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Gauging the Effects of Thin Models in Media

One country enacts legislation,
and a study assesses the effects of
exposure to thin models.

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
May/June 2012 Volume 23, Number 3
©2012 Gürze Books

The Israeli Parliament recently passed a law prohibiting clinically underweight female or male models from appearing in advertisements and in fashion shows (Medical News Today, March 21, 2012). The legislation was developed after testimony that super-skinny models appearing in the media and in fashion shows encourage eating disorders and promote unrealistic and unhealthy body image goals.

Under the new legislation, models of either gender must have a body mass index (BMI) of at least 18.5 kg/m2 to be able to work in the industry, and they also need proof that a physician certifies that they are not underweight. In a further step, any artificial enhancements of images to make a person look thinner must be clearly stated right on the image. Foreign publications sold in Israel will not be subject to the new legislation.

The impact of exposure to images of ideally thin models

German investigators recently investigated whether eating behavior in women diagnosed with bulimia nervosa (BN) is affected by prior exposure to images of ideally thin models (Body Image 2012; 8:349). Dr. Ika Rühl and co-workers conducted a study in which 26 participants diagnosed with BN and 30 normal controls were exposed to body-related and neutral TV commercials; then, food that typically triggers binge eating was provided and the amount eaten was measured.

To assess general eating disorder pathology, the German version of the Eating Disorder Questionnaire (EDE-Q) was administered to all study participants. The participants also completed the Physical Appearance Comparison Scale, which measures the overall tendency to compare one's own body with the bodies of others. In addition, the women completed the German Eating Disorder Cognition Questionnaire, and the Contour Drawing Rating Scale. Then, participants viewed TV commercials that contained body-related or neutral content. The body-related content included products such as body lotions, shower gels, or clothing, and the women in those commercials were considered to represent social standards of attractiveness.

To validate the experimental stimuli, the authors turned to a sample of 20 female undergraduate psychology students taking a basic course in experimental psychology—none reported having an eating disorder. The students were asked to rate the content of the commercials on two dimensions, "social standards of attractiveness" and "neutral content." Based on the students' responses, 16 body-related and 12 neutral television commercials (no people and no food-related cues) were selected.

Control group participants had no history of an eating disorder or any mental disorder. Most were undergraduate psychology students; for their participation they were given either partial credit in experimental psychology or received 25 Euros (about $33) as compensation.

Twenty-five sessions

The experimental session included five 5-minute sessions. The first, third, and fifth sessions were recovery periods, for relaxation only. The remaining two blocks of time included the sequence of TV commercials. At the end of the experimental session, the participants were given a semi-structured interview that included questions about TV viewing habits. After viewing the second block of TV commercials, the participants were offered 100 gm of gummy bears, potato chips, and a popular brand of chocolate. As the snacks were presented, the subjects were told in passing that the experiment was nearly finished and therefore they could eat as much as they liked while filling out the last questionnaire. They were not told that their snack consumption was also being evaluated. The end of the entire experiment included a semi-structured interview. When the individual participant had left, the remaining food was weighed and the amount consumed was calculated.

Results

No significant difference in food intake between normal controls and patients with BN could be found, but food intake among those with BN was predicted by the degree of thoughts related to eating behaviors during exposure to the thin ideal. As expected, during exposure to the thin ideal, dysfunctional thoughts related to dietary restraint and eating and loss of control were triggered only in the women with BN.

The authors gave one explanation for why they did not find greater differences in intake between the groups: most bulimic women hide their disturbed eating behaviors and control their eating behavior when they are under supervision because they are ashamed of losing control in front of others.

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