Professional eye vs. public eye
Last November, we began discussing the groundbreaking body-image studies of British clinical psychologist Dr. Helga Dittmar, of the University of Sussex.
In her 2004 article titled "Does Size Matter?" from the British Journal of Social Psychology, Dr. Dittmar described the results of an experiment that she conducted, which confirmed previous studies that "viewing thin models induces weight-related appearance concerns, whereas viewing average-size models does not."
More significantly, Dittmar's work
demonstrated for the first time that there is no difference in perceived advertising effectiveness between adverts showing average-size models and adverts showing thin models, as long as both are seen as attractive. At the same time, this experiment provided suggestive evidence that the use of average-size models in advertising may prevent negative effects on women's body image. (479)
These findings were revolutionary, since the advertising industry has traditionally attempted to justify its irresponsible use of underweight models by claiming that plus-size models are less effective at selling products. Dittmar's research exploded this myth, demonstrating that plus-size models (the figures in her study were a size 14) achieve comparable advertising results, without impairing women's self-esteem.
Dr. Dittmar opens her article by reviewing the significance of body-image studies in general, noting:
The fact that the body size of glamorous models is often more than 20% underweight has to be placed in the context of 15% underweight constituting a diagnostic criterion for anorexia nervosa. (478)
It is sobering to realize that in the medical world, it is beyond dispute that: (1) today's fashion models are so underweight as to meet the textbook definition of anorexia, and (2) the media does propagate eating disorders.
Next, in her "Professional Hazards" article, Dr. Dittmar reviews the findings of her own previous study, which confirmed the advertising effectiveness of attractive models:
There is empirical support for the proposition that advertising should employ attractive models in order to sell products . . . The physical attractiveness of a model in an advertisement increases consumers' positive attitude towards the product, their willingness to purchase and actual purchase. (479)
This seeming truism becomes significant when Dittmar explains that prior experiments never differentiated models' sizes from their level of attractiveness. Her research was the first to distinguish these factors.
exposure to attractive media models whose body size is close to average not only prevents negative body-evaluation, but positively improves it, such that women report relief in body anxiety. (480)
However, Dr. Dittmar acknowledges that
these findings came from a single study and are clearly in need of replication. Such replication is the first aim of the research presented here. (479)
The results of her attempt to replicate these results are outlined below.
Turning now to her second experiment--the focus of the "Professional Hazards" article--Dr. Dittmar proceeds to describe its hypotheses and methodology. This study, she explains, set out to identify whether
profession as a social context increases or decreases women's vulnerability to the impact of thin media images
--a question that had remained open, because "no previous studies compare professions" (481).
Women in the fashion advertising industry are a particularly useful group to study, because their professional environment highlights the thin ideal for women constantly and because they are engaged in the production of advertisements that use thin fashion models. (481)
Thus, Dittmar's experiment negated any variables that could have skewed the results, such as different ethnic backgrounds, or "strategic" responding from participants.
The chosen models had to fulfil a number of criteria in addition to body size to make sure that the stretched images would look realistic. These . . . included loose hair, figure-hugging clothes and full-length depiction. (484)
Thus, the models in the "larger" versions genuinely looked plus, to the survey's participants, and the fact that the models wore figure-embracing clothing meant that their body shape was not disguised, and that their curves were revealed in an unambiguous way.
As Dittmar notes, the initial purpose of her second study was to test the results of her previous experiment, i.e., whether the images of the models in their fuller-figured state would be (a) considered just as attractive, and (b) equally effective at selling products. This study's findings confirmed both conclusions:
there was no main effect for size of model, and the means confirm that the models were not seen as more attractive when they were thin than when they were average-size. There was no interaction between model and model size. The important finding for the present study was that the change in model's body size did not influence perceived attractiveness. (485)
Since these findings have now been corroborated, they seem even more revolutionary (especially considering the degree to which popular culture refuses to accept them), for at least three reasons:
While Dr. Dittmar's second experiment demonstrated that the advertising effectiveness of both sets of images (thin and full-figured) is comparable, it also reconfirmed the pernicious effects of underweight imagery. The study furthermore revealed that even fashion-industry professionals are not inured to these effects, but remain vulnerable to heightened body dissatisfaction from viewing images of emaciated models--despite being involved in the production of such images on a daily basis:
The main effect for type of image was significant, and the means suggest that body-focused anxiety peaks after exposure to thin images, followed by control images, and is lowest after seeing average-size models. (488-89)
Note in particular the first conclusion: the participants' body image was higher after viewing advertisements with plus-size models, than after viewing adverts with no models at all.
