"Visual diet," or the images that women see, may be just as critical to their weight preferences as associating certain body types with success, according to research published Nov. 7 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Lynda Boothroyd at Durham University with colleagues from Newcastle University, United Kingdom.
Preferences for a particular body size may result from exposure to images of other women, or from learning that a certain body type is associated with aspirational goals such as high status or better health. To test which of these two influences may be more important in directing women's preferences, the researchers showed women a series of photographs of women of varying weights in high-end clothing, as well as eating-disordered patients in grey leotards. The participants' preferences for particular body types were evaluated before and after they saw different combinations of these pictures.
The results showed that viewing one type of figure, either smaller or larger, increased women's preference for that body type, regardless of whether they were depicted as aspirational or not. To a lesser extent, the researchers also found that exposure to aspirational images of overweight women could induce a preference for larger body types, even in the presence of lower-weight figures in the non-aspirational category. According to the authors, these results show significant support for the effect of a 'visual' diet.
Lead author Boothroyd says, "This really gives us some food for thought about the power of exposure to super-slim bodies. There is evidence that being constantly surrounded through the media by celebrities and models who are very thin contributes to girls and women having an unhealthy attitude to their bodies. Furthermore, it seems that even so-called 'cautionary' images against anorexia might still increase our liking for thinner bodies, such as those featuring the late French model Isabelle Caro, which is a sobering thought."