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My dissertation focuses on the issue of the media and its impact on eating disorders. I chose to investigate this area as it has recently become a popular topic of discussion. The research questions I aimed to answer include the extent to which images of slim models/celebrities have on body image disturbance. Whether males are affected to the same degree as women, and the extent to which “average” sized models would reduce body image disturbance were also of interest to me.
To improve my understanding of the topic I read material on general eating disorders, the controversial side to advertising, and some brief literature on eating disorders in males. To answer my research questions I interviewed participants of student age. They were asked to comment on images of both slim models, and average sized models in the media and gave their perceptions of body image in relation to broader life. To look at the other side of the debate the Managing Directors of three advertising agencies provided views on the impact of advertising on body image etc.
Results suggested that males are not affected by the media in the same way as females, which was supported by the advertising agencies who claimed they use male models in a different way to female models. Participants also suggested they purchase goods based on price, quality etc, not on the model. It was also apparent that the majority of participants did not want to see average sized models in the media.
I made the decision to base my dissertation around the issue of the media and its impact on eating disorders as I am looking to follow a career in the area. Therefore I feel it is imperative for me to understand the ethical issues surrounding the industry. Also, of key importance is that the media's effect on body image has increasingly become a strong topic of discussion, even reaching political levels. As the size zero debate has spread rapidly to become a world wide argument (due to the use of underweight, unhealthy models), and Dove have come under public scrutiny for using average sized models (size 12-16), I felt it would be highly relevant. Not only does my topic relate directly to real life, but there are constantly new developments taking place. Furthermore, as a female I have personally felt pressure to be thin, so for me this is an area of personal interest.
In order to focus my research I formulated a series of research questions, for which I aimed to discover the answers. These questions were chosen as they all related to the current debates on body image. By answering these questions I felt I would be able to contribute to an area in which there is a great deal of conflicting information. My research questions included:
1. To what extent do images of slim models and celebrities in the media cause body image disturbance?
2. Are males affected by slim, attractive models in the media to the same degree as women?
3. If “average” sized models were used more frequently in the media would we see a reduce body image disturbance?
According to the Times online, size 16 is now the average sized body shape in the UK. (www.timesonline.co.uk). To provide a range of bodies, for my dissertation the term “average” will refer to a size 12-16, the same sizes used in the Dove campaign for real beauty advertisements.
To gain a deeper insight into the area of eating disorders I initially constructed a literature review. During this stage I examined material on general eating disorders, the controversial side to advertising, and some brief literature on male eating disorders. I discovered there were several gaps in the literature, for example there is very limited research on perceptions of body image and eating disorders in males. In addition to this, most authors wrote from either a psychological, sociological, or lecturing background, with no literature written from a media background. This caused the arguments to be quite one-sided, so by questioning advertising agencies on their opinions I was able to fill in some of these gaps.
To answer my research questions I chose to interview participants of student age. To do this I asked them to comment on images of both slim models, and average sized models in the media. To gain further insight I questioned participants on their perceptions of body image in relation to broader life, including its impact on success, popularity etc. In addition to this participants were required to indicate where they believed their body shape to be on the “Stunkard, Sorensen and Schulsinger's (1983) 9-point pictorial body image scale” after looking at slim models, and again after looking at average sized models to see if there was a difference in body image perception after looking at different sized models.
In order to increase my understanding on the area I chose to look at the other side of the debate by sending questionnaires to three advertising agencies. I chose to use three agencies as they all offered different services, enabling me to cover a broad spectrum of the industry. The first firm is based in Coleshill, Birmingham. They are a rapidly expanding, fully integrated communications agency, which engages in business all over the world. Their clients include the South Birmingham College, Ministry of Sound, and Coventry University. The second firm is based in Solihull. They began as a consultancy firm, but have now developed into a multi-faceted marketing communications agency. Their services include direct marketing, advertising, public relations and e-business solutions. Their clients include Sanderson Motorhouse, Jet, and Touchstone. The final agency is based in Leamington. They are also a fully integrated communications agency, and have offices all over the country. Their clients include Cadbury World, Calor Gas, and Isuzu.
Questionning these agencies involved the Managing Directors providing their views on the impact of advertising on body image, and their experiences in using underweight and average sized models in their campaigns.
After analysing my results I discovered some common themes, which also allowed me to answer my research questions. The most informative was that males are not affected by the media in the same way as females, and whilst females have an emotional response to models, males simply see them as an extension of a product. This was also supported by the advertising agencies who suggested they use male models in a different way to female models. Secondly, participants suggested they pay little attention to the model, and purchase a product based on its attributes, such as price and quality. Finally, it was apparent that whilst participants acknowledged that average sized models may provide a positive body image, particularly for younger generations, the majority did not want to see them shown more frequently in the media. This was emphasised by the advertising agencies who suggested consumers want to see models they can aspire to be, which according to them, average sized models cannot live up to.
