For many of us, our physical appearance and perception of our body is deeply tied to our self-confidence. Given the culture we find ourselves immersed in, it’s easy to see why. Daily, we’re shown images of conventionally attractive women and men with near-perfect figures throughout the media — depictions that promote a narrow norm that doesn’t always reflect the full and normal range of human bodies.
Often, our first instinctive reaction is to compare our bodies with this imagery as a way of evaluating our self-worth. And given that Americans now consume an average of more than 10 hours of media every day, there are plenty of opportunities to judge ourselves as coming up short compared with these perceived standards of body shape and size.
Feelings of inadequacy about your body are a risk factor for poor self-esteem and a variety of serious health consequences, including eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. It’s clear the media has a strong influence on how we feel about ourselves — but how do we feel about that pressure?
We decided to ask 2,000 Americans about their self-image and body confidence, as well as their opinions on depictions of different body shapes in the media and what’s most likely to affect their self-perception. Read on, and discover what we learned when we held the mirror up to the media.
How men and women view their bodies
How did respondents feel about their bodies — both on their own and compared with others? One trend was clear: They spend plenty of time focusing on their health, fitness, and appearance. In fact, 40 percent of men reported working out several times a week, while another 26 percent exercise once or twice a week. Only 1 in 10 men said they never do.
Comparatively, less than one-third of women told us they exercise several times a week; even fewer said they work out once or twice a week. While they may be working out less, women told us they wanted to lose over 10 pounds more than men on average. Men and women also tend to have distinctly different body image concerns. Women may be focused on weight loss and attaining an idealized thin figure, but men are more often focused on achieving a highly muscular physique.
While the average female weight of those we surveyed was just over 160 pounds, and the average male weight was 190, both sets of respondents reported an average “overweight” body mass index(BMI). Despite being a common way to identify obesity, BMI may not be the best way to measure a healthy weight. Developed in the 1800s, this measurement does not always accurately take muscularity into account when determining BMI, and it can fail to identify too much body fat in particularly dangerous areas of the body.
Regardless of gender, the effects of body weight on your self-image can persist even after that weight has changed. How you feel about your body overall may be different than how you feel when you’re naked or exposed. To understand the difference between these opinions, we asked participants for an honest appraisal of how attractive they feel when naked.
We found substantial differences based on weight and gender. Among women who’ve never been overweight, nearly half judged themselves as just somewhat attractive, while one-third considered themselves attractive. Although 1 in 10 said they are not at all attractive, a mere 8 percent see themselves as very attractive. However, among women who have been overweight at some point during their life, these numbers shift drastically.
Forty-five percent of these women said they are somewhat attractive; remarkably, over one-third declared they are not at all attractive, and only 2 percent said they are very attractive.
Among our sample of men, weight was also correlated with perceived attractiveness. Current or previously overweight men weren’t as harsh on themselves as women were. Still, they were half as likely as men who had never been overweight to identify themselves as either attractive or very attractive.
The link between media and body image
Film, television, and print media have all played an integral role in disseminating images of women’s and men’s bodies in popular culture for decades. In the 21st century, a new source of potential self-comparison and self-criticism has emerged: widely used social networks and photo-sharing sites, such as Facebook and Instagram. These networks take popular beauty norms and make them far more personal, inviting users to compare their bodies with photos of friends and acquaintances, as well as providing yet another venue for celebrities to show off.
How do participants feel about old and new media and how it affects their body image and confidence? Only one-third of women said no platforms have had an adverse impact on their body image; more than half of men said the same. However, women were only slightly more likely than men to say Facebook has negatively affected their body image and are also more likely (11 percent compared with 7 percent) to say the same about Instagram. Particularly for women, body weight can play a substantial role in self-image and self-esteem, given the popular images of thin figures promoted throughout media. Heavy use of photo features on these networks has been found to be associated with a greater likelihood of basing one’s self-worth on personal appearance. And it’s been found that these platforms can have a real impact on body image for men and women.
Public bodies: Views on minimum BMI regulations in media
Given the well-established link between popular media depictions and their influence on women’s and men’s body image, some states or cities have proposed or enacted regulations on media in an attempt to mitigate this effect. In late 2015, France followed in the footsteps of Italy, Spain, and Israel and adopted a law meant to prevent the fashion industry from using “excessively thin” models.
How does our sample feel about the notion of imposing a minimum BMI requirement for actresses and models? Regardless of their weight, women were twice as likely as men to be critical of other women in the fashion industry or in Hollywood. Only 1 in 5 women who identified themselves as never having been overweight said they would support such a regulation. But nearly 1 in 4 women who had been overweight at some point in their lives said they would support a minimum weight requirement for models.
Studies have found that women are more likely than men to be hypercritical of other women, and they can impose stricter judgment on a woman they consider “very attractive.” Some scholars have even suggested that this may stem from a hierarchyamong women that is promoted by unrealistic media standards that create a sense of competition.
