DURHAM, United Kingdom — There’s no arguing that television has helped shape much of modern culture, and now a new set of research says it has seriously skewed many peoples’ views towards women. The more time individuals spend watching TV, the more they prefer skinnier female bodies, a study by researchers at Durham University in the United Kingdom found.
The researchers say that this phenomenon is caused by most television programs portraying thinner women much more frequently than plus-sized women, or those with any body type aside from rail skinny. This portrayal pressures young women and girls to constantly aspire to attain an unreasonably “thin ideal body.”
Men and women from several villages in remote areas of Nicaragua who had either regular access to television, or very low television access, were studied for this research. On average, those with limited television access preferred women with a higher Body Mass Index (BMI), and those who watched television regularly preferred smaller, thinner bodies.
The researchers chose to study these villages in Nicaragua because they had similar ecological constraints like nutrition, income, and education, but also had radically different access levels to television.
All in all, the study’s authors believe their work is the best proof so far that TV has a causal effect on our perceptions of the ideal body. This representation of the ‘thin ideal’ on TV can lead to body dissatisfaction in women, as well as eating disorders and even mental health issues such as depression.
“TV and advertising bosses have a moral responsibility to use actors, presenters and models of all shapes and sizes and avoid stigmatising larger bodies,” says lead author Lynda Boothroyd, a professor of psychology at Durham University, in a media release. “There needs to be a shift towards a ‘health at every size’ attitude and the media has an important role to play in that.”
It’s important to mention that the Nicaraguan villagers generally did not have access to the internet or even magazines, and no one possessed a smartphone. Only those with electricity in their home and money to pay for a TV and cable access had regular television access.
In all, 299 men and women from seven villages in the Pearl Lagoon Basin area in Nicaragua were studied. After completing a questionnaire about their ethnicity, education, income, language, television exposure, and economic wellbeing, each participant was asked to rate the attractiveness of different female bodies, all of varying shapes and sizes. When compared to villagers who had no access to television, those who had TV access had a much more skewed view and opinion of female bodies.
The research team also carried out a second experiment. This time, only villagers with very little or no TV access were included.
“We showed the villagers a series of pictures, either showing larger women or thinner women. We found that after viewing these images, the villagers’ body ideals adjusted in the same direction,” explains co-author Dr. Tracey Thornborrow. “Our findings clearly demonstrate that perceptions of attractiveness are highly changeable, and are affected by what we are visually exposed to.”
The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.