Media Influences and Body Dissatisfaction in Young Women

By Walter Vandereycken, MD, PhD
Catholic University, Leuven, Belgium
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
March/April 2006 Volume 17, Number 2
©2006 Gürze Books

Epidemiologic data strongly suggest that the influence of society and culture is putting young female adolescents at risk for developing an eating disorder. However, this effect is complex and multifactorial, including social transition (e.g., migration, urbanization), peer pressure (social comparison and teasing), and exposure to Western media.1

Wishing that celebrities and
models had a more “realistic”
shape remains a bit utopian.

British researchers have focused on a combination of two important factors in adolescents: media influences and social comparison.2 Unlike males and older females, girls between 14 and 17 years of age were found to show a relationship between increased body consciousness and the worship of a celebrity whose figure they admired. Perhaps this reflects an interactional cycle: worship of a celebrity with an idealized body shape may lead to poor body image (and/or low self-esteem), and body dissatisfaction may create a stronger interest in celebrities because of their admired physical appearance. If this admiration is then linked to a thin body ideal, the step toward slimming behaviors is to be expected.

The mass media strongly influence how adolescents see themselves and others. But there are many differences in responses to the media in youngsters of various sociocultural backgrounds.3 When exposed to thin models, females at risk for an eating disorder are more likely to endorse thinness/restricting expectancies.

Another study has shown that media-portrayed idealized images may detrimentally affect the body image of young women when they show some vulnerability, such as appearance anxiety or body shame.4 Media exposure to attractive but realistic (average-weight) models appears to lessen this relationship.5

Better media literacy is one key

From a preventive viewpoint, many people therefore wish that celebrities and models had a more “realistic” shape. But so far that remains a bit utopian. In the meantime, it is a more realistic preventive action to help adolescents become more active and critical viewers of the media. In schools, for example, one could make use of interventions that address media consumption. Enhancing media literacy, the ability to view the media critically and to understand media messages is a potentially successful way to counter the impact of the media.6


  1. Becker AE, Keel P, Anderson-Fye EP, Thomas JJ. Genes and/or genes? Genetic and sociocultural contributions to risk for eating disorders. J Addict Disord 2004; 23:81.
  2. Maltby, J, Giles DC, Barber L, et al, Intense-personal celebrity worship and body image: evidence of a link among female adolescents. Br J Health Psychol 2005;10:17.
  3. Wiseman J, Giles DC, Barber L, et al. Impact of the media on adolescent body image. Child & Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 2005; 14:3453.
  4. Monro F, Huon G. Media-portrayed idealized images, body shame, and appearance anxiety. Int J Eat Disord 2005; 38:85.
  5. Fister SM, Smith GT. Media effects on expectancies: exposure to realistic female images as a protective factor. Psychol Addict Behav 2004; 18:394.
  6. McCannon R. Adolescents and media literacy. Adolescent Med Clin 2005;16:463.
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