Magazines, Media, and Teen Body Image

Apr 25 2011 Published by under Neuroscience, Uncategorized

There's no question that the opinions of society play a very large role in how we perceive ourselves, particularly in terms of physical attractiveness. For example, in our society (Western/USian), women are judged heavily on their body weight. Men get flak for not being muscular enough (though not half as much as women). We all get a lot of pressure to conform to a certain body type. And we get it through many different types of media: TV, the internet, books, radio, magazines. But how much of a role does each type of media really play? Are there some types of, say, magazines, that are worse than others?

We've got a study for that.

Renee Botta. "For Your Health? The Relationship Between Magazine Reading and Adolescents’ Body Image and Eating Disturbances" Sex Roles, 2003.


(From Women's Health. Feel pressure yet?)

A lot of research in this area isn't new. Scientists have known for a while that magazine reading in women has been a consistent predictor of body image and eating disturbances. I'm not talking about eating disorders specifically here, but a wider concept. Body Image and Eating disturbances can include eating disorders, but also include severe dissatisfaction with your body, overestimating body size, and chronic thoughts about weight loss. Magazines for both men and women are thought to perpetuate problems with body image and eating disturbances. For women, it's the constant articles like "28 Flat Belly Tricks!", "Slim down for Swim Season!", and other headlines, but even more important may be the constant depiction of models, who start out already skinny and get photoshopped even thinner. For men, the magazines emphasize muscle gain, muscularity, and are increasingly coming to include weight loss articles as well. And these influences are particularly important in teens, who experience intense social pressure which is often based on how they look.

But does the TYPE of magazine matter here? After all, people who are reading certain types of magazines are after certain things, which means they may internalize certain aspects of the magazine, and not others. Do different TYPES of magazines promote different kinds of internalization? The question here is a question of social comparison theory, which is the idea that teens look at media images to come to a concept of what is beautiful, decide how they should look, compare their appearance to what social and media images tell them is beautiful, and motivate themselves to conform to that image. The author of this study wanted to know what role certain types of magazines played in social comparison theory in teens.

To study this, she took roughly 200 boys and 200 girls in high school and college, looked at their body masses, and asked them about their magazine reading habits. She asked how many hours they spent reading magazines and broke the magazines down according to three groups: sports, fitness/health, and fashion. She also had them report how much attention they paid to the IMAGES of the people in the magazines in general (though I imagine some of this reporting was a little biased). She then asked them how often they compared themselves to people in magazines, how satisfied they were with their body images, and whether the students had a body image and eating disorder.

Using this data, she addressed several different hypotheses:

H1: Reading fashion, sports, and health/fitness
magazines will predict increased BIED (increased
drive to be thin, increased anorexic and bulimic
eating-disordered behaviors, increased muscularity,
and decreased body satisfaction).

What I found interesting here was how the girls and boys results ended up breaking down by magazine TYPE. The author found that girls who read fashion magazines have a small correlation with bulimic behaviors, but NO other correlations between body image and magazine reading. Boys had no correlation here either.

Sports magazines were correlated with increased muscularity in girls, but NOT in boys. But the big one was the health and fitness category. For girls, health and fitness magazine reading was correlated with increased anorexic behaviors, increased bulimic behaviors, and increased drive to be thin. For boys, it was correlated with increased muscularity. The health and fitness magazines won overall for the worst impact on body image and eating disorders (which was a little surprising to me, I thought the fashions ones might be a tie).

H2 (and H3): Social comparisons with magazine images
will predict increased BIED. Social comparisons may
also moderate the relationship between magazine
consumption and BIED.

This one's kind of a no brainer. Girls who compared themselves with magazine images more often also suffered more often from decreased body satisfaction and eating disorders. For boys, the same held true as well, with the extra addition of increased muscularity.

H4: Increased critical body image processing
will predict increased BIED.

This one's also a no brainer. The more the teens thought about the images and compared themselves critically to images they saw in magazines, the more likely they were to have problems with body image and each disorders.

