Consequences of idealized images in advertising: The relationship among social comparison, self-discrepancy, and body dissatisfaction.

Karyn N. Lewis Quantitative Research Methods Professor B. Austin Rochester Institute of Technology Fall 2007



Abstract: The proposed study will explore body image self-discrepancy and social comparison processes in their effect on women after exposure to thin-ideal images in the media. Female undergraduates with varying levels of body image self-discrepancy will be exposed to one of two series of print advertisements that either portray thin women (thin-ideal) or no women at all (control) to determine whether thin-ideal exposure contributes to increased body dissatisfaction and lowered self-esteem. In addition, social comparison processes will be analyzed in the relationship among exposure to thin-ideal advertisements, lowered self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction. It is predicted that women with high levels of body image self-discrepancy will be more likely to engage in social comparison from exposure to thin-ideal advertisements, as well as more likely to have those comparison processes induce lowered self-esteem. This research may provide evidence for a possible correlation between body dissatisfaction and proneness to social comparison effects from exposure to thin-ideal media.

Consequences of idealized images in advertising: The relationship among social comparison, self-discrepancy, and body dissatisfaction.

When looking at objects in a formal, aesthetic manner, beauty is based on balance, harmony, and juxtaposition of corresponding shapes and forms (e.g., cones, circles, squares, and rectangles). A human body viewed as a formal, aesthetic object, for example, does not have an arm, chest, and stomach—it has one rounded shape against another. In today's society, however, the human form is assessed on the basis of individual perception—one that is greatly affected by the media world around us (Spitzer, Henderson, & Zivian, 1999). As the foundation and economic lifeblood of the U.S. mass media, advertising sells a great deal more than products and services. Advertising sells values, images, and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, and popularity and normalcy, telling us who we are and who we should be. In effect, advertising across all platforms tends to create an idealistic world in which people are rarely ugly, overweight, poor, struggling or disabled (Lasch, 1978). The mass media, due to their pervasiveness and reach, is probably the most powerful transmitter of sociocultural ideals known today. It is apparent there is a strong cultural ideal of female beauty, and that ideal has become synonymous with thinness (Dittmar & Howard, 1994; Freedman, 1984).



The omnipresent ultra-thin female body image commonly presented in media and offered as the ideal sets an impossible-to-achieve standard for most women. Current societal standards for beauty inordinately emphasize the desirability of thinness, resulting in a mismatch between the ideal media image and an individual's actual body image. Nevertheless, the ideal is accepted and internalized by many women. Sociological and psychological literature on media effects has shown that exposure to media depictions of the thin ideal can have damaging effects for women (Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2002). Research suggests that exposure to these images can affect the way women evaluate themselves, leading to weight concerns (Posavac, Posavac, & Posavac, 1998), body dissatisfaction (Harrison & Cantor, 1997; Heinberg, Thompson, & Stormer, 1995; Richins, 1991), as well as depression (Heinberg & Thompson, 1995). In line with Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory, many researchers believe that such exposures instigate social comparison processes that typically have negative effects on self-evaluation (Irving, 2001; Stice, Schupak-Neuberg, Shaw, & Stein, 1994; Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999). If women internalize and strive for a beauty ideal that is rare and essentially unattainable, it stands to reason they are likely to experience body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem (Dittmar & Howard, 1994). The subject of body image is ideal for a theoretical investigation of social comparison effects because the self is deeply entwined with other body image variables. Social comparison theory suggests tendencies to compare ourselves to others we believe are similar to ourselves, particularly to determine our own levels of ability and success (Festinger, 1954; Wood, 1989). Furthermore, self-discrepancy theory may provide an explanation for social comparison effects caused by the media. Self-discrepancy theory proposes that different types of chronic discrepancies between the self-concept and different self-guides are associated with different motivational predispositions (Higgins, 1987). In other words, individuals possessing a body image self-discrepancy are likely to associate failure to reach their body ideals with their self-concept. High levels of self-discrepancy have been linked to various types of emotional distress, including disappointment and dissatisfaction (Strauman & Higgins, 1988), and low self-esteem (Moretti & Higgins, 1990). Previous research suggests a causal relationship between long-term exposure to media idealism and developing self-discrepancies. This relationship suggests that possession of a selfdiscrepancy may moderate the likelihood of making social comparisons to media idealism (Bessenoff, 2006). The present study examines the role of body self-discrepancy in social comparison processes from exposure to thin-ideal media, as well as in the negative effects of such comparisons, to determine the relationship between exposure to thin-ideal advertisements and self-esteem.



