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The influence of fashion magazines on the body image satisfaction of college women: an exploratory analysis.

Many contemporary American women covet an unrealistically thin body build for themselves (Lamb, Jackson, Cassidy, & Priest, 1993; Mallick, Whipple, & Huerta, 1987; Silberstein, Striegel-Moore, Timko, & Rodin, 1988; Spillman & Everington, 1989), a phenomenon that could be detrimental to their emotional and physical health. The rising significance of the thin ideal is apparent from the changing perceptions of the ectomorphic body type. In the fifty years since Sheldon and Stevens (1942) conducted their somatotype research, the negative characteristics associated with the thin, or ectomorphic, body build have dwindled. In the early 1940s, Sheldon and Stevens found that ectomorphic individuals were perceived negatively by others as nervous, submissive, and socially withdrawn. By the late 1980s, however, this perception had changed. Compared to individuals with endomorphic and mesomorphic body types, ectomorphic individuals were rated most positively and considered to be the most sexually appealing (Spillman & Everington, 1989).

The emergence of the slender body type as a beauty standard for women is especially salient in the mass media, and several researchers have demonstrated how the female body depicted in the media has become increasingly thin (Garner, Garfinkel, Schwartz, & Thompson, 1980; Ogletree, Williams, Raffeld, Mason, & Fricke, 1990; Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, & Kelly, 1986; Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, & Ahrens, 1992). Assessing the height, weight, and body measurements of Playboy centerfolds and of Miss America Pageant contestants from 1960 to 1979, Garner et al. (1980) found that the percent of average weight of the models declined significantly.(1) For example, in 1960, the average weight of Playboy models was 91% of the population mean. By 1978, mean weight of the models has dropped to 84% of the population mean. A similar trend was apparent among the Miss America Pageant contestants: Prior to 1970, mean weight of the contestants was approximately 88% of the population norm. Following 1970, mean weight of the contestants had decreased to 85% of the population norm.(2)

Garner and colleagues also noted a trend toward noncurvaceousness from 1960 to 1979. The bust and hip measurements of Playboy models decreased and their waist measurements increased significantly. These findings are consistent with those reported by Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, and Kelly (1986) who examined the curvaceousness of models appearing in Vogue and Ladies Home Journal from 1901 to 1981 and of popular movie actresses from 1941 to 1979. The investigators found that among the models appearing in Ladies Home Journal and Vogue, the bust-to-waist ratio dropped significantly. Additionally, the average bust-to-waist ratio of actresses from the 1960s and 1970s was significantly smaller than that of actresses from the 1940s and 1950s. Similar results were reported by Morris, Cooper, and Cooper (1989) in their study of British fashion models.

Taken together, the findings of Garner and colleagues and of Silverstein and colleagues show that from the turn of the century throughout the 1970s, the standard of physical attractiveness for women presented in the mass media became much thinner and less curvaceous. These findings were replicated in a recent update of the Garner et al. (1980) research. Using the same procedures employed in the Garner study, Wiseman et al. (1992) found that during the period from 1979 to 1988, Miss America contestants continued to decrease in body size and Playboy models maintained their already low body sizes. As did previous researchers, Wiseman et al. (1992) found that curvaceousness (i.e., hip measurements) continued to decline among Miss America contestants.

One finding reported in the Wiseman et al. (1992) study has serious implications for women's well-being. During the period from 1979 to 1988, 69% of Playboy models and 60% of Miss America contestants weighed 15% or more below the expected weight for their age and height category. The researchers note that according to the DSM III-R, maintaining body weight of 15% below one's expected weight is a criterion for anorexia nervosa. Other researchers have also noted the prevalence of disordered eating among fashion models (e.g., Brenner & Cunningham, 1992) and the severe health risks associated with achieving a very thin body type. Women whose body fat falls below 22% are much more susceptible to infertility, amenorrhea, ovarian and endometrial cancer, and osteoporosis (Seid, 1989). These findings suggest that the slim beauty ideal presented in the media may be unhealthy for women.

Given the messages aimed at women through the mass media, it is not surprising that many American women desire to be thin and that women typically feel dissatisfied with their bodies. Women generally are less satisfied with their bodies than are men (Altabe & Thompson, 1993; Brenner & Cunningham, 1992; Davis & Cowles, 1991; Koff, Rierdan, & Stubbs, 1990; Mintz & Betz, 1986). Even women who can be classified as being within or slightly below the normal weight range for their height often perceive themselves as being overweight and are dissatisfied with their bodies. Body image dissatisfaction is a crucial area of investigation because of its relationship to low self-esteem (Koff, Rierdan, & Stubbs, 1990) and to depression (Rierdan, Koff & Stubbs, 1989).

