With electricity comes TV
For the first time, researchers have shown in a randomised trial that looking at photos of thin women is enough to shape a person’s beauty ideals.
It has long been thought that images of slender women in the media influence what people find attractive, and can make a person feel unhappy with their body. But these pictures are now ubiquitous in many places, making testing this idea difficult.
To find people who haven’t been exposed to such images, Jean-Luc Jucker at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and his team travelled to rural villages along the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua.
At first, these villages had no electricity beyond the odd solar panel used to power a bulb. The Nicaraguan government is in the process of adding villages like these to the electricity grid – which is likely to bring TV with it. “When they get electricity, people generally say they want two things – a fridge and a television,” says Jucker. “They go from having no television to 100 channels.”
Before two villages were hooked up to the grid, Jucker’s team recruited 80 volunteers from them. These included men and women aged between 16 and 78.
The volunteers were first asked to create their “ideal” body shape for a woman, using computer software that enabled them to generate women of different shapes and sizes.
The team then showed them images from a catalogue for a popular Western clothing store. Half of the volunteers were shown 72 photos of thin women – with a UK dress size between 4 and 6 – modelling clothes. The images were given in pairs, and each volunteer had to decide which they thought was more attractive.
The other half of the volunteers were shown 72 photos of plus-sized female models, with a UK dress size between 16 and 28. They were given the same task of choosing the most attractive from pairs of images.
After this task, which lasted around 15 minutes, Jucker’s team asked the volunteers to again create their ideal women’s body size using the software. Those who had seen images of thin women now created ideals that were thinner than those they had originally generated. In contrast, those who studied images of plus-sized models showed the opposite effect – their ideal body shape increased in size.
“It is very interesting to see that a brief, ‘light-touch’ exposure is enough to show a demonstrable change in body ideal,” says Helen Sharpe at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
Jucker’s team don’t yet know how long the effect lasts. But given the fact that most of us are constantly exposed to such images, it wouldn’t matter if the effect of each exposure was only temporary, he says – the overall impact is likely to be lasting.
Since the experiment, most of the volunteers have been connected to the electricity grid, while the rest can expect it within months. Jucker has been contacting schools and the local ministries of education and health to inform them about the problem. “We are trying to raise awareness of this thin body ideal, and of eating disorders like anorexia,” he says.
“We don’t want to demonise television – it’s good in that it provides access to political information and storm warnings, and helps people learn languages,” says Jucker. “We just say that it is associated with these risks.”
Journal reference: bioRxiv, DOI: 10.1101/176107
This article will appear in print under the headline “Thin female models change beauty ideal”
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