These findings reject several of the ideas presented in existing literature (which will be further explained in the following chapter), allowing me to provide a contribution to the area involving the Medias impact on eating disorders.
4. Literature review
Body image and eating disorders are becoming highly popular areas of discussion, a notion highlighted by the vast in-depth material currently in existence. Body image disturbance has recently become a strong topic of debate not only in the media, but also by politicians, as there is a growing concern at the increase in numbers of those suffering from image insecurities. According to Lightstone (2006):
“In the United States approximately 10% of girls and women (numbering up to 10 million) are suffering from diagnosed eating disorders. Of these at least 50, 000 will die as a direct result” (Lightstone, J 2006).
This seems an alarming statistic, which has motivated me to contribute more to this complex area of study by basing my dissertation on the subject. Students are the target age for many magazines, and as a result are most vulnerable to the effects. Therefore, by questioning those who are considered high risk, my research will provide a deeper insight into an area that is becoming increasingly significant.
Many authors suggest that young women are at most risk from eating disorders, primarily due to the strong cultural emphasis on females being body beautiful (Orbach, S 1989; Orbach, S 1986; Lightstone, J 2006; Pipher, M 1994; Dunkley, D. M & Grilo, C. M, Sarwer, D. B & Crerand C. E, Mack, D.E, Strong, H.A, Kowalski, K.C, Crocker, P.R.E 2006; Sharfan, R, Lee, M, Payne, E, Fairburn, C.G 2006; Calogero, R.M, Davis, W.N, Thompson, K.J 2004; Jeacle, I 2003). I acknowledge there are many causes of eating disorders and body image disturbance, but for the purpose of my dissertation I have chosen to focus particularly on how the media, through their use of celebrities and advertising communications, may affect body image disturbance and perhaps increase the prevalence of eating disorders.
Lightstone (2006) in particular was an insightful writer for my research as she wrote on her website about how the stereotypical notion of a beauty ideal can affect the occurrence of eating disorders. She suggests that obsessive eating behaviour and body insecurities are a response to various social circumstances that women experience throughout life. According to Lightstone:
“Women are enslaved to a beauty myth, chained to the false belief that our value is based on our appearance alone” (Lightstone, J 2006).
Throughout my research the aim is to discover whether this quotation suggested by Lightstone is in fact true, as many of her arguments appear one sided. For example she makes generalisations based on women who already have eating disorders, through direct questioning and the use of case references. Of course, this would lead to her results being bias and rather one sided. Furthermore, according to Lightstone (2006):
“In this culture we women are starving ourselves, starving our children and loved ones, gorging ourselves, gorging our children and loved ones, alternating between starving and gorging, purging, obsessing, and all the while hating, pounding and wanting to remove that which makes us female: our bodies, our curves, our pear shaped selves” (Lightstone, J 2006).
Here, Lightstone speaks about culture creating such behaviour, but this is not necessarily the case for all women, and she may in fact merely be describing the behaviour she has witnessed from females with existing eating disorders. As a teenager, and now even more so as a young adult, I have personally felt pressure to become the body ideal presented, but of course this is not necessarily the case for everyone.
Orbach (1989) writes from both her professional and personal experience of working with female sufferers at the Women's Therapy Centre in London. She takes an interesting view in her writing by speaking not only from her personal opinion, but also features other authors and experts in the field of eating disorders, including Annie Fursland. Fursland writes about the shame women feel when they indulge in food and as a result continuously view themselves as inferior. She further expands on this idea when she says:
“We are surrounded by images equating thinness and youth with success, fame and glamour. Advertising uses young, thin models, most film stars are young and thin. We inevitably compare ourselves with them and inevitably feel failures” (Fursland, A, cited in Orbach, S 1989:20).
Whilst both Orbach and Fursland provide a good insight into the minds of women through interviews, their points are not based on empirical findings as they show no research into the link between the media, culture and eating disorders. Furthermore, much like Lightstone, her writing is based on women with existing eating disorders- with no reference to the effect the media may have on regular women who do not suffer from a diagnosed eating disorder. I can certainly empathise with many of the comments made, but I would like to discover for myself whether such ideas can be proven through evidence. This is why I will be researching into whether advertising does in fact have an impact on body image disturbance. Rather than focussing purely on women, as Orbach does in her writing, I aim to contribute to the area by researching into whether males are equally affected by the media's portrayal of the ideal body image.
In addition, Orbach provides abstract ideas as to the causes of body image disturbances, but fails to put forward solid evidence to support her arguments, for example the notion that women turn to eating disorders as a result of a denial of self expression is described, but she fails to establish any empirical findings on which this is based. By asking participants how they interpret slim models in the media, and how it affects their body image, I am able to determine whether the media does in fact have an impact. Whilst Orbach criticises the use of slim models in the media spotlight, she does not provide an alternative, or any information with regards to how women would feel if average sized models were used in the media. Throughout my research I will be asking participants to give their opinions on images of average sized women and men in the media, and will be asking them to give their opinions on the Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty”. By doing so I will be better able to determine not only whether consumers want to see average sized models in the media, but also whether such models would reduce the occurrence of image related insecurities.