One question raised by these studies concerns the nature of the relationship between media depictions of females and women's perception of their own bodies. An implicit assumption underlying previous research is that the portrayal of the thin body ideal and the focus on dieting and exercise cause women to become dissatisfied with their own bodies and to prefer the thin body type. Although previous researchers (i.e., Spillman & Everington, 1989) have implied that the media have changed our perceptions of the female body, few studies have actually tested this hypothesis empirically. Further research is needed that examines whether exposure to media depictions of the thin female body does influence women's body image satisfaction.

Evidence that perceptions of their own bodies may be affected by media portrayals of women has been provided by Irving (1990) who investigated the impact of exposure to slides of thin, average, and oversize models on the self-evaluations of 162 college women exhibiting varying levels of self-reported bulimic symptoms. Irving found that exposure to thin models was related to lower self-evaluations, regardless of the level of bulimic symptoms. Additional research is needed to determine whether the thin models featured in popular women's magazines would have a similar effect on women's self-perceptions.

The aim of the present investigation was to explore whether the depictions of women in magazines do, in fact, affect women's perceptions of their own bodies. Specifically, the impact of exposure to fashion magazines on women's body image satisfaction was investigated. Consistent with previous research, we hypothesized that viewing fashion magazines would lead to lower levels of body image satisfaction among college women. Because of the small nonrepresentative sample, the data are offered to stimulate further investigation of the effects of the mass media on females' development.



Participants were 49 undergraduate females enrolled in an introductory psychology course at a New England women's college. Participants were randomly assigned to two experimental conditions: half (n = 24) were assigned to the fashion magazine group, and the remaining half (n = 25) were assigned to the news magazine group. Preliminary analyses revealed no significant differences in the mean height, weight, or age of the two groups of participants. Mean weight for the sample was 129.43 pounds and ranged from 92 to 160 pounds. Mean height was 64.98 inches and ranged from 60 to 71 inches. Mean age for the sample was 18.63 years and ranged from 17 to 21 years.


Magazines. Eight magazines were used as stimulus materials. Each magazine was selected on the basis of its popularity and availability. Four magazines that had reputations for exhibiting the thin fashion ideal among women were chosen: Vogue (November, 1991), Bazaar (October, 1991), Elle (November, 1991), and Allure (November, 1991). The four news magazines used in the control condition included Time (November 4, 1991), Newsweek (October 28, 1991), U.S. News & World Report (October 28, 1991), and Business Week (November 4, 1991).(3)

Questionnaire. A three-part, self-administered questionnaire was used to assess women's body image satisfaction. The first portion of the questionnaire consisted of adult figure drawings designed and illustrated by Stunkard, Sorenson, and Schulsinger (1980). Each participant was asked to examine nine female silhouettes of varying size and to indicate the figure that most clearly reflected her perceptions of her own body type, her ideal body type, and the body type considered to be most ideal by society. A nine-point scale was used, with the lowest numbers corresponding to the thinnest silhouettes.

The second part of the questionnaire contained 31 items developed by the researchers, which assessed respondents' perceptions of their bodies and their dieting attitudes and behaviors. Examples of these questions are: "I am very frustrated about my weight"; "I am afraid of getting fat"; and "I diet to improve my looks." A 5-point scale was used, with possible responses ranging from 1, "never," to 5, "always." Also included were questions about the respondents' current height and weight, ideal height and weight, and background information (i.e., age and family income). Participants were then asked to indicate which of the eight magazines they read prior to completing the questionnaire.


Thirty-minute appointments were scheduled for those women who expressed an interest in this study. Upon arrival, each participant was greeted by a member of the research team and given a consent form explaining that the study was designed to examine body image satisfaction among college women. After giving consent, each participant was informed that there would be a short delay, asked to leave her books and other items in the lobby, and escorted to a small room where she waited alone.

The waiting room contained three chairs and a coffee table on which four magazines were placed. For half of the participants, the waiting room contained only news magazines; for the remaining half, there were only fashion magazines. No other posters or pictures of people or reading materials were available in the waiting room. After 13 minutes, participants were escorted to a large classroom and given the questionnaire to complete. Unlimited time was given for completion.