Hypotheses: H1: Women with high levels of body image self-discrepancy exposed to idealistic advertisements will report higher levels of body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem compared to lower self-discrepant women.

H2: Women exposed to idealistic advertisements will report being more likely to engage in social comparison and experience greater body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem than women not exposed to idealistic advertisements.

H3: Higher levels of self-reported body image self-discrepancy increase the likelihood for social comparison effects and low self-esteem after exposure to idealistic advertisements.

Rationale: Although there is some evidence that media play a critical role in shaping perceptions of body image, knowledge about the cognitive processes underlying media effects on body image is only beginning to emerge. Research suggests that advertising affects consumers’ tendency to implicitly or explicitly compare themselves with the idealized images portrayed in ads. However, despite the number of studies that support this view, it is still unclear why some women are susceptible to these media effects while others remain relatively unaffected. Although most observers concur that advertising images are not realistic, there is no consensus on the implications of this. A solid, theory-based explanation of why some women are more vulnerable to the negative self-evaluative effects of the thin female ideal is still lacking. Why does exposure to physically attractive female body shapes affect some women so strongly, whereas for others, these images seem to have a negligible effect? What moderates the relationship between viewing idealized body images and making a negative self-evaluation? These questions have not been thoroughly considered in a systematic, theory-based manner. Thus, further research is needed to investigate the role of determinants in the occurrence of social comparison effects. This study is a test of the hypotheses supporting the idea that idealized advertising images engender comparison—and in so doing create body dissatisfaction. The self-perception theory was chosen because of its recognized importance in social interactions; self-esteem arises via the interactions people have with each other. Circumstances that might increase or improve, or decrease or worsen, those individual interactions can raise or



lower an individual's self-esteem. (It is intuitively plausible that a majority of women may find images of the idealized female figure threatening.) Social outcomes depend heavily on perceived attractiveness among others (Striegel-Moore, Silberstein, & Rodin, 1986; Posavac, et al., 1998), and accordingly a perceived discrepancy is likely to be quite threatening to a woman’s self-esteem. Research indicates that public attitudes toward advertising have been worsening over time (Richins, 1991), though despite the extensive criticism of the use of ultra-thin models in advertising, the advertising industry seems reluctant to change its approach. Compared to the actual population of adult women, thin female models are drastically over-represented in magazines and television, so that only a small minority of women have the body size shown in virtually all advertising (Fouts & Burggraf, 1999; Spitzer, et al., 1999). Women’s ideal body weight as depicted in magazines has decreased over the last 40 years, so that the average model now is more than 20 percent underweight (Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, & Ahrens, 1992). Furthermore, parallels are frequently drawn between the afore-mentioned decreasing size of the female body ideal and both escalating levels of women’s body dissatisfaction and increases in the incidence of eating disorders (Stice, et al., 1994). By addressing the relationship between body dissatisfaction and the cognitive processes of the self, this study is my attempt to expose a possible correlation between body dissatisfaction and proneness to social comparison effects, and better understand the extent to which an individual accepts the thin societal standard of attractiveness as her own personal standard.

Review of Related Literature: Initial documentation of the link between media and body dissatisfaction comes from studies where researchers examine or analyze popular media over time to study the trends in body weight of the ideal standard of female beauty. In an attempt to explain the development and maintenance of body image disturbance, the most empirically supported approach is a sociocultural model—one that identifies social pressure as the drive behind an individual’s need to conform to body shape standards. In the classic investigation of this area of research, Garner, Garfinkel, Shwartz, and Thompson (1980) examined the body shapes of Playboy centerfolds and Miss America Pageant contestants and winners over a 20-year period between 1959-1978. A careful examination of the data collected revealed the mean weight of participants was significantly lower than that of the average female for the same period, as based on the 1959 Society of Actuaries norms used in the study. The data also indicated a decrease in bust and hip measurements over the 20-year period—with smaller measurements occurring with increased model



