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.* * *
In the current post, we will consider Dr. Dittmar's second published article, titled "Professional Hazards," which is based on the findings of a follow-up study that she conducted on the topic of women's body image.
In this second experiment, Dittmar compared the effects of images of underweight models on women who are employed by the fashion industry, versus their effects on those who are not.
No such study, comparing the reactions of fashion-industry professionals versus lay individuals to the underweight standard, has ever been done before. In light of the ongoing debate about models' sizes, such an examination was long overdue.
Even in the face of countless scientific studies linking emaciated imagery to heightened body anxiety, fashion professionals have remained in denial about the negative influence of underweight models, and have been particularly resistant to the notion that plus-size models actually improve women's body image.
Astonishingly, even professionals within the plus-size sector of the fashion industry have questioned the positive effects of full-figured models. Some of the strongest resistance to the premise that full-figured imagery can improve women's body image has come from career women within the plus-size fashion industry--even from some of the models themselves. These individuals have insisted that plus-size modelling is "just a job," with no societal impact, and have been sweepingly dismissive of arguments to the contrary.
Dr. Dittmar's highly original and revealing second study disproves these claims; but more significantly, it reveals why such opinions might persist. As outlined below, her work identifies a specific and crucial discrepancy between the way in which fashion-industry professionals respond to models' images, and the way in which the general public responds to such images.
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)
The thin ideal for women is reinforced by many social influences, but the mass media is described as the "loudest and most aggressive purveyors of images and narratives of ideal slender beauty" (Groesz et al., 2002, p.2), particularly visual media such as magazines and television. (478)
the British Medical Association (BMA) conclude that "the media play a significant role in the etiology of eating disorders" (BMA, 2000). (478)
A recent meta-analysis (Groesz et al., 2002) is a more definitive source of evidence because it examined all [body-image-related] experimental studies simultaneously, 25 in total involving 43 comparisons between image conditions. It reported a significant effect . . . across the studies, demonstrating that--on average--women felt worse about their bodies after exposure to thin images than other types of images. (479)
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.* * *
These are not hallucinations, or exaggerations, or examples of idle media-bashing. These are the bare facts, and to ignore them is to exist in a state of wilful ignorance.
Furthermore, it seems particularly important to repeat such findings--even though to do so may seem redundant--since the majority of the public has not been made aware of these conclusions, even as the hoax of a nonexistent weight "epidemic" is trumpeted daily by the mass media.
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.
She also restates the most radical conclusion of her earlier study, which revealed that
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).
Dittmar further explains:
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)
In all, 156 participants were recruited either from a large London-based fashion advertising company or from secondary schools in the south of England. The women in fashion advertising were not models themselves, but were involved in the creation and promotion of fashion images through being employed in a diversity of administrative, design and secretarial positions. The final sample consisted of 75 women from each profession, after six participants were excluded because a check at the end of the study revealed that they had guessed the study's true focus on body image. (483)
The great majority of women in both professions were White, 94.5% for the fashion employees and 96.0% for the teachers. (483)
(485)At the end of the questionnaire, participants described what they thought the specific purpose of the study was; those who guessed its focus on body image were excluded from the study. (486)
- Respondents completed three measures, assessing whether or not they
- -internalize the ideal of a thin body,
- -perceive different types of adverts as effective, and
- -experience body-focused anxiety after seeing these adverts.
Thus, Dittmar's experiment negated any variables that could have skewed the results, such as different ethnic backgrounds, or "strategic" responding from participants.
Dittmar also describes the experiment's method of comparing models' sizes, which followed the technique of her previous study. Photographs of straight-size models were digitally adjusted to give the models plus proportions, and adverts were mocked up from the image pairs:
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)
In order to check that the thin and average-size models were indeed perceived as having different body sizes, and that the manipulation of body size did not affect the perceived attractiveness of the models, 20 professional women were recruited to rate either the two thin or the two average-size models. . . . The highly significant main effect for size of models confirmed that the thin images were perceived as much thinner than the average-size models. (485)
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)
If model size influences advertising effectiveness, then the main effect for type of image would have been significant for this contrast (i.e., adverts with thin models should be perceived as more effective than adverts with average-size models). However, our findings demonstrate that this was not the case. The main effect for the second contrast was not significant, thus supporting Hypothesis 2 that model size does not affect advert evaluation and willingness to buy the advertised product. Moreover, the absence of an interaction with profession indicated that this finding held across both groups of women. (487-88)
the main result concerning Hypothesis 2 is that model size does not impact on perceived advertising effectiveness: adverts showing attractive average-size models were perceived as persuasive as adverts showing models that fit the current thin ideal. Moreover, this held true for women in both professions. So, although women in fashion advertising evaluated all adverts slightly less positively than teachers, this effect was entirely independent of model size. (488)
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:* * *
First, here is empirical evidence which confirms that thinness is not a factor in the assessment of models' attractiveness (since the models were rated equally attractive in both their model-thin and plus-size states).
