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JU Prof. Heather Hausenblas researches effects of “ideal body” images on mood, eating behavior

Look at magazine or online ads of folks with near-perfect bodies and you might be forgiven if you feel a bit dissatisfied with the status of your own physique.

But can viewing these images really influence you to become despondent or develop an eating disorder?

Apparently, yes, at least for some people. 

JU Prof. Heather Hausenblas

New research by Jacksonville University Associate Professor of Exercise Science Heather Hausenblas and researchers from the University of Florida, University of South Florida and Kenyon College has found a small to moderate impact on depression, anger, self-esteem and body dissatisfaction among high-risk individuals.

The team conducted a meta-analysis – or study of studies – to learn the results, which were published online in November and will be printed in Clinical Psychology Review in February.

“We saw that people who are more at risk, are overweight or have low self-esteem, they can internalize these media images of the ideal body, and then they are at even greater risk for depression and body dissatisfaction,” Hausenblas said. “When people report they are in a worse mood or have body dissatisfaction, that can be a precursor to eating disorders.”

While other studies have found a rise in body image concerns, this was the first meta-analysis to find the links to depression and eating behavior issues with acute exposure to the images.

The research team looked at all types of media, including magazines but also music videos and TV commercials, she said.

“I don’t think people really realize the effect of these images on billboards, on TV and in magazines, how large an effect they can have on how people feel. It can lead to better behavior, but often it leads to more negative types of behavior.”

Hausenblas noted that the types of bodies being viewed in ads and videos likely make up less than one percent of the population.

It’s tough to educate people to be “media literate” when the images have become so pervasive, she added. Even children, some as young as five, are now expressing worries about dieting because they are so plugged in to multi-media images and don’t like how they look.

Men, meanwhile, have become increasingly concerned about their muscle mass, some to the point of working out excessively, going on extreme diets or using steroids to try to live up to media standards.

“Sure, the people in these images are beautiful, and now this is what society deems the ideal physique. But it will be achieved by very few people,” Hausenblas said. “Most of us can handle it, but people at high risk internalize it.”

The study, titled “Media Effects of Experimental Presentation of the Ideal Physique on Eating Disorder Symptoms: A Meta-analysis of Laboratory Studies,” is in Clinical Psychology Review and viewable at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272735812001638. It is also below as a viewable .pdf: