The images are never-ending: Celebrities like Kim Kardashian posting one sultry shot after another on social media. But new research warns this constant barrage of “perfect” bodies can undermine the self-esteem of young women.
They’re apt to feel their own figures come up short by comparison — whether those influencers and celebrities are super-thin, super-fit or super-curvy.
And now it turns out that it’s the so-called “slim-thick” look — exemplified by hourglass-figured beauties such as Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian — that’s most likely to make today’s woman feel bad about their own bodies.
So finds an analysis that gauged body image dissatisfaction among 400 college undergrads who viewed Instagram images of models and influencers.
“The main take-away is that comparing oneself to idealized images on Instagram is harmful for women’s body image,” explained study author Sarah McComb, a clinical psychology Ph.D. candidate at York University in Toronto.
“We found that, overall, women who compared themselves to one of the three body types on Instagram experienced increased weight dissatisfaction, appearance dissatisfaction, and lower overall body satisfaction than those… who saw home décor images,” McComb noted.
Those types included rail “thin” like a runway model; impossibly “fit” like an Olympic athlete; or hourglass “slim-thick” figures like Kim Kardashian.
Viewing images of any of the three body types did a number on the women enrolled in the study, McComb said, undermining a young woman’s confidence to some degree across the board.
But it was images featuring women more in the mold of a slim-thick type — tiny waist, large derriere — that seemed to prompt relatively greater levels of body dissatisfaction, she added.
“Beauty ideals can certainly shift over time,” McComb observed. “For a long time, very thin and slender bodies have predominated Western media. However, more recently other body types have gained popularity in mainstream media, such as the fit ideal, which is characterized by a more toned and athletic body type. And the slim-thick ideal, which is perhaps even more recent.”
The rise of the latter, she noted, likely reflects the enormous popularity of household names like Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, and the high-profile marketing of “a female body type that is characterized by a small waist and flat stomach, but large thighs, hips and buttocks.”
Viewing images of this idealized body type seemed to trigger the greatest degree of body dissatisfaction, the study revealed, which “suggests that the slim-thick ideal is not a healthier body ideal than the thin-ideal, even though the slim-thick ideal is a larger body type,” said McComb.
“These images often depict bodies that are nearly impossible to obtain naturally, or which have been highly edited unbeknownst to the viewer,” she noted. “[And] while comparison on social media may not cause eating disorders in isolation, it can be a contributor to disordered eating and poor body image among those who are already vulnerable.”
The report was published in the March issue of the journal Body Image.
It’s a big concern, agreed Chelsea Kronengold, associate director of communications for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
“In recent years, media and societal messages have deemed a ‘slim-thick’ body as the ideal body,” Kronengold noted. “So it is understandable that people with a different body shape experienced increased dissatisfaction with their body and appearance, especially after looking at and/or comparing themselves to slim-thick imagery.”
But “people often forget that celebrities and public figures typically have a beauty team of hairdressers, makeup artists and stylists,” Kronengold stressed. “Likewise, plastic surgery and the use of digital editing apps or social media filters can create an unrealistic perception of beauty and harmful social comparison, particularly when the folks looking at these pictures are unaware of physical or digital alterations.”
Lona Sandon, program director of the department of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said she thinks “most women know it is impossible to achieve such a look in a natural and healthy way, or without restrictive body shaping attire under their clothing.”
But “this can be a very disappointing reality leading to high dissatisfaction, as one has very limited control over their overall body shape,” she added.
And the risk is that with time, disappointment and dissatisfaction may slide into depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and ultimately an obsession with weight loss that can develop into eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, Kronengold explained.
NEDA estimates that some 30 million Americans will struggle with eating disorders at some point in their lives, though Sandon noted that the numbers shot up about 5% between 2000 and 2018.
In fact, Sandon said she thinks it’s highly likely that even more women silently struggle with an eating disorder “as a result of images they see.”
There’s more on how to get help addressing body image struggles and eating disorders at NEDA.
SOURCES: Sarah McComb, MA, PhD candidate, clinical psychology, faculty of health department of psychology, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Lona Sandon, PhD, RDN, LD, program director and associate professor, department of clinical nutrition, school of health professions, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas; Chelsea Kronengold, associate director, communications, National Eating Disorders Association; Body Image, March 2022
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