In Search of the Ideal Body Shape

Study Shows Many Are Drawn to Magazines That Feature Models With Ideal Body Types

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

March 18, 2011 -- When you flip through a glossy beauty or fitness magazine, how much time do you spend starring at the models?

The answer may depend on how you feel about your own physique and whether or not these photos are accompanied by articles detailing how you too can achieve six-pack abs or slim, sleek thighs, according to a study published in Media Psychology.

In the study, 169 people recruited from a large Midwestern university filled out surveys that asked about their body image. Participants then evaluated two 21-paged magazines on a computer.

Both magazines included 16 pages of ads; half featured models with ideal attributes and the other half featured models with more average shapes. Men looked at magazines with male images and women only looked at female images.

Of the two magazines, one offered articles on diet and exercise while the other featured general interest articles. Computer software exactly analyzed how much time participants spent on each page.

Body Shape Satisfaction

Those people who were not satisfied with their body shape and size spent 50% more time looking at models with ideal bodies when these images were accompanying articles about diet and fitness, compared to similar images surrounded by non-self-improvement related articles: 59 seconds vs. 40 seconds, respectively.

"If the articles inspired them to go on a diet or start an exercise program, they would spend more time looking at the ideal bodies," says study researcher Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, PhD, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University in Columbus, in a news release. "If the articles gave them no inspiration, they tended to avoid the photos."

Those individuals who were satisfied with how they looked spent the same amount of time on the images regardless of the content, the new study shows.

"For many women, the worst day of the month is when the Victoria's Secret catalog shows up in the mail," Wendy Lewis, a New York City-based plastic surgery consultant and author of several books, including Plastic Makes Perfect, says in an email. "It's a double-edged sword."

On the one hand, women study every photo-shopped dimple-free thigh and butt, which may motivate them to take an extra spin class or pass up dessert, she says. "Yet on the other hand, they secretly curse their genetics and long for supermodel legs that can never be achieved, so they are setting themselves up for disappointment."

According to Lewis, real-life examples of people who have struggled to make changes in how they look, such as actress and singer Jennifer Hudson, who is now a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers, are positive role models. "Her success is more inspirational to a wide range of women because it is realistic rather than an example of a body image that is impossible to attain for most women."

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SOURCES: Wendy Lewis, plastic surgery consultant, New York City; author, Plastic Makes Perfect.Knobloch-Westerwick, S. Media Psychology, 2011; vol 14.News release, Ohio State University.

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