But there were a couple of other questions that found some interesting data. For example, the teens that read more of the central CONTENT of the magazines (I'm reading it for the articles, really) actually felt better about themselves. The author didn't mention this in the study, but I wonder if that's because if you spend more time reading the content, you spend less time looking at the models laughing and eating salad. They also found that people who spent less time noticing the pictures tended to feel a lot better about themselves.

This study is getting a little on the older side, but I think the findings are still interesting. I'm particularly interested that the fitness/health magazines seem to have the worst effects. I think some of this is probably due to the fact that if you're READING the health/fitness magazines, you're probably in it because you want something out of it, and thus are already more likely to feel not great about your body image. So the relationship between health magazines and body image may be a chicken or egg scenario. And of course, the less people noticed the images, the better they felt about themselves.

To me, this means the obvious choice here is to PUT THE MAGAZINE DOWN. After all, we already know that the science and health advice in there ain't so great, and do you really need to read ANOTHER article on "tips for a flat belly"?

Botta (2003). For Your Health? The Relationship Between Magazine Reading and Adolescents’ Body Image and Eating Disturbances Sex Roles, 48 (9)

14 responses so far

  • Vashti says:

    For girls, health and fitness magazine reading was correlated with ... increased drive to be thing.

    Typo of the year.

  • Brin says:

    To study this, she took roughly 200 boys and 200 girls in high school and college, looked at their body masses, and asked them about their magazine reading habits. She asked how many hours they spent reading magazines and broke the magazines down according to three groups: sports, fitness/health, and fashion.

    The only magazine I ever read at high school age was Muse, which doesn't seem to fit in any of those categories. (I'm still high school age (17), but my subscription was cancelled to save money.)

  • rcs says:

    Also, the look of the models in fashion magazines may be recognized as "more than ideal" or known to be unreachable. That is why they're high fashion models. However, so-called fitness and health magazines are chock-full of advice (often conflicting) that if you would just follow, then you could look perfect too! So I think it's the oh-so-earnest instructional format of the health & fitness magazines that may contribute to BIED.

    I totally agree with your conclusion to PUT THE MAGAZINE DOWN.

    Sheesh, my mother used to buy me mags like Seventeen because I wasn't "girly" enough for her. I'd have to hide my copies of EQUUS, Horse Illustrated, and Fantasy&SF. I still have issues with not being good enough for her.

  • FiSH says:

    I have the same problem with this study that I have with lots of other studies of this type, like those that purport a supposed relationship between video game violence and real life violent behavior. What is the real direction of causality? Sci says (no doubt paraphrasing the authors) that "The more the teens thought about the images and compared themselves critically to images they saw in magazines, the more likely they were to have problems with body image and [eating] disorders". But does the study really establish this? Might it be just as valid to say that "The more likely the teens had problems with body image and eating disorders, the more they thought about the images and compared themselves critically to images they saw in magazines." Media (including advertisers) get a lot of criticism at times as if they are causing a number of societal problems, but perhaps they are just supplying something for which a demand already exists for other reasons (I'll leave the moral debate about whether they should do so for someone else).

  • fcs says:

    Has anyone looked at television / movie viewing and BIED, Sci? I sort of wonder if that would exert even more power than magazines on teens.

  • [...] might be genetic. There are myriad social causes, too. Pop culture has an impact, and there are plenty of studies showing that consuming media that focuses on idealized images of female beauty makes young women [...]

  • selenar says:

    its so hard to always maintain the pressure of an image...honestly its about making good choices and eating healthy, voli has been a great source for promoting that

  • Lillian says:

    I think that all girls are perfect in their own way. If people make fun of them, they shouldn't because I bet they aren't perfect. Always think positive about themselves, and if you really want to lose weight, then do it a better way then starving yourselves.

  • Susan says:

    This is a very helpful and simple article. I am hereby attempting to forbid the guilty pleasure (?) of reading these mags. My girls have been neg affected. Thank you for looking at this topic and making it accessible.

  • Deon says:

    Wait no this is great i was miss reading omg we need more articles that tell teens about their body image. AMEN to this!!!!!

  • […] women in high school and college. And it’s widely held — and proven by numerous studies and surveys — that young women’s sense of body confidence is so often influenced by the images of […]

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