PHOTO: Ivan Stern
Text: Janina Nagy
Nowadays, we are always surrounded by media: The podcast or book on the drive to work, a movie at the end of a long day, or even the social media that is always available via smartphone.
However, we must not forget that the media we consume sometimes influences us more than we realize. On the one hand, books, TV or social media can broaden our horizons and help us learn new things, but they also influence how we perceive the world around us, other people, and even ourselves and our bodies.
Researchers had women watch advertising campaigns from Aerie, Dove and Victoria’s Secret and studied how this affected their body perception. Dove and Aerie’s videos included women with a wide variety of body types talking about body positivity, while Victoria’s Secret featured very thin women in lingerie in their campaign.
Women who had watched the Victoria’s Secret ads felt worse about themselves afterwards and also rated their bodies more negatively than women who had watched the Dove or Aerie videos. The women also had higher self-esteem after watching the Dove or Aerie videos compared to the women who had watched the Victoria’s Secret campaign.
How the women rated obesity in general also differed depending on the video they had seen: Those who had seen the Victoria’s Secret campaign had more negative attitudes toward overweight people, while women who had seen the other campaigns were more open to different body types.
These results show how much the media that surrounds us influences how we think about the appearance of others and our own attractiveness. 
It is therefore not surprising that social media, which many of us use every day, also changes our body perception.
For example, one study found that women who looked at pictures on social media of people who fit beauty ideals were more dissatisfied with their own appearance and had less self-confidence. This suggests that comparing one’s own body to another person’s idealized body causes women to perceive their own bodies as inferior. This body comparison seems to have a particularly negative effect on individuals who are very perfectionistic about their appearance. 
On Instagram in particular, it is common to be confronted with images of idealized bodies, but these are often heavily edited and convey an ideal of beauty that is almost impossible to achieve naturally. It is therefore not surprising that there is a link between social media, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders. 
In childhood we are already confronted with beauty ideals, for example when watching movies. An example are the animated Disney princesses with extremely narrow waists. A study was able to show that all of the Disney princesses examined had a significantly lower waist-to-hip ratio than is healthy and ideal for women. Interestingly, the female Disney villains studied showed greater differences in terms of body type – compare Arielle and her evil enemy Ursula. Unconsciously, Disney conveys: Who is beautiful is also good and who is unattractive is evil. 
As recently as 2021, Disney was heavily criticized by Internet users for the female animated character Kate in the short film Inner Workings due to her unrealistic physique.
It seems that the criticism has been heard: recently Disney released the new short film Reflect, in which it presents the first animated overweight female leading character, Bianca. The young ballet dancer feels inferior next to the other slim dancers in her ballet class and avoids looking in the mirror while rehearsing. Bianca suffers from body dysmorphia, which means that she worries a lot about her appearance and puts a lot of effort into trying to hide the flaws she perceives in her body. Bianca finds her inner strength in the short film and starts dancing despite her self-doubt. The mirrors break. The film ends with her rehearsing next to the other dancers and confidently admiring herself in the mirror.
Some users criticized that in the short film unhealthy obesity is portrayed too positively, while many people feel represented by Bianca and are happy that body positivity has found a place even with big filmmakers like Disney.
In recent years, many steps have been made in the direction to limit the negative influence of beauty ideals in the media. In addition to Disney and the aforementioned Dove and Aerie ad campaigns, many other fashion brands have tried to incorporate models of different body types into their advertising.
Also, some instagrammers now show themselves in direct comparison with and without filters in order to advocate for more reality on social media and to fight against the negative consequences that unattainable beauty ideals can have.
- Selensky, J. C., & Carels, R. A. (2021). Weight stigma and media: An examination of the effect of advertising campaigns on weight bias, internalized weight bias, self-esteem, body image, and affect. Body Image, 36, 95-106.
- McComb, S. E., & Mills, J. S. (2021). Young women’s body image following upwards comparison to Instagram models: The role of physical appearance perfectionism and cognitive emotion regulation. Body Image, 38, 49-62.
- Aranha-de-Macedo Patrícia, N. O., Paula, C. F., de Souza, R. D. T., Diogo, P., & Ágata, A. Influence of Social Media on Body Dissatisfaction in Adolescents and Increasing Risk of Developing Eating Disorders: A Systematic Review. Ann Clin Case Rep. 2022; 7, 2144.
- Aung, T., & Williams, L. (2019). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Whose figure is the fairest of them all?. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 13(4), 387.