height. Wiseman et al. (1992) later replicated and extended the research of Garner et al. (1980) with a more current 10-year span from 1979-1988. Their analysis revealed that bust and hip measurements of Miss America Contestants and winners continued to decrease, while the average weight of Playboy centerfolds maintained the low rate reported by Garner et al. (1980). Although most of the research on the media’s influence on body image has taken the form of exposure analysis, recent research has focused on the individual’s awareness of sociocultural pressures, as well as one’s internalization of societal standards. Heinberg et al. (1995), for instance, developed the Sociocultural Attitudes Towards Appearance Questionnaire (SATAQ) as an index of both awareness and internalization of cultural pressures regarding appearance—finding each factor to be strongly related to multiple measures of body image. Heinberg and Thompson (1995) further explored the role of awareness and internalization of societal standards of appearance by examining the effect of television commercials on body image. For the study, female participants were exposed to a 10-minute video recording of advertisements containing either images considered to promote, or not to promote, societal standards of beauty and thinness. The women exposed to the idealized images, in conclusion, were less satisfied with their own body shapes than were the women exposed to the non-idealized images. Furthermore, the individuals who scored high on the SATAQ measures of awareness and internalization experienced the most negative emotional effects of exposure to the appearance-related video, suggesting that media images have a negative effect on body dissatisfaction. In one of the most methodologically sophisticated studies of the subject, Stice et al. (1994) utilized structural equation modeling to evaluate the role of media exposure on eating disturbances, while also testing the mediating role of gender role endorsement, ideal-body stereotype internalization, and body satisfaction. The media exposure scale used consisted of television exposure indexed as comedy, game shows, and dramas; and print media exposure indexed as entertainment/arts, health/fitness, and fashion/beauty magazines. They found a direct effect of exposure on eating disorder symptoms and gender role endorsement, as well as evidence that internalization of the thin ideal partially mediates the effects of exposure to ideal body images in the media. Research on high-school level women by Stice, Shaw, and Nemeroff (1998) further supports this view, concluding that perceived sociocultural pressure to be thin predicts ideal-body stereotype internalization and body dissatisfaction. Thin-ideal internalization acts as a powerful moderator of media exposure, which suggests that the experience of anxiety after seeing thin models is conditional on the extent to which women have internalized the thin ideal.



Overall, there is overwhelming evidence for the existence of the thin ideal for women. In a series of experiments, Posavac et al. (1998) consistently demonstrated that women who were dissatisfied with their bodies became more concerned about their weight after exposure to slides of thin models than non-dissatisfied women exposed to the same slides. This difference in body dissatisfaction did not appear for women exposed to realistic images of women or to non-human control images. Furthermore, only the individuals who were dissatisfied with their bodies reported increased weight concerns after comparison to the ideal. Continued test results suggested that women with low body dissatisfaction were not affected by thin-ideal imagery because they either had a body similar to the models’ or they grounded their self-worth in areas unrelated to body image. Although the pervasiveness of the media ensures that virtually all women are exposed to a substantial dose of idealized images, not all develop extreme preoccupation with weight or appearance. Perhaps the tendency to compare oneself to others possessing the thin ideal is the main source of negative effects produced by exposure to thin-ideal media, and the reactions to advertisements depicting the thin ideal differ for individuals depending on their level of self-discrepancy.

Methods: This study will examine body image self-discrepancy as an effect of social comparison processes from exposure to thin-ideal media, as well as an effect on self-esteem. To test the prediction that reactions to advertisements depicting the thin ideal will differ for each individual depending on their level of self-discrepancy, this study is designed to examine social comparison as a moderating variable in the relationship between exposure to thin-ideal advertisements and lowered self-esteem through increased body dissatisfaction. It is predicted that thinideal exposure will induce social comparison, which will then elicit lowered self-esteem. Thus, both selfdiscrepancy and social comparison will be examined simultaneously as affective and self-evaluative measures from exposure to thin-ideal advertising. Self-discrepancy as a variable will help determine whether or not the effects of thin-ideal exposure are stronger for individuals possessing greater levels of body image self-discrepancy than for those with lower levels of body image self-discrepancy. Social comparison as a variable will help determine the relationship between thin-ideal exposure and various outcomes that may be explained by the presence of social comparison processes—such that the effect of social comparison on the relationship between thin-ideal exposure and negative outcomes may be stronger for high versus low self-discrepant women. In this way, the effect of thinideal exposure on social comparison may differ by level of self-discrepancy, and social comparison may interact