Ten participants indicated on their questionnaire that they did not read a magazine while waiting. These students were eliminated from the data analyses. The resulting sample consisted of 18 (37%) participants in the fashion magazine condition and 21 (43%) in the news magazine condition.

Statistical Analyses

The dependent variable was women's body image satisfaction. The independent variable was magazine type. Our major hypothesis was that when compared to their peers who viewed news magazines, women who viewed fashion magazines prior to completing a body image satisfaction questionnaire would: (1) be less satisfied with their bodies; (2) prefer an ideal body type that is smaller, and (3) express greater preoccupation with thinness and dieting. T-tests were used to examine differences between participants in the fashion magazine and news magazine conditions.


Current, Personal Ideal, and Societal Ideal Body Types

Participants' perceptions of their own body type, their ideal body type, and society's ideal body type were assessed using the nine adult figure drawings. Analyses showed that mean scores were 3.78 (range = 2 to 6) for current body type, 2.88 (range = 1 to 4) for personal ideal body type, and 2.45 (range = 1 to 4) for society's ideal body type. T-tests revealed that neither current, personal ideal, nor society's ideal body type differed for the two groups of women.

Based on data provided by open-ended questions, ideal height for the sample (M = 66.06 inches, range = 60 to 72 inches) did not differ for the two groups. Ideal weight, however, did differ for the two groups. Women who viewed fashion magazines (m = 119.44) perceived a lower ideal weight than did women who viewed news magazines (m = 126.14), t(37) = 2.00, p [less than] .027).

Body Image Satisfaction, Dieting Attitudes and Behaviors, and Preoccupation with Thinness

Table 1 shows the results of the t-tests examining differences among the two groups of women in the 31 Likert scale items assessing body image satisfaction, dieting attitudes and behaviors, and preoccupation [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] with thinness. As shown in the table, women who viewed fashion magazines reported more frequently feeling very frustrated about their weight, t(37) = 1.73,p [less than] .046; dieting, t(37) = 1.72,p [less than] .047); weighing themselves more than once a week, t(37) = 1.75), p [less than] .045; exercising only to lose weight, t(37) = 1.71, p [less than] .048; feeling guilty while eating, t(37) = 1.83, p [less than] .038; feeling guilty after eating, t(37) = 2.00, p [less than] .027; being preoccupied with the desire to be thinner, t(37) = 2.84, p [less than] .0035; and being afraid of getting fat, t(37) = 1.87, p [less than] .035. Similarly, when compared to women who viewed news magazines, those who viewed fashion magazines less frequently reported being pleased about their bodies, t(37) = 1.87, p [less than] .035; and feeling satisfied with the shape of their bodies, t(37) = 2.22, p [less than] .016.


The results of this investigation demonstrate the role of the media in shaping, rather than merely reflecting, societal perceptions of the female body. Consistent with our hypothesis, it was found that women's body image satisfaction is, indeed, influenced by their exposure to the thin ideal presented in fashion magazines. Although the two groups of women in this study did not differ significantly in height or weight, those who read fashion magazines prior to completing a body image satisfaction survey desired to weigh less and perceived themselves more negatively than did those who read news magazines. Exposure to fashion magazines was related to women's greater preoccupation with being thin, dissatisfaction with their bodies, frustration about weight, and fear about deviating from the thin standard.

The results are consistent with previous studies examining media depictions of women and women's body image satisfaction. As did Spillman and Everington (1989), we found that women preferred the slender body type for themselves and were "sometimes" preoccupied with being thin. However, our findings extend those of Spillman and Everington in determining that preoccupation with thinness was heightened after viewing the thin models depicted in fashion magazines. These findings are also consistent with those reported by Irving (1990) in which exposure to thin models was related to lower self-evaluations among college women. An important distinction between Irving's study and the present research is our use of popular women's magazines as stimuli rather than slides. This reliance on popular magazines bore close resemblance to an actual setting in which women are exposed to magazines and to unrealistically thin female models.

Previous research has shown that overweight women report being less satisfied with their bodies than do slender women (Stake & Lauer, 1987). In the present study, however, it was demonstrated that the perception of being overweight can be manipulated by exposing women to thin models. The perception of overweight (whether accurate or inaccurate), in turn, was associated with greater body image dissatisfaction among the women. The fact that participants were randomly assigned to the two experimental conditions suggests that the two groups did not differ in height, weight, or body proportion. Thus, it was exposure to the fashion magazines that influenced body image perceptions.

