Watching TV makes us prefer slimmer female figures, impacts what we perceive as the ideal body, shows study

The findings clearly demonstrate that perceptions of attractiveness are highly changeable, and are affected by what people are visually exposed to


                            Watching TV makes us prefer slimmer female figures, impacts what we perceive as the ideal body, shows study
Watching TV makes us prefer thinner women (Getty Images)

The more television we watch, the more we prefer thinner female bodies, according to researchers who conducted a comprehensive study on body image.

The team, led by Durham University, worked with men and women from several villages in a remote area of Nicaragua in Central America who either had regular or hardly any TV access. They found that people with very limited access to TV preferred female figures with a higher body mass index (BMI), whereas people who often watched TV preferred thinner bodies.

The findings, says the research team, show that TV exposure can have a powerful impact on what people perceive as the ideal body.

“Our data shows very clear evidence that consumption of visual media, via television, is actively changing body size ideals in the region where we conducted our research. Now that we have documented this so clearly here, we can, therefore, infer that media has had a similar impact on other populations (such as establishing the strong thin ideal in Europe and America) and is likely to be changing body preferences in a similar way in other populations who are in the early days of mass media access,” lead author of the research, Professor Lynda Boothroyd from Durham University's Psychology Department told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

Why does this happen? “There are likely at least two things happening in parallel – first, simply seeing lots of low-weight figures on TV recalibrates our brain’s idea of what a ‘normal’ body looks like. So, we expect bodies to be slimmer in general. Secondly, slimness is ‘positively valenced’ in the media – that is, slim bodies are treated and presented more positively, while larger figures are portrayed negatively in comparison. So, we learn to associate being thinner with more positive traits such as health, status, popularity,” Professor Boothroyd told MEAWW.

The villages in Nicaragua were selected because people were very similar in terms of their ecological constraints, such as nutrition, income and education, but had differing access to TV. This meant researchers were able to isolate the effect of TV exposure from the other factors.

The team worked with men and women from a number of villages in a remote area of Nicaragua in Central America who either had regular or hardly any TV access. (Jean-Luc Jucker)

Perceptions of physical attractiveness vary across cultural groups, particularly for female body size and shape. It has been hypothesised that visual media propagates Western ‘thin ideals’, says the research team. In the current study, researchers conducted ‘naturalistic’ and ‘controlled’ experiments to test the influence of media access on female body ideals in a remote region of Nicaragua by sampling from villages with and without regular television access.

People in the villages in this part of Nicaragua generally did not have access to magazines or the Internet, and none of the participants in the study owned a smartphone. Only those people with electricity supplies to their homes as well as the money to pay for a TV and subscription were able to watch TV regularly.

Those people with access to TV watched a mixture of Latin soap operas, Hollywood action movies, music videos, police "car chase" reality shows and the news.

In the sample, the team found that the effect of TV -- that is, people who often watched TV preferred slimmer bodies -- was the same in men and women.

“Our data show that in an area of low technological development, with a population largely engaged in small scale farming and fishing, those with greater access to and consumption of television have significantly more ‘Westernised’ body ideals: that is, preferring thinner and curvier female figures,” says the study.

According to the study, 299 men and women from seven villages in the Pearl Lagoon Basin area of Nicaragua took part in the research. They completed a questionnaire about their ethnicity, education, income, hunger, language and TV exposure. They were then asked to rate the attractiveness of pictures of female bodies with varying body shapes and sizes.

In addition to this study, the team also carried out another study among those villagers who had little or no TV access.

The researchers showed the villagers a series of pictures, either showing larger women or thinner women. They found that after viewing these images, the villagers' body ideals adjusted in the same direction. The researchers say they were able to experimentally induce change in body weight ideals in individuals from two villages with low television access.

Samples of different body shapes and sizes used in the study. (Martin Tovee et al)

“We found that greater television consumption remained a significant predictor of preferences for slimmer, curvier female figures after controlling for a range of other factors in an ethnically balanced sample of 299 individuals (150 female, aged 15-79) across 7 villages. Within-individual analyses in one village over 3 years also showed an association between increased TV consumption and preferences for slimmer figures amongst some participants. Finally, an experimental study in two low-media locations demonstrates that exposure to media images of fashion models can directly impact participants’ body size ideals,” says the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The findings, says the team, clearly demonstrate that perceptions of attractiveness are highly changeable, and are affected by what people are visually exposed to.

The representation of this 'thin ideal' in the media can lead to body dissatisfaction and can play a part in the development of eating disorders and depression, warn researchers.

According to Professor Boothroyd, TV and advertising bosses have a “moral responsibility” to use actors, presenters and models of all shapes and sizes and avoid stigmatising larger bodies. She says there needs to be a shift towards a “health at every size” attitude and the media has an important role to play in that.

“Media companies need to use a more representative range of actors/models/presenters to reflect the full diversity of their viewers. Secondly, media literacy and body-positivity education, for instance, in schools, may help prevent body dissatisfaction and its associated problems from becoming entrenched,” Professor Boothroyd told MEAWW.

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