The Effect of Seeing Skinny Models in Magazines? It’s Complicated

woman reading magazine breakfastThe cover of any magazine you pick up at the store will probably have a perfect-looking model on the cover. She’s thin and fit, vibrant and healthy, wrinkle- and jiggle-free. She’s also often heavily airbrushed to make sure she’s as perfect as can be. You might think it would be depressing to look at a picture like that, knowing you aren’t anywhere near that ideal and probably never will be. Not so, according to a new study out this week that found the reaction is quite the opposite.

The study set out to see how regular viewing of impossibly thin ideals found in most magazines might affect the women who buy and read those titles. The researchers gave 51 college-age females 16 pages of advertisements and articles from top women’s beauty and fashion magazines. Each page contained a thin model as the dominant image.

They did this once a day for five days and the women were asked to fill out surveys about what they thought of the pages and about their own body satisfaction. More specifically, the questions attempted to understand how the women reading the pages were comparing themselves to the models they were seeing. At the end of the study the participants filled out a final questionnaire that also asked about their dieting habits during the course of the five days.

The researchers found that, instead of shaming women, these skinny images actually boosted their positive feeling about their bodies. The surveys revealed that this happened because women were looking at the photos and seeing them as an image of something they themselves could become, rather than focusing on how it was something they were not. In other words, the women weren’t comparing themselves to the models at all. Instead, they were looking at their bodies and saying, “One day, I’ll look like that.”

The problem is, this inspirational thinking didn’t translate into action when the authors looked at how the women actually acted when it came to their dieting behaviors during the five days. Because the women weren’t directly comparing themselves to the women they saw in the magazines, they didn’t feel compelled to change their behavior. The more a participant felt like she would one day achieve the ideal on the magazine page, the less likely she actually was to do things that would get her to that goal.

On the other hand, those who compared themselves to the models, rather than feeling as if they could be like them, had a much more negative body image and were more likely to have dieted. By sizing themselves up to an impossible ideal, these women felt bad and obligated to try and do something about it.

The results go against previous studies that found that women who see pictures of thin models have a worse body image. The researchers think the initial reaction to thin pictures may, as these prior studies say, be negative. But over time, women start to relate more to the models they see and identify with them. By thinking themselves similar to a thin person, their body image improves, even if their actual body hasn’t.

So what’s wrong with a little “thinspiration”? The problem is, women aren’t truly inspired by images of impossible bodies. They either assimilate the unreachable ideal without taking any healthy action or they feel worse about their inability to match the model body and diet out of guilt. Neither result leads an individual to want to get healthy for their own sake. The researchers say they hope their findings help women become aware of how pictures of thin models are affecting their self-image and will hopefully help them fight off the harmful effects of a media world packed with impossibly skinny women.