if negative affect can be demonstrated as a consequence of a single exposure to thin models, repeated exposure may have even more damaging effects. It appears that single exposures are sufficient to activate social comparison contrast effects in vulnerable women, leading to negative affect and evaluation concerning their bodies. (491)
These findings support the opinions of many mothers of anorexia victims, who directly blame the fashion industry, and the mass media, for their daughters' conditions. Dittmar's findings indicate that the blame is rightly assigned.
Finally, Dr. Dittmar's second study reached its most original and significant conclusions when it identified one very particular (and all-important) difference between the way in which fashion-industry professionals and lay viewers respond to images of models of different sizes:
women who had internalized the ideal body as a personal standard who were affected by the different types of images, with anxiety highest after thin images and lowest after average-size images, but this effect was much more extreme for teachers than women working in advertising. (489)
The distinction is crucial: members of the public do experience an improved sense of body esteem after viewing images of fuller-figured models, while fashion-industry professionals do not.
As in her previous publication, Dr. Dittmar concludes her second article with some observations about how her findings could be socially beneficial:
Whether or not women internalize the cultural ideals of thinness and appearance as a personal standard proved a powerful moderator of their vulnerability to the negative impact of thin media images. This was true for women from two different professions, which adds confidence to the generalizability of this finding. For high internalizers, viewing thin models in advertising leads to significantly greater body-focused anxiety than viewing average-size models or no models at all. This has implications for intervention strategies, because it suggests that lowering internalization in women could protect them from the potential negative impact of advertising. (492)
This notion of "generalizability" is particularly important. There are always individual exceptions to every phenomenon of human behaviour, but the more general a result is, the more widely-effective a solution one can find, to societal problems.
At the level of social policy, the current study has provided at least initial empirical support for the proposal that average-size models are effective in advertising, and this finding offers activists who want to challenge the fashion and advertising industries a direct and persuasive argument that advertisers and other marketers do not need to promote an unhealthy body ideal in order to sell products. (494)
The greatest challenge is still to persuade advertisers of the benefits of such an approach. In addition to the innate resistance of any industry to change, Dittmar's second study reveals a second potential stumbling block: the fact that fashion-industry professionals are themselves unlikely to experience the relief-factor from fuller-figured imagery that the general public does experience. To appreciate that such a relief effect exists demands an imaginative leap, on their part, or a compelling effort at persuasion from all proponents of size celebration.
(Click to view larger.)
Re: Professional eye vs. public eye
The implications of this conclusion are considerable. Here, finally, is evidence that fashion-industry professionals view models' images in a different way than the public does. This could explain many things, and in reference to the plus-size fashion industry specifically, it might explain why so few companies create truly size-positive imagery.
While the public keeps asking for images that show models looking visibly full-figured, many of professionals who create and select fashion photography don't see the beauty of such pictures. Where the public sees beauty, the professionals see models looking "too curvy." This is a real problem.
The fashion professionals might want to consider that they are creating their imagery not for themselves, but for a market, and that if they want to reach this market, it's more important to consider what the public sees when they view fashion photographs, than what the creators do.
Dr. Dittmar's work is consistently brilliant. She's asking the right questions - the questions no one else seems willing to ask - and her conclusions keep overturning anti-plus myths. I only wish her work was getting more attention. It turns up occasionally, in news outlets (like the following), but it's not getting anything like the publicity that the weight "epidemic" stories keep receiving.
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