Second, this data demonstrates that the fuller-figured models are just as effective at selling products.
Third--and here is where Dittmar's second experiment explores new ground--even fashion-industry professionals, women whose exposure to the media is far greater than that of non-professionals, do not prefer thin images, or respond better to ads with fuller-figured models over those with thinner ones, when their reactions to such images are tested empirically, in a neutral environment.
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)
while constant exposure to the thin ideal and professional work with thin fashion models may have "hardened" these women to some extend against thin images making them feel bad about their body and weight, the negative impact of thin images on body-focused anxiety could still be demonstrated, although it was much weaker than for teachers. (489)
99% of traditional female models, such as those used in the thin condition [in this study], are underweight, which suggests that women should perceive less discrepancy between the way their bodies look and the bodies of the attractive but larger models and, consequently, viewing these images does not lead to increased body-focused anxiety . . . When internalizers see attractive, but larger, models who are more similar to them in terms of body size, they may experience either no increase in anxiety, or even assimilation, leading to a decrease in body-focused anxiety. (492)
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.
Not only does full-figured imagery avoid a detrimental effect, but it even produces a measurably positive one.
Dr. Dittmar also describes the likelihood that these harmful effects increase with prolonged exposure:
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)
the ecological validity of experimental evidence that ultra-thin images have a negative impact is strengthened by its convergence with correlational research on media effects. Moreover, a recent--and rare--longitudinal study by Stice, Spangler, and Agras (2001) demonstrated that prolonged exposure to thin models in magazines over a 15-month period had a negative impact on a particular subset of vulnerable female adolescents. (491-92)
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 second comparison verified that teachers' anxiety was significantly lower after exposure to average-size models compared to landscapes. (490-91)
Thus, high internalizing teachers seemed to experience significant relief when seeing models in advertising close in size to the national average for women. (491)
advertising employees did not experience relief and lower body-focused anxiety after seeing models with an average body size, compared to the no model baseline. (489)
While high internalizers in both professions reported increased anxiety after exposure to ultra-thin models, this effect was much stronger for teachers than advertising employees. Conversely, only teachers showed a relief effect--feeling better after seeing average-size models--while advertising employees did not. (492)
It is likely that appearance-related self-discrepancies are a more chronic, constant worry for fashion advertisers compared to teachers, and therefore less responsive to social influences. Thus, when teachers see average-size models that present a relatively achievable body size, this may serve to reduce their worry about body-size discrepancies, but this does not happen for fashion advertisers. (494)
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.* * *
With that in mind, we return to the quandary that we introduced earlier in this post: Why are fashion-industry professionals--even those in the plus-size fashion industry--so resistant to the notion that fuller-figured models can favourably impact women's body image?
Dittmar's findings provide the answer.
For whatever reason, (because of their own prolonged exposure to fashion imagery, or because of the personality type that prevails in this career avenue,) women who are professionally involved in fashion do not, themselves, experience the same relief-effect from plus-size imagery that the public does.
No wonder these professionals deny that such an effect exists. To them, personally, it does not, even though it clearly exists for the rest of society.
It is like asking someone who suffers from colour-blindness to appreciate the difference between red and green. They cannot. To them, there is no difference. But to those who are not colour-blind, the difference is obvious.
Since fashion-industry professionals do not experience a relief effect from images of fuller-figured models, they deny that such an effect exists. But it does exist, and the general public experiences it.
Once again, we come to a familiar problem: a lack of empathy. Hopefully, fashion-industry professionals will be made aware of Dr. Dittmar's findings. Then, they might acknowledge the empirically-demonstrated fact that the public responds differently to models' images than they themselves do.
Perhaps then, these professionals will reconsider the significance of the images that they produce. They will acknowledge the power of these images to bolster, or to ruin, women's self esteem, and they will take this factor into consideration, when weaving our cultural fabric.
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.
In this case, "lowering internalization" remains the key. As Dittmar's studies demonstrate, the most effective manner of achieving this is through greater dissemination of plus-size imagery, which improves women's body image, while meeting all of the selling-effectiveness needs of the advertising industry:
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.
The stakes are simply too high, and the consequences of underweight imagery too pernicious, to desist from a concerted effort to alter our culture in favour of a healthier ideal: the ideal of timeless beauty.
Christina Schmidt--the image of soft fullness that society needs, today:
(Click to view larger.)
Dittmar, Helga and Sarah Howard. "Professional hazards? The impact of models' body size on advertising effectiveness and women's body-focused anxiety in professions that do and do not emphasize the cultural ideal of thinness." British Journal of Social Psychology 43:4 (2004): 477-497.