Body Image

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The Downside
The Upside
Research on Media and Body Image
What Parents Can Do
Other Resources

Body image is how a person feels about the way he or she looks. It is not based on fact, but rather is learned from the surrounding environment that surrounds us. Body image can change as children grow and become influenced by different biological, psychological, and social factors.

Once kids reach their teen years, body image becomes closely related to self-esteem, so if kids do not feel good about their bodies, they may not feel confident about themselves. Having poor body image can also lead to depression, eating disorders, and even the desire for cosmetic procedures, all of which can damage health. Having positive body image leads to a feeling that inner beauty is more important than how one looks, which is necessary for teens to feel confident about themselves and their abilities. Although most people think of body image as a “girls’ issue,” more and more studies are showing that boys are affected as well.


The Downside: Media Can Harm Body Image

Research indicates that when a young person does not feel like his or her body meets society’s image of perfection, he or she can have a difficult time developing a strong self-esteem. Where do young people learn about this ideal body? Through the media, of course!

Ideal Female Bodies
Media teach young people that the ideal female should have a big chest, small waist, lean hips, no blemishes, no stretch marks, and no wrinkles. Young women are taught that if they do not meet this ideal, they should exercise, diet, get cosmetic surgery, or buy expensive makeup and creams to achieve it. Yet the reason supermodels are so famous is precisely because they are not typical; though they may work to keep their bodies healthy, their proportions are often unable to be imitated naturally. Young women, whose bodies are often going through growth spurts, can damage their bodies by eating too little, exercising too much, or undergoing surgery in response to the quest for "unachievable perfection."

Ideal Male Bodies
Media also teach that males should be tall and blemish-free, have broad shoulders, toned arms, “six-pack” abs, and a small waist. Though there are few studies on the body image of males, we do know that young men who do not meet these ideal standards often turn to steroids, over-exercising, and restricting their diets to create what they believe to be "the perfect body."

Television and movies are media that show bodies in three dimensions, giving viewers a clear idea of what kinds of bodies are acceptable. Research has shown that soap operas and music videos in particular increase young people’s drive for thinness.

The Internet offers young people a chance to find information, both true and false, about how to improve their bodies. One dangerous new development is the phenomenon of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites, which encourage young people to adopt unhealthy behaviors to lower their weight or increase their muscularity.

Magazines can be another source of media pressure. With the creation of “teen” versions of popular adult magazines such as Vogue, People, and Cosmopolitan, young people often read articles that claim to have miracle suggestions for how to “lose weight fast!” and “look years younger!”

Advertising, both on television and in print, is perhaps the most powerful medium for presenting unrealistic body types. Advertisers attract attention for their products by showcasing them with thin women and muscular men. With advanced techniques for retouching photographs, models’ bodies are often “improved” by computers, giving people an unrealistic sense of what bodies look like naturally.

The reality is that there are many different body types out there that are healthy, but they may not look like the media’s ideal. It is important for kids and teens to remember two things:

  1. The only way to achieve a healthy body is to exercise regularly and eat healthily.
  2. People are attracted to others because of a combination of factors including intelligence, sense of humor, talent, empathy, and other personality characteristics, not just physical appearance.


The Upside: Media Can Help Body Image

Just as media can give young people unhealthy role models to follow, media have the power to show what healthy bodies look like. For example, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty has focused on using real women, with real beauty and real flaws, for their print and television ads. They have also used the Internet to pass along two powerful 60-second videos.

Fortunately, more and more companies are creating ads that show many different kinds of bodies, including older women, athletes, non-white women, average-size and plus-size women.

See other positive advertising:


Research on Media and Body Image

Below are five selected studies on media and body image.

Body image and media use among adolescents (2005)

The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction (2002)

Is dieting advice from magazines helpful or harmful? Five-year associations with weight-control behaviors and psychological outcomes in adolescents (2007)

Exposure to the mass media, body shape concerns, and use of supplements to improve weight and shape among male and female adolescents (2005)

Thin ideals in music television: A source of social comparison and body dissatisfaction (2004)

To search for other studies on media and body image in the CMCH Database of Research, click here

  • To narrow your search to body image studies, click on ”Health“
  • Scroll to ”Emotional Outcomes“
  • Select ”Body Image“


What Parents Can Do

Take a look at the media your kids use. Look for models who are air-brushed and touched up, unrealistic body images, and unbelievable promises (get bigger breasts through creams, create six-pack abs in 3 days, etc). Talk to your teens about these messages, and ask them what they think about how realistic they are.

If your child does not feel good about his or her body, start a family resolution to eat better and get more exercise. This is the only way to achieve a healthy body, and it will be beneficial for the whole family.

Get your kids involved in activities that make them feel good about themselves and their talents. Whether these activities include art, sports, dance, or music, kids should be in an environment where their talents are encouraged to develop in healthy ways.


Other Resources

For parents:

Encouraging healthy body image from Kids' Health

Tweens, teens, and magazines from the Kaiser Family Foundation

Educate kids about advertising from the Media Awareness Network


For kids and teens:

Body image and self-esteem from TeensHealth

A guy's guide to body image from TeensHealth

See how photos are digitally retouched (Female, Male) from Greg Apodaca


CMCH is supported in part by the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation, Comcast, Google, The Stuart Family Foundation, Harvard Pilgrimh Health Care, The Norlien Foundation, Cisco, and other generous donors.

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