Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

The Thin Ideal: Seeing Really is Believing!

I’ve been reading several articles recently about the “Thin Ideal.” When we talk about the Thin Ideal, what we mean is the idea that thinness is equal to beauty for females. I shared a disturbing article with you not long ago about how the Thin Ideal has even started to become internalized by pre-school girls. One of the most convincing articles that I’ve read lately is a meta-analysis of 25 different studies conducted across several years that evaluate the internalization of the thin ideal through viewing media (Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2001).

In this article, the authors look at 25 studies with over 2,000 participants all together that focus on viewing media that represents the Thin Ideal and ask, when taken together, does the research show that this really makes a difference? Do people really think differently about themselves when they look at these idealized body images? What about age: Does it matter how old a person is when they’re exposed to these images as to how much they accept this ideal?

What they found was startling. I’ve had countless people, often young women, tell me that while they enjoy looking at fashion magazines, watching TV or movies, and being engaged with media, it doesn’t change the way they feel about themselves. In fact, study after study supports the idea that viewing thin media images does lead to a more negative evaluation of one’s own looks and a belief that one needs to go to great lengths to achieve that ideal. This effect was particularly strong for those under the age of 19 years, meaning children and adolescents.

What does this mean in everyday life? It means that as children and adolescents are bombarded by media images through their 10 hours and 45 minutes per day of media consumption, they are gradually constructing an idea of what beauty means, and that idea is largely associated with being thin. The reason that this matters, is that children are also routinely getting messages from the media that says the most important thing about being female is beauty. So for a female value is equal to beauty is equal to thinness. The acceptance of the Thin Ideal can lead to self-esteem problems and to an increase in dieting, eating disorders, and extreme exercise as one strives to obtain it.

What’s frightening about this is that the “ideal” woman described by adolescent girls in one study cited was 5’7, weighed 100 pounds and wore a size 4/5. With a body mass index of less than 16%, this is considered underweight by quite a bit (average is 18.5-24.9%). When children and adolescents are comparing themselves to this ideal and making lifestyle changes to attempt to reach this unreasonable goal, they are putting themselves in danger.

So what can be done about this? For one thing, it’s important that children and adolescents be provided with different messages about what makes females valuable. When they have a more diverse idea of value associated with females, they’re less likely to become focused on the Thin Ideal. They also need to be provided with varied examples of beauty in terms of race, weight, height, different characteristics, and so forth. Seeing beauty all around them will likely allow them to see the beauty within themselves. When you talk with your kids about what makes them special, emphasize things other than looks. But when you do talk about looks, talk about their smile, their strength, the way they convey their confidence. And don’t be afraid to confront the Thin Ideal head on. Tell your child why you don’t believe in it, and give them examples of amazing women in all different shapes and sizes. Equip them to reject this unhealthy message, and focus instead on becoming the strong person that they were made to be.

Groesz, L.M., Levine, M.P., & Murnen, S.K. (2001). The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Eating Disorders.

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