Over the past twenty years, the media has been under fire for promoting unrealistic standards of beauty. Studies from the 90’s and early 2000’s linked the increasing occurrence of eating disorders to the high rate of “thin-ideal” images in the media. Now, we’re seeing a trend towards “real” advertising with campaigns such as Dove Real Beauty and #AerieREAL attempting to promote body positivity.
But does the media actually affect the body image of women? And if so, why doesn’t every fashion and beauty company promote body positivity?
A Closer look
Even if the media doesn’t affect self confidence–it seems like inclusive, body positive advertising campaigns would be the way to go. They receive positive press, keep the average size 14 woman in mind, and fit in the mold of corporate-social responsibility. However, from an advertising perspective, an exclusive “thin-ideal” positioning strategy has a purpose.
Above, there are two campaign photographs from two different companies selling the same type of product: undergarments. On the left, you see a photograph from Aerie showing the backside of a model with stretch marks (gasp!). On the right, a stereotypically “sexy” Victoria’s Secret model with not a lump or bump in sight. While Aerie’s image is well-lit, realistic and visually appealing, it is not the typical, societal definition of “perfect”. Victoria’s Secret’s image is. That model looks hot, despite however processed and unrealistic the image is.
Here’s another contrast: a video showing the in-store displays of my local Aerie and Victoria’s Secret brick and mortar stores.
Why they’re doing it
“Right now, Victoria’s Secret is going that route because it’s really what kind of image Victoria’s Secret wants their consumers to think about. From a strategic perspective, that’s their positioning strategy–luxury, high end fashion brand,” said Dr. Yan Shan, an advertising professor at California Polytechnic State University.
In order to keep a high-end, luxury brand image, companies do need to maintain some level of exclusivity, said Dr. Shan. Victoria’s Secret is doing this by exclusively showing their products on models with body proportions that are unattainable through anything except genetics.
The reason why not every fashion and beauty campaign can be body positive is because exclusivity is sometimes the thing that makes us want more. It’s like wanting to sit with the popular girls at lunch even though you know that they’re not always nice. The goal of major companies like Aerie and Victoria’s Secret is to sell as much as they can, so they go with the positioning strategy that is most expedient to do so.
So, should companies that choose the exclusive route feel guilty for bowing down to the “thin-ideal”?
Two Different Perspectives
The “No” Side
Studies done in the past five years conclude that the media actually does not play a large part in body dissatisfaction in women.
Media effects are generally minimal and limited to those with preexisting body dissatisfaction. -Christopher J. Ferguson, American Psychological Association
A different study done in 2013 showed that between television, social media and peer-to-peer pressures, peer-to-peer was the only source that was a strong predictor of negative body satisfaction. This shows that body dissatisfaction comes mostly from women comparing themselves to other women in their day-to-day lives, and not from flashy advertisements.
Both of the studies did say that while media is not the main contributing factor to a rise in eating disorder levels, it can contribute to body dissatisfaction in women already predisposed to self confidence issues. So while media is not the biggest culprit, it is also not completely innocent.
The “It’s Hard to Tell” Side
Various studies have proved and disproved the relationship between the media and body dissatisfaction. In reality, the long term, widespread effects of advertising are very hard to measure. It’s really only feasible to measure short term effects of advertising, as many people do not form long term memories attached to the mass amounts of advertisements we consume each day, said Dr. Shan.
Amelia Comstock-Skipp, a licensed marriage and family therapist and advisor of the Cal Poly Body Project, believes that the media affects people on an individual level and may affect people in different ways.
“The media can’t be blamed for all body dissatisfaction but young girls (and boys) might see images from a young age that contribute to feeling negative about their bodies, which might lead to dieting and/or exercise behaviors for the purpose of changing their appearance,” said Comstock-Skipp.
According to Comstock-Skipp, body image issues can come from many different factors–from the media to family environment. The National Eating Disorders Association supports this perspective by saying that there is no one cause for eating disorders, but media does indeed contribute.
“Mass media provides a significantly influential context for people to learn about body ideals and the value placed on being attractive.” –The National Eating Disorders Association
Finding the Center of the Venn Diagram
The answer to the question of whether or not media affects our body image is unclear. Both opinions lean slightly different ways; research leans towards no and the body image community leans towards yes. However, both acknowledge that the media affects everyone differently.
Advertisers know this, and that is why ad campaigns target different people. According to Dr. Shan, Aerie is targeting college-aged women and teens while Victoria’s Secret targets slightly older women. Victoria’s Secret is aiming to be exclusive and Aerie wants to be accessible. The values of their target consumers are different and so are their messages.
It’s not that beauty and fashion companies are evil and want to lower self-esteem so they can sell more. It’s more that we as consumers have shown positive responses to images of perfect people. If exclusive, “thin-ideal” ads stopped generating sales, companies would be more likely to change.
Personally, I think more companies should take Aerie’s advertising approach. Not many people have complaints about the use of beautiful people as models. Maybe just cut back on the photoshop, and throw in some curves every once and a while.