with different levels of self-discrepancy to affect self-evaluation. For the study, women with varying levels of body image self-discrepancy will be exposed to print advertisements depicting the thin ideal. Body image self-discrepancy will be measured through survey questions, from which the difference in perception of one’s own body physique and the ideal body physique will be calculated. Participants will be exposed to one of two types of advertising: one set depicting thin women, and another set displaying no models at all. Dependent measures will include indices of body dissatisfaction and self-esteem incorporating three sub-areas: appearance, social, and performance self-esteem. This project proposal will be sent to the IRB for approval prior to implementation of the actual experiment. A convenience sample of roughly 50 female college students will be recruited from the Department of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State for this study, in which they will engage in a survey-based experiment consisting of two steps. The study will take place in a classroom setting with individuals at their own seats. At the start of the study, participants will be handed a brief survey incorporating the Pictorial Body Image Scale developed by Stunkard, Sorensen, and Schulsinger (Kety, Roland, Sigman, & Matthysse, 1983) consisting of nine female figures that range in sizes from extremely thin to extremely overweight. (The survey that will be used can be found in Appendix B). This survey scale will be used to determine participants' actual and ideal body images, which will then allow for a measurement of actual-ideal discrepancy score by subtracting each participant's ideal body image score from their actual body image score. The first question asks participants to choose one of the figures that most closely matches their own body shape, which will provide the actual body image for each participant. The second and third questions ask participants to choose the model that they consider most attractive or they would most like to look like, which provides the ideal body image for each participant. The difference between the chosen ideal and the actual body image (questions 1 and 2; then 1 and 3) will determine participants’ levels of body image self-discrepancy. In this case, larger numbers will indicate a greater distance between the actual and the ideal in the direction of wanting a thinner body. It is apparent that the silhouette method is surprisingly accurate because there is a monotonic increase in percentage overweight from the first to the ninth silhouette. Participants will have 5 minutes to complete the brief survey, which will then be collected and a packet of 4 advertisements will be handed out randomly. In the second part of the experiment, participants will be randomly assigned to one of the two conditions— either the set of advertisements with thin models or the control group with no models at all. This depends on the packet of advertisements they are randomly handed after completing and handing in the survey incorporating the



Pictorial Body Image Scale. Each set of advertisements will consist of one print ad for perfume, one for jewelry, one for clothing, and one for a cosmetics item. The test set will include a thin, attractive model in each ad (all women), while the control set of advertisements will not have models in them at all. These advertisements will be selected from full-page color advertisements appearing in popular women's magazines (e.g., Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Vogue), for a total of eight print advertisements. The participants will be asked to study the advertisements for a total of 2 minutes once everyone has received their packet. After two minutes, each participant will be handed the experimental survey of which they will be asked to complete based on their reactions towards the print advertisements. The 20-item questionnaire by Heatherton and Polivy (1991) will be included in the experimental survey as a means to assess the three sub-areas of self-esteem: seven questions related to appearance self-esteem, seven questions related to social self-esteem, and six questions related to performance self-esteem. Participants will rate their relative extent of agreement with each item on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Larger numbers will indicate higher levels of self-esteem. Thoughts relating to social comparison will also be assessed in the survey with seven statements developed by Richins (1991) that will measure the extent to which participants agree while looking at the advertisements. Participants will be asked to respond to the same 5point Likert scale mentioned above. Larger numbers for these statements will indicate having experienced the survey statements to a greater extent while looking at the advertisements—and thus attending a higher degree of thoughts related to social comparison. The test questions taken from all three sources will be mixed together in no specific order throughout the survey. Participants will be given as much time as needed to complete the experimental survey, which they will hand back along with their packet of print advertisements upon exiting the classroom. Silence will be maintained throughout the procedure, and the results of both surveys will be analyzed for data correlations to assess the extent accuracy of the research hypotheses of this study.

