‘Ideal body images’ affect eating habits

By Matthew Richardson

Advertisements laden with thin waists, flat stomachs and sculpted chests have been known for some time to affect the self-images of the men and women who see them. Now a new study specifies how those images affect individuals across gender.

The study was done by Kristen Harrison, associate professor in Speech Communications, along with Laramie D. Taylor of the University of California at Davis, and Amy Lee Marske of Libertyville High School in Libertyville, Ill. They exposed students on the campuses of two large Midwestern universities to slides of “ideal body images,” selected by a randomly chosen panel of students beforehand, for men and women separately.

“What I wanted to do was actually check whether eating might be an outcome of media exposure,” Harrison said. “Restrained eating or overeating.”

The researchers then had subjects in same sex groups fill out a questionnaire in a room where pretzels were available. They observed the eating habits of each individual in the room. It was found that on average, men ate two pretzels more than if they had not watched the slides, while women ate two pretzels less than if they had not watched the slides.

“We’re looking at short-term, very mild effects here,” Harrison said. “Who cares, two pretzels less, two pretzels more? But what the experiment gives us is a glimpse to what might be happening, hour by hour, day by day to young people who are sort of in a media saturated environment. If you are exposed to these kinds of images day in and day out, and constantly reminded that your body isn’t what it should be, these moment to moment eating decisions might develop into an eating pathology.”

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The study also highlights the differences between what is considered an ideal body image between men and women.

“The male body ideal is muscular, big,” Harrison said. “Men are sort of aware that, in a social setting, after being exposed to (the slides), not eating anything isn’t really a useful strategy. Eating more will make them feel a little bit better, and portray a more masculine image to other guys.”

Currently, the societal trends and attitudes highlighted by Harrison’s study are staying consistent.

“Content analyses of male and female body ideals in the media show that women are getting thinner and thinner, while men get bigger and bulkier,” Harrison said. “So we’re down to ridiculously huge muscle guy as the male ideal, and super-tiny – except for maybe the breast implants – female ideal. So the difference between the ideal and the actual for both women and men is getting bigger and bigger.”