Women’s self-esteem affected by even brief exposure to media images.
While overweight women suffer a nosedive in self-esteem when they view photos of models of any size, underweight women enjoy a boost in self-esteem when they do the same, says a study examining the effects of media images on women.
The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, was conducted by Dirk Smeesters of Erasmus University, the Netherlands, Thomas Mussweiler of the University of Cologne, Germany, and Naomi Mandel of Arizona State University. The researchers examined how individuals with different body mass indexes (BMIs) felt when they were exposed to slim or heavy media models.
Results indicated that media images have an immediate and profound effect on women’s self-esteem, but reactions varied based on participants’ weight. Women with a normal BMI experiences shifts in their self-esteem based on the weight of the model that they viewed, researchers say. When exposed to moderately thin models, women with normal BMI (between 18.5 and 25) experienced a rise in self-esteem because they viewed themselves as similar to the model. When they viewed photos of extremely heavy models, normal-weight women also felt an uptick in self-esteem, because they saw themselves as dissimilar to these models.
However, when women of normal BMIs saw photos of moderately heavy women, they suffered from diminished levels of self-esteem because they identified with them. When they viewed photos of extremely thin women, their self-esteem also decreased because saw themselves as so dissimilar to them, explain the researchers.
When looking at the photos, overweight women suffered from lower self-esteem no matter the size of the model, while underweight women enjoyed a boost in self-esteem when viewing models of all sizes.
The most unexpected finding involved the levels of self-esteem of the participants when they were not looking at photos of other women, says Naomi Mandel, PhD, associate professor of marketing at Arizona State University.
“Perhaps most surprising was that overweight and underweight women have the same levels of self-esteem, as long as they're not looking at models,” Mandel explains. “As soon as you add models to an advertisement, everything changes. Overweight women's self-esteem goes down when looking at any models, thin or heavy. And underweight women's self-esteem goes up when looking at any models.”
Mandel, who has done work on social comparison, says that her co-authors, both men, initiated the study and exhibited great interest in the issue of media images and female self-esteem. Do photos of male models have any effect on male self-esteem?
“No,” she says. “We have tried a lot of our studies with men and male models, and they never seem to work. Men's self-esteem does not seem to be influenced by the appearance of male models in ads.”
If self-esteem shifts with exposure to female models, how can marketers best reach women of all shapes and sizes? “If their goal is to reach overweight consumers and raise their self-esteem, they should probably use a photograph of the product as the central focus of the ad, rather than a photo of an attractive woman—thin or heavy—consuming the product,” Mandel advises.
The famous “real women” Dove ads may not be as effective as we think, depending on how one defines “effective,” she explains. Self-esteem may not be the key to selling products in the first place.
“Dove claims to be raising women's self-esteem by using ‘real women’ in their ads. We do not find any evidence that such ads raise self-esteem,” Mandel maintains.
“On the other hand, I doubt if raising self-esteem is the most effective way to sell products, particularly beauty products,” she adds. “I've never tested this, but my intuition is that in order to sell an aspirational product such as a beauty or diet product, it's better to first lower the consumer's self-esteem—[for example,] by showing an unattainable image such as a very thin model—and then offering a credible solution to the problem via consumption of the advertised product. If this is true, it might explain why the industry continues to use thinner and thinner models.”
Mandel and her colleagues are currently studying the effects of exposure to heavy and thin models on health-related messages involving exercise and eating right, including examining what types of foods consumers purchase and how much of them they consume.
"The breadth of topics covered on demodirt.com is always timely and the depth is always outstanding."
--Leslie G. Ungar, professional speaker, executive coach, and strategist at Electric Impulse Communications