Men, who likely don’t experience this gendered media reality as frequently, showed little interest in such a requirement. Just 9 percent of men who haven’t been overweight and 11 percent who have support these regulations.
Perceptions of weight and health in popular media
If portrayals of weight in the media are a matter of public health, then how do people view the health of women and men in the media?
Women (36 percent) are much more likely than men (23 percent) to say they always think thin actresses in the media are too skinny for their health. Thin actors, likewise, are subject to similar scrutiny of their health: 29 percent of women and 18 percent of men said they always think these men are too skinny.
Opinions of plus-size portrayals
We’ve seen how respondents view popular media figures who are on the skinny side, but how do they regard more full-figured models? Plus-size models have been increasingly embraced in media, a trend that could potentially help counteract prevailing norms of too-thin models.
However, we found that participants’ attitudes are rather mixed. Women were almost equally as likely to support brands using plus-sized models as they were to reject them. Just under one-third of women said they are more likely to support brands that include plus-size models, and 38 percent said they sometimes are, while 30 percent said they are not.
Among men, a mixed attitude was even more prevalent — 61 percent said they are not inclined to support brands featuring plus-size models. Men (20 percent) are also more likely than women (14 percent) to say they view full-figured actresses as being unhealthy.
Unrealistic extremes of physique, from rail-thin actresses to hyper-muscular men, clearly represent very few men and women in the real world. However, we found that respondents’ attitudes toward these exaggerated figures are somewhat different depending on whether men or women are being portrayed.
Twenty-two percent of women and 16 percent of men said overly thin actresses should not be cast in media — but only 8 percent of women and 5 percent of men said the same about very muscular men. Recently, increasing attention has been given to the prominence of individuals who’ve found their fame via social platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Some are concerned that these popular influencers could be promoting an unhealthy body image.
But most of our sample doesn’t appear to share this concern — just 14 percent of women and 9 percent of men said these overly thin new media celebs should be banned from social media.
When men and women are ‘too skinny’
When it comes to determining if models and actors are the appropriate weight, people admitted to us that they were significantly more likely to consider a woman “too thin” than they were a man.
In fact, less than one-quarter told us they felt that female actresses were either rarely or never too thin, and fewer than 1 in 10 said they felt the same about models. On the other hand, more than half said male actors and models were either rarely or never too thin.
Male models are getting skinnier and skinnier, but female models have been banned from working in certain parts of the world if they’re considered an unhealthy weight. In America though, as actress Brie Larson has said: If you don’t fit into a sample size dress, your career could stagnate.
These standards for what is or isn’t considered an attractive or healthy weight go beyond the rich and famous. Even in the real world, men are more likely to give each other a pass for their weight, but less likely to offer women the same consideration.
From “fat shaming” to “skinny shaming,” finding a balance that’s socially acceptable continues to plague women as they fight for equality in the workplace.
Glorifying eating disorders
Today’s media doesn’t just consist of what you can see on a TV or in a magazine. In an incredibly tech-social environment, social media influencers play a role too. From Instagram to YouTube, this new generation of “stars” have even been used by big name brands to help advertise their products.
Among these influencers are a subset of users who promote a “pro-anorexia” (or pro-ana for short) agenda, where they celebrate their eating disorders. Given the serious health effects of these trends, certain sites like Instagram have stepped in to try and block their content, but their success has been marginal.
Moreover, given the profound influence of social media on the mind, particularly among young people, these images and posts highlight a dangerous trend in the way men and women perceive their bodies and health. Nevertheless, we found that over one-third of women surveyed didn’t think social influencers who promote a positive spin on eating disorders should be banned from sharing content, and nearly two-thirds of men agreed with them. Sadly, over 30 million people across the United States today have an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia.
Developing a healthy body image
Today’s media landscape is rife with opportunities for us to feel inadequate about our bodies, and many of us will confront issues with body image and confidence over the course of our lifetime. The most common depictions of men and women promote and popularize extreme or exaggerated body image. It’s important to remember that this doesn’t represent the true spectrum of human bodies. Focusing too much on your perceived shortcomings can contribute to unhealthy eating behaviors or a serious eating disorder.
If you’re concerned about your body image, eating habits, or other health issues regarding appearance and confidence, Healthline.com has resources that can help you learn more about developing a healthy sense of self. For more on mental health topics, as well as on eating disorders and other issues, visit Healthline.com today.
We surveyed 2,007 Americans on their body perception, exercise habits, and opinions on what is presented in the media.
Fair Use Statement
If you’d like to help people understand more about the effect of media depictions on body image, feel free to share this project and its content for noncommercial purposes only. When doing so, we ask that you link your readers back to this page and credit the authors.