Conclusion: I’ve hypothesized that the occurrence of social comparison effects after exposure to ideal images is determined by both the contents of the image and the extent to which the perceiver is body-dissatisfied. One limitation of the current study is the number of participants who can be recruited to participate in the study as a convenience sample. A second limitation is that the participants will primarily be college-aged white females, limiting the generalizability of findings in terms of age, educational level, race, and culture. Furthermore, this study



will not provide an explanation for possible results showing that not every woman feels bad about herself after exposure to an idealistic image or why the effects of exposure to ideal images may not be equally adverse for all women, further limiting the generalizability of the findings. However, the aim of this study is to clarify when and why women are negatively affected by images of the thin ideal and the conditions under which social comparison results in contrastive effects on the self. As previously mentioned, previous research has suggested that images of physically attractive women may indeed affect some women more strongly than others. This study will help determine the factors involved in this affect, and thus provide a theory-based explanation of why some women are more vulnerable to these effects.



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Posavac, H.D., Posavac, S.S, & Posavac, E.J. (1998). Exposure to media images of female attractiveness and concern with body weight among young women. Sex Roles, 38(3/4), 187-201. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct. Richins, M. (1991). Social Comparison and the idealized images of advertising. Journal of Consumer Research, 18(1), 7-83. Retrieved September 17, 2007, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct. Spitzer, B.L., Henderson, K.A., & Zivian, M.T. (1999). Gender differences in population versus media body sizes: A comparison over four decades. Sex Roles, 40(7-8), 545-565. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct. Stice, E., Schupak-Neuberg, E., Shaw, H.E., & Stein, R.I. (1994, November). Relation of media exposure to eating disorder symptomatology: An examination of mediating mechanisms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103(4), 836-840. Stice, E., Shaw, H.E., & Nemeroff, C. (1998). Dual pathway model of bulimia nervosa: Longitudinal support for dietary restraint and affect-regulation mechanisms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 17, 129-149. Strauman, T.J., & Higgins, E.T. (1988). Self-discrepancies as predictors of vulnerability to distinct syndromes of chronic emotional distress. Journal of Personality, 56, 685-707. Striegel-Moore, R., Silberstein, L.R., & Rodin, J. (1986). Toward and understanding of risk factors for bulimia. American Psychologist, 41, 246-263. Thompson, J.K., Heinberg, L.J., Altabe, M., & Tantleff-Dunn, S. (1999). Exacting beauty: Theory, assessment and treatment of body image disturbance. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. Wiseman, C.V., Gray, J.J., Mosimann, J.E., & Ahrens, A.H. (1992). Cultural expectations of thinness in women: An update. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 11(1), 85-89. Wood, J. V. (1989, September). Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes. Psychological Bulletin, 106(2), 231-248. Retrieved September 17, 2007, from EBSCOhost via Academic Search Elite.



APPENDIX A—Search Procedures: Keywords: advertising; body-satisfaction; body satisfaction; body-dissatisfaction; body dissatisfaction; comparison; comparisons; dissatisfaction; expectations; exposure; female; females; idealistic images; idealism; images; media; perception; perceptions; satisfaction; self-discrepancy; self discrepancy; self-discrepancies; self discrepancies; self-esteem; self esteem; self-image; self image; social-comparison; social comparison; thinideal; thin ideal; thinness; women Databases: Proquest Direct—ABI/INFORM Complete; ABI/INFORM Dateline; ABI/INFORM Global; ABI/INFORM Trade & Industry; American Medical Association; Dissertations & Theses; Dissertations & Theses: Full Text; ProQuest Health Management; ProQuest Newspapers; Research Library CSA Illumina—Sociological Abstracts; ERIC; Sociological Abstracts; PAIS Archive EBSCO HOST—Academic Search Elite; Business Source Elite; Communication & Mass Media Complete; Newspaper Source; PsycARTICLES; PsycINFO References: Materials from database research were also inspected for reference use Time frame: 1975-2007



Appendix B—Instrumentation: Body Image Survey: (Kety, Roland, Sigman, & Matthysse, 1983)



Experimental Survey:

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