The differences observed between the two groups of women in this study are striking, given that the participants viewed magazines for only 13 minutes. Additional research is needed which examines the impact of prolonged exposure to fashion magazines on women's body image satisfaction and self-concept. Moreover, our findings concerning the influence of fashion magazines on women's perceptions of their bodies should be interpreted in light of previous research which examined fluctuations in women's body image satisfaction. Specifically, Haimovitz, Lansky, and O'Reilly (1993) found that women's body satisfaction ratings varied across four behavioral situations and were lower in settings where women were forced to scrutinize their bodies rather than in "everyday" situations. Eldredge, Wilson, and Whaley (1990) also found that experiences that provoke failure or self-evaluation lead women to perceive their body and weight negatively. In our study, it is possible that exposure to the fashion magazines created a climate in which participants were more likely to focus on their own bodies and, in turn, temporarily evaluate themselves negatively. Determining whether the effects of viewing fashion magazines continue to exist over an extended period of time would be of further interest.

According to Havighurst (1972), accepting one's physique is an essential feature of adolescent development. However, the pervasiveness of the thin ideal presented in magazines and other types of mass media, may severely hinder women from accomplishing this developmental task. Rather than becoming more accepting of their bodies, women may become much more conscious of and negative in their evaluations of their bodies after viewing fashion magazines. Additional research is needed which examines the role of the media as an agent of socialization for young women. The increasing pressure to be thin and the unrealistic images portrayed in the mass media may have a devastating effect on women's self-perceptions, self-esteem, and identity development.

Because the study was conducted at a prestigious, New England women's college, our sample was predominately white. Future studies should include larger, more representative selections. Especially needed are studies that examine social class and ethnic variations in women's body image satisfaction. Previous studies have demonstrated differences among women of different ethnic backgrounds on measures of body image satisfaction. In a study of African American and white college women, Rucker and Cash (1992) found that when compared, African American women were more satisfied with the size and shape of their body, desired to have a less thin body, were less afraid of getting fat, and had fewer dieting concerns. Smith and Krejci (1991) found that when compared to white females, Native American and Hispanic females were somewhat more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies.

The influence of the media on the body image satisfaction and self-perception of non-white women also deserves attention. African American, Asian American, Native American, and Latina women are often overlooked in research on this subject. Further, women of color are grossly underrepresented in fashion magazines and other types of media. Thus, the impact of the media's reinforcement of the thin and white ideal on the physical and emotional well-being of women of color should be understood.

A developmental approach to understanding the influence of the media and other sociocultural influences on women's body image perception is also needed. Females are bombarded with media images throughout childhood and adolescence. Emphasis on physical appearance and body type are prevalent even in children's television commercials (Ogletree et al. (1990), and popular teen magazines heavily emphasize fashion, beauty, and stereotypical female roles (Evans, Rutberg, Sather, & Turner, 1991; Pierce, 1990, 1993). At the same time, body image dissatisfaction and preferences for a slender (or much slimmer) body have been shown in studies of preadolescent (Collins, 1991) and adolescent girls (Koff et al., 1990; Rierdan et al., 1989). Future studies might try to determine how women and girls encode messages aimed at them through the mass media, and the relationship of these messages to body image distortion, self-esteem, and eating disorders.

The authors wish to thank Cherie Bagley, Francine Deutsch, and Beverly Tatum for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 20th Annual Feminist Psychologist Conference of the Association for Women in Psychology, March, 1995, Indianapolis.

1 Percent of average weight was determined by converting each model's weight into a percent of the expected weight based upon the 1959 Society of Actuaries report.

2 Interestingly, the pageant winners weighed significantly less than the other contestants. Thus, the comparison with the population norm is particularly striking among this group.

3 The number of pages and pictures of women included in the eight magazines was: Vogue, 347 pages and 200 pictures; Elle, 283 pages and 97 pictures; Allure, 113 pages and 97 pictures; Bazaar, 186 pages and 107 pictures; T/me, 98 pages and 10 pictures; Newsweek, 82 pages and 6 pictures; U.S. News and World Report, 92 pages and 2 pictures; and Business Week, 164 pages and 2 pictures.


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Author:Turner, Sherry L.; Hamilton, Heather; Jacobs, Meija; Angood, Laurie M.; Dwyer, Deanne Hovde
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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