judged themselves more harshly when they knew the image was digitally altered. The thinking process was, perhaps, that if these seemingly perfect models need digital help, then imagine how much “help” I will need to look even remotely similar.

One variable that did appear significant was a factor called social comparison. It’s basically how frequently you compare your body to those around you (many of us, myself included, are extremely guilty of this). Interestingly, those women that scored highest in social comparison had significantly worse body image after viewing images with warning labels.

The researchers performed a second set of similar experiments that basically confirmed the above results.

The authors concluded:

It seems that, rather than acting to interrupt or prevent social comparison processing as intended, viewing images with warning labels encouraged greater social comparison than that which would ordinarily occur when viewing thin idealised images. Perhaps the labels served to draw relatively greater attention to the model’s body, as opposed to the image as a whole. This logic is consistent with the finding that trait appearance comparison moderated the effect in an unexpected way: the specific warning label resulted in greater body dissatisfaction for women high on appearance comparison.

Part of what might be going on is the fact that most people already know that advertisers have Photoshopped the hell out of the images. Cognitively, we know they’re fake. But in the split second between viewing the images and our higher-level cognitions kicking in, we get the emotional hit of “not good enough” that no warning label is going to take away. The labels also cause us to look more closely at the model’s body, trying to see what parts aren’t “real,” and scrutinizing every bump for possible evidence of alteration.

Simply put, we need much more diversity in advertising, both in body size and shape, as well as ethnicity, disability, and other factors. I want to open a magazine, look at an ad for jeans, and at least have a clue of how they might look on me, not some underpaid veritable clothes hanger.

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20 Responses to “This image could be harmful to your health”

  1. I love this, Carrie. Have you seen this article?

    It’s not ED related, but it discusses how everyone’s life looks better on the internet through Instagram and other social media sites thanks to retouching. And people are only posting the positive things in their life so they appear to be “perfect,” causing the rest of us to envy them. As a perfectionist, I often fall trap to this stuff. But again, like your post, this is another way we are constantly bombarded with how life is “supposed” to be.

    It’s really sad… Even worse, I don’t see it changing any time soon. Thanks for the great post.

  2. Can’t say I’m drawn it AT ALL. I’ve never been interested in women’s magazines, never bought them and don’t compare myself physically to anyone.

  3. I meant to write ‘drawn in’.

    Seriously though, WHY would anyone want to look like the women that pose on magazines? They all look so pouty and silly.

    • Well, some people find them attractive. I find some of them attractive. To each their own. I respect that you don’t find them at all appealing. But I don’t think it’s respectful to imply that anybody who is into fashion or models on a page must be an idiot.

      One of the things helping to motivate me to get better, is – believe it or not – fashion, the clothing that these very women are wearing. I’d like to be healthy enough to have the energy to learn to make my own clothes, and in the meantime my interest in fashion has fostered my creativity in other areas. Yes, from these ‘pouty and silly’ women on the glossy magazines.

      It’s great that you hate womens’ mags and don’t compare yourself to anyone. You share that with us often, and I think your experience is very valid and encouraging to the rest of us who have atypical EDs. But I think it’s fair to allow that it may be part of someone else’s experience, and it doesn’t make them an idiot.

      Some people might argue that linking EDs with media images at all perpetuates the stereotype that ‘EDs are about wanting to look like models in magazines’. But EDs are complex and complicated and everybody has their own specific combination of triggers – and for some people, part of that trigger is body image and media image related. And? Honestly, it’s not our fault how society and faulty science choose to portray EDs. But I think there’s room for all of us at the table – whether body image played a role into our development of the ED or not. One person’s experience shouldn’t invalidate the other’s.

      And if our practitioners want to pigeonhole us and say something is behind our disorder (poor family dynamics, bad body image, perfectionism, etc.) that we don’t agree with, there is the option to either sort it out with them or find a new treatment team. Personally, I’ve fired treatment professionals over it before, and I won’t hesitate to do it again. I deserve better than that – we all do.

      Either way, again – the continued pigeonholing and stereotyping isn’t the fault of those who feel that poor body image played a role in their ED. The onus is on treatment professionals to get with the programme.

      But the rest of us – we aren’t idiots if we don’t agree with you; our minds aren’t dull and vapid if they are stimulated to creativity by some of what they see in magazines.

  4. OK, I’m now seriously ‘triggered’ because I find this kind of research so damn frustrating. For years I had therapists harping on to me about this sort of stuff. It left me feeling totally alienated and without treatment – because I don’t give a sh*t about media images. *Sigh*

    • I agree, not that I’m triggered by this post, but by the fact that as someone who has never aimed to be skinny or look like those models on “women’s” magazines, I find it frustrating. Skinny was never my goal. Relief from OCD and, well, life were my goals. The fact I’m underweight is the result.

      It’s not body image in that respect (although I hate how skinny I am.) Sometimes I think reducing it to that minimalizes the seriousness of things and almost reduces it to a amateur thing to “get over.”

      • I just wanted to clarify that for those who are triggered by these images, their concerns and feelings are entirely valid as well. I didn’t mean to come off as flippant.

        • Thank you for saying that. I think this is actually playing out like the whole dynamic with many overweight folks shifting from ‘big is beautiful’ and ‘health at any size’, to ‘real women have curves’, ‘all skinny women are anorexic’, ‘thin is ugly’. I think that for so long, folks with EDs whose body image played little to no role in their ED have felt ignored and voiceless. I get that, because I fall somewhere in the middle of that and have my own issues (racial and cultural) that led to difficulties and stereotyping from treatment professionals in treatment. I know it can be really frustrating and tiring and defeating to continually feel pigeonholed or dismissed.

