Mind Matters: The Wesleyan Journal of Psychology Vol. 1 (2006) 57-71
Media Exposure and the Subsequent Effects on Body Dissatisfaction, Disordered Eating, and Drive for Thinness: A Review of the Current Research Sara B. Cohen
Abstract Over the past four decades, the prevalence of eating disorders in the United States has doubled. Not surprisingly, during the same period, mass media has increasingly progressively thinner representations of the female body. Previous psychological research has found small to moderate positive relationships between media exposure and eating disorder symptomatology. This literature review expands on prior studies by looking at the role social comparison and cultivation theories play in media’s impact on body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, and disordered eating. It also examines specific personal qualities and types of media that may strengthen or weaken this relationship. Limitations to be addressed in future work are also discussed.
Introduction According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 0.5% to 3.0% of the population suffers from disordered eating (APA, 1994). Females develop anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN), the two eating disorders mainly associated with a drive for thinness, about ten times more frequently than do males (Eating Disorders Coalition, 2006). Among females, the most recent lifetime prevalence statistics of AN and BN range from 0.5% to 3.7% and 1.1% to 4.2%, respectively. Moreover, since the 1960s, eating disorder incidence rates have doubled (Eating Disorders Coalition, 2006). Interestingly, during the same period of time, mass media has increasingly portrayed progressively thinner representations of the female body. In a renowned content study, Garner and colleagues (1980) reported that the body measurements and weights of Playboy centerfolds and Miss America Pageant contestants decreased dramatically between 1959 and 1978. More recently, Wiseman and colleagues (1992) observed that this trend
continued through 1988. Television has also contributed to this obsession with thinness. For example, Fouts and Burggaff (2000) found that thinner female characters in television situation comedies received more compliments from men than did heavier characters. The current paper reviews recent literature on the possible links between the media and eating disorder symptomatology. Numerous studies have been conducted over the past thirty years to examine the links between media exposure and its subsequent effects on body image, drive for thinness, and eating patterns. Moreover, two previous literature reviews summarize the relationship between the media and body image, eating pathology, and drive for thinness. Thompson and Heinberg (1999) focus on the media’s influence on body image disturbance and eating pathology in women by way of thin-internalization. Their study found that women who are exposed to slender images have a tendency to internalize and idealize such body types, thereby igniting feelings of body dissatisfaction. Similarly, a recent study by Levine and Harrison (2004) evaluates the media as both a means of perpetuating as well as preventing negative body images and disordered eating patterns. This study broadly evaluates how internalization of thinness might derive from media exposure and presents relevant theories. Levine and Harrison (2004) focus on human characteristics, such as gender and race, and attempt to show how these differences can lead to increased or decreased media susceptibility. The authors comprehensively review of the evidence, detailing the results of numerous studies and experiments. Ultimately, Levine and Harrison (2004) suggest that there are small to moderate positive relationships when we consider media exposure and its effects on body image, disordered eating, and thin-idealization. Building on the work of Thomson and Heinberg (1999) and Levine and Harrison (2004), the present...