According to Orbach:
“There is hardly a woman in the west between 15 and 55 who doesn't fret about their body, who doesn't wish to change something about it, who doesn't imagine that things in her life would be better if only her body were different” (Orbach, S 1989:7).
This extract highlights the significance of my research, and as it affects such a large number of women, I believe this strongly justifies my research within the area. The media, and in particular advertising have been repeatedly criticised for praying on the insecurities of women (and increasingly men) in order to sell more products. By offering a product that will supposedly solve all their problems, women in particular are seduced by the idea, but become disappointed when it fails to work. As Orbach suggests, this leads to women becoming increasingly insecure. Whilst this is the judgment given by the majority of literature in the area (particularly in the work by Lightstone, Orbach and Fursland), I failed to find any research that looked at the media's opinion on whether they have an impact on body image disturbance. Therefore to expand on existing research in the field I have chosen to question two advertising agencies on the topic in order to gain an insight into the other side of the argument.
Throughout my research I discovered numerous articles where authors believed advertising is one of the primary triggers of negative body image (Sheehan, K 2004; Schudson, M 1986; Williamson, J 2002; Goffman, E 1979; Scanlon, J 2000; Manca, A & Manca, L 1994;Millum, T 1975; Thompson, K.J 1999; Hesse-Biber, S, Leavy, P.E, Quinn, C.E, Zoino, J 2006; Lavine, H 1999; Fallon, E & Hausenblas, H 2005; Brown, J & Witherspoon, E 2002; Smith, R.J 1993; Monro, F.J & Huon, G.F 2006).
Sheehan (2004) was interesting as she uses a range of perspectives, looking at the economic, political, social and ethical elements of advertising. She takes a blunt approach and although she looks at a range of views, leaving the reader to form their own opinion, her work focuses around her belief that advertising is a highly controversial industry. I found her work insightful as she looks at much of the history behind advertising, including the use of stereotypes (particularly the depiction of women as sex objects), products that have been considered controversial, and covers the broader area of consumer culture. Of particular interest to my own research was how she explained the reasons behind the increased intent to target the female demographic. According to Sheehan:
“In addition to their changing roles in the labour force and in the family, women have also increased their powers as consumers. Today women yield incredible buying power. They purchase or influence the purchase of 80% of all consumer goods” ” (Sheehan, K, 2004:92)
Whilst this may be the case, and explains why advertisers are tapping into women's insecurities to encourage them to buy more goods, it fails to explain why advertisers equally use images of attractive males in their campaigns. By questioning workers within an advertising agency I will be better able to gain an insight into such decisions.
Sheehan expands on her concept of the role advertising plays by suggesting that:
“Striving to meet the cultural ideal is a key selling message used by many types of advertisers involved in selling beauty orientated products” (Jacobson & Mazur, cited in, Sheehan, K, 2004:98).
Again, this statement, as far as I am aware from reading the material, is not based on the views of those within the advertising industry itself. Therefore one of the aims of my research is to investigate into whether advertisers believe they encourage a cultural ideal in order to sell beauty orientated products.
Sheehan continues to explain the background behind consumer choice, taking an alternative approach by linking it back to the age of childhood:
“Think of fairytales from your youth. The good women tend to be young and beautiful and the bad women are either old or ugly” (Sheehan, K, 2004:97)
Throughout her work Sheehan makes some very strong, persuasive arguments, but sometimes fails to fully develop her points. Particularly with regard to this extract on fairytales, the material is very brief. As a reader I do not know whether young and beautiful “goodies” in fairytales result in women at a later age thinking negatively towards body images that do not conform to this, or whether this is in reality not the case at all. By asking participants to compare their views on slim models with those of average sized models, and enquiring into the opinions on the Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty”, I believe I am able to further develop these qu
QUESTION THIRTY TWO - What do you feel are the primary factors that cause people to feel insecure about their body shape?
QUESTION THIRTY THREE - Do you feel advertising has any role to play?
QUESTION THIRTY FOUR - Are you aware of Dove's campaign for real beauty?
QUESTION THIRTY FIVE - What are your feelings on this campaign?
QUESTION THIRTY SIX - Do you think more companies should use such an approach? Why/why not?
QUESTION THIRTY SEVEN - Would you be more or less inclined to buy a product from a company that used average sized models, like Dove, in their campaigns?
QUESTION THIRTY EIGHT - If average sized models were used more frequently in the media do you think generally this would reduce body image disturbance?
QUESTION THIRTY NINE - If average sized models were used in advertising do you think you would still always strive to improve your body shape?