          But I feel like on blogs like this, some people are so glad to have their side of the issue heard that they push things beyond a celebration of them having a voice, to insulting those who have a more ‘typical’ experience. That’s hurtful and divisive, when I think that this is a time when we need to be more united than ever against myths and stereotypes about eating disorders and their sufferers, and work toward disseminating real science, good research, and hearing the experiences of all of us – however complex and manifold the factors related to our disorders might be.

          So, thanks again for your statement; it – as well as your other comments – are much appreciated. You and other women here give me a lot of good food for thought.

      • No, you do have a good point and I agree with you. What I wanted to point out here was the futility of thinking that not only would these warning labels improve body image, they would also prevents EDs by doing so. The fallacy of linking models and EDs aside, I wanted to highlight the new research showing that these ideas didn’t work as hoped.

      • Skinny was/is never an objective in my AN either, Abby. I HATE looking skinny and am much happier with my appearance when I am heavier. The main problem, as with you, is getting stuck in patterns of ritualistic behaviours, which include food restriction and over-exercising (amongst lots of other rituals). I am actually really, really embarrassed to wear t-shirts in summer, or reveal too much leg, in case I attract attention and criticism for being thin. I don’t have any interest in fashion.

        So I AM triggered by the idea that skinny models/fashion/size zero…. play a role in the development of EDs. I feel really, really distressed when I hear of this idea – because I have suffered many consequences of ill health associated with being underweight and unable to eat well, yet so many people seem to think I have chosen to be thin. *Sigh*

        Anyhow, I am to receive specific help for OCD now, because my long-standing diagnosis of AN has not led to me having appropriate treatment.

        • You’ve hit the nail on the head- saying that super skinny models lead to EDs implies CHOICE- it implies that a person SEES those models, and then makes a conscious choice to try to LOOK LIKE them.

          I think the greater danger is that they normalize super skinniness, by presenting these images repeatedly to society. I’ve heard this story from so many people (including me) while steeped in an ed: Those around them say, “You look GREAT!!!” even though they are considerably below a healthy weight. This feels confusing and invalidates their own internal drive to seek help. Society cannot both positively promote unhealthy weight and at the same time give energy to research on how to help those with unhealthy low weight- energy doesn’t usually easily flow in opposing directions like that.

          As long as super skinniness is idealized, its danger is not fully cognitively realized, and there is a general lack of motivation to research, promote, and HELP those with a super skinny related problem.

          • “…it implies that a person SEES those models, and then makes a conscious choice to try to LOOK LIKE them.”

            Yeah, but in some cases, that’s exactly what happens. I started dieting for, well, at least PARTLY that reason, because I hated how I looked. But I am aware that what pushed me into an eating disorder was malnutrition and the genetic luck of the draw.

            But, yes, without the images I’m sure I would have been triggered enough some other way to fall into the same behaviour. But I don’t think it’s fair to reason that the images don’t play a role in SOME people falling into disordered behaviours that can lead into a full-blown ED if other variables are in place.

            In other news, this is fabulous, and thank you so much for saying it: “I think the greater danger is that they normalize super skinniness, by presenting these images repeatedly to society. I’ve heard this story from so many people (including me) while steeped in an ed: Those around them say, “You look GREAT!!!” even though they are considerably below a healthy weight. This feels confusing and invalidates their own internal drive to seek help. ”

            THIS THIS THIS. So much this. This idea has helped keep me stuck for the past year and I honestly don’t know if I have the courage to move past it.

          • Hi,Ariane- Thanks for validating my frustration. I validate yours as well- I believe you that your ed was aided and abetted by you seeing skinny models. I do believe that can be a trigger. But- although you might have chosen to diet, you did NOT choose to have an ed, honey- that was not your choice, and it is not your fault.

            I have learned to say to people who comment on my weight/body, “I’m uncomfortable discussing my body.” Further, I have learned to discuss my recovery process only with the people who will validate my need to be healthy, and support my treatment team’s decisions even (especially) when I am struggling with them. Many times (not all the time, I’m sure, but many times) the people who invalidate your state of unhealth by giving unwarranted compliments are people who will invalidate you in other ways, as well- make you feel like you “just want attention” no matter what you do- and these people need to be kept at arm’s length, because they’re generally not healthy themselves, and maybe fun as an acquaintance, but incapable of deep friendship and trust.

  5. I’m with you that this stuff is harmful, though I’m inclined to think that the effect is to make recovery psychologically harder, not to cause EDs that wouldn’t have developed otherwise.

    To me, what’s worse than making thin models look thinner is making extremely thin models look less sickly. According to an article I read at some point (this is a sketchy reference, haha, but judging by the pictures I’ve seen the claim is believable), there is a constant need to smooth over bones and fill out faces/arms/breasts in photos of obviously malnourished, ill-looking models. But of course the tiny waists and skinny legs remain. The effect is to show very thin women looking healthy, when in reality they are anything but.

  6. Anne Ria Elding April 12, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    I see this issue as similar to the warnings on cigarettes. The warning has been there for years, but that doesn’t stop people for smoking them – especially if they are addicted. Just like having feelings of body dissatisfaction won’t stop because there is a warning on a picture – especially if the person has an eating disorder. Both are mental illnesses; both have biological bases.

    • Yes, I think that’s exactly it. I don’t know that body dissatisfaction is an illness per se, bit I think the analogy still applies.

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  8. “not some underpaid veritable clothes hanger” – I’m sorry, is that how you describe models?