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Nature vs. Nurture: The Media’s Effect on Body Image

By Sara Shea


Although the media is beneficial to society, it can be detrimental to the way we perceive ourselves and those around us. Through portrayals of women in advertisements and television the media can negatively affect body image and give way to eating disorders.

An estimated 8 million Americans currently suffer from eating disorders. The “thin ideal” in American society is a driving force in body image and eating issues. The “thin ideal” is the media’s glamorized portrayal of extremely thin women. While this phenomenon primarily affects women between the ages of 18 and 25, it has also been proven to effect adolescents as well as males. A study published in the Journal of Communication found that high school girls as young as 13 are effected by the media’s portrayal of ultra-thin models and celebrities.


The ultra thin women depicted in the media are constantly subconsciously influencing Americans. Young girls are most prone to developing eating disorders as a result of repeated exposure to such images.

The ultra thin women depicted in the media are constantly subconsciously influencing Americans. Young girls are most prone to developing eating disorders as a result of repeated exposure to such images.

Children as well as adults imitate what they see in the media. From appearance to behavior, humans learn by doing. Therefore, if children grow up seeing thin women in advertisements, on television, and in film they accept this as reality and try to imitate their appearance and their actions. This is known as the cultivation theory. By seeing images over and over people absorb what they see and are influenced by messages in the media over time.


Television advertisements are a perfect example of how the media uses the cultivation theory to manipulate the public. Advertisements are repetitious; the same ad can air between television programs, before a movie, and can be printed in a magazine. If said ad depicts an attractive, thin woman, viewers are repeatedly being shown how they “should” look. This constant “thin ideal” reinforcement is largely to blame for American’s obsession with body image.

Often considered a “westernized” disease, eating disorders are rare in other parts of the world. According to pubmedcentral.nih.gov, “The prevalence of eating disorders in non-Western countries is lower than that of the Western countries but appears to be increasing.” Eating disorders are on the rise across the globe because Western customs and ideals are spreading.

As nations become more technologically advanced, certain aspects of American culture are slowly finding their way around the world. From McDonalds to rap music, American culture has a huge impact on the world. The more ultra thin women are portrayed as desirable in other cultures, the more likely it is that eating disorders will become a global problem.

The media controls what the public thinks about through agenda setting. By discussing certain topics and not others, the media sets an agenda for what the public should perceive as important. According to healthywithin.com, ads for diets and diet related products generate $50 billion in revenue each year.

If public service announcements about eating disorders were made instead of ads for diet pills, the general public would be more aware of these serious issues. Unfortunately, public service announcements are often under funded, thus why not many eating disorder related announcements have aired. However, if attention was raised, and this issue became more widely known, those suffering could benefit tremendously.

Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign is one of the only advertisements on the market that uses real women instead of models to market their products. A leader in the fight against body image problems in girls, Dove also holds various self confidence work shops around the country to encourage young girls to think positively about themselves and love their bodies no matter what size they are. Though these are steps in the right direction, one company cannot undo years of the media reinforcing the “thin ideal.”

The media is a powerful tool that is both beneficial and detrimental to society. Without advertisements and entertainment industries would fail and life as we know it would be dramatically altered. However, the media comes at a price. We live in a world where 13 year old girls are no longer playing with makeup and flirting with boys, but rather crash dieting and starving themselves. It is important to keep in mind that the media is not reality. What is depicted on television, in film, and in magazines is not necessarily real life. As a whole society should use the media, not be used by it.