Media Creates the Unrealistic ‘Ideal Body’

The overly perfect situations portrayed in the media often influence people and put pressure on them to achieve that ideal state. Body shape and fitness are probably among the top things with strong media influence on both men and women. This study attempts to understand the mindset behind the decision to attain the ideal state and the attempts that go into it fulfilling this goal. Earlier studies have suggested that people follow up and try to reach idealistic goals only if the end result seems attainable and they are forced to do so. In contrast to the earlier studies, the researchers in this study found that if the ultimate goal is made to look reachable, it encourages and inspires the individual to achieve the same.

Ideal body shape and weight are one of the most popular concepts advertised in the media. However, the large obese population in the U.S. does not match with the ideal shape of “lean” for women and “muscular” for men. This reflects the idea that dissatisfaction with one’s body is widely prevalent. When individuals compare themselves with others, it is usual to relate with similar people or with people who are more successful, though at an achievable level. The interplay of inspiration and demotivation is strong in self-appraisal. People who are dissatisfied with their body are known to avoid seeing ideal body pictures. This study redefines the routine study design for this setting by giving a choice to the participants on which of the two pictures to see.


  • The first part of the study was an online preliminary questionnaire collecting basic information, and body and life satisfaction measures.
  • The second part was a session exposing the 169 participants to five minutes of browsing of about 16 pages of magazine ads showing ideal body shape images.
  • The ideal ads were interspersed with normal shapes.
  • Questionnaires were used to assess the body satisfaction measures post-study.

Results/Key findings

  • The trend of ratings in both men and women showed that more time was spent on viewing ads related to body-improvement, specifically where easy methods for attaining ideal body parameters were outlined.
  • Participants reporting body satisfaction at baseline were found to focus more on ads featuring ideal bodies.
  • The dissatisfied cohort did not spend time on ads related to ideal body shape, except when projected in the perspective of body-improvement.
  • Men were found to have more interest in ideal body images than women. No changes were noted in body satisfaction measures pre- and post-study.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The current study was found to be wanting in presenting options of health-magazines to readers instead of regular magazines for specific response evaluation. Alternate explanations need to be avoided to eliminate ambiguity. The distinction between regular and ideal body ads should be very clear to actually see the effect on the reader. This study aimed at selective exposure rather than concentrating on the psychological processes that trigger and direct the decision to see body/non-body related images. The contribution of gender difference was neglected in this study.

This study clearly indicates that looking up to a better placed individual in comparison to self is sought only in instances where the status is attainable. This is pronounced in conditions where self-improvement is viewed as a consequence of such comparison. The current study analyzes this psychological effect using situations of body fitness and ideal body shape. The inclination of body-dissatisfied people to avoid ideal body images could be attributed to negative self-perception. This view changes when the ideal body ad/article shows scope for self-enhancement, because the estimate of threat is less and success is accessible. Hence, it is the responsibility of the magazines and media to present ideal body ads with tangible features so that even dissatisfied people think towards contention and positivity.

For More Information:
Body Ideals in the Media: Perceived Attainability and Social Comparison Choices
Publication Journal: Media Psychology, March 2011
By Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick; Joshua P Romero; Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.
Tags from the story
, ,