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Real Bodies on TV Make Women Feel Worse, Study Finds

According to new research, TV shows that try to improve body image actually have the opposite effect.

October 14th, 2011

Tags: Body Image
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Real Bodies TV

Which TV show is better for your body image: “How to Look Good Naked,” which encourages real women to love their bodies, or “America’s Next Top Model,” which parades skinny, young girls hoping to become the next Tyra?

Sound like a no-brainer? It’s not.

New research coming out next year in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, finds that TV shows promoting positive body image actually have the opposite effect—a conclusion most people wouldn’t expect.

MORE: Fat Talk: Ditch This Bad Habit

In the study, 120 female college students were separated into three groups: 40 students watched a TV show promoting positive body image (the British version of “How to Look Good Naked”), 40 watched a show promoting the thin ideal (“Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model”), and 40 watched a neutral nature documentary.

QUIZ: Do You Fat Talk ? Find Out for a Better Body Image.

The researchers, led by YouBeauty Attraction Expert, Viren Swami, Ph.D., measured mood, body anxiety and body weight dissatisfaction before and after subjects watched each show. The nature documentary boosted happiness, “Next Top Model” lowered it, and “How to Look Good Naked” had no effect. But more importantly, “How to Look Good Naked” and “Next Top Model” both significantly increased body anxiety and body weight dissatisfaction

MORE: Could You Go a Year Without Mirrors?

When “How to Look Good Naked” premiered in the United States, it was the biggest premiere event in Lifetime network’s history. A rave review in the New York Times called the show “the greatest triumph of cognitive therapy that reality television has ever produced” and “an antidote to makeover programs that tell us flesh is what must be made over.” 

That praise was well-intentioned, but clearly a little misguided.  

The main problem, Swami says, is that shows promoting positive body image define two types of women: the thin model versus the so-called real woman. “They’re constructing an idea of what it means to be a real woman,” he says. “The real woman, they say, rejects the thin ideal but still feels the need to work on the body.” In other words, the emphasis is still on attractiveness.

The thin ideal, common in American culture and often studied by body image experts, is the idea that thinness is a necessary prerequisite for attractiveness, as well as success, happiness or social value. Body-focused shows can reinforce similar values—even when they don’t mean to.

MORE: Pics of Real Women May Be More Harmful Than Helpful

On “How to Look Good Naked,” host Carson Kressley, best known for “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” does just that. He introduces women as though their body image is a core attribute (“wife, mother and body-loather, Kelly”); helps women look slimmer (by, say, finding the right bra to hide fat rolls); and unwittingly casts women as bodies rather than people (embodied, in one of many examples, by a giant billboard of a naked contestant, reading “What do you think of this body?”). While the intention is great, the show’s methods undercut its message.

“Because the focus is on the body, you become more aware of your own concerns and how you feel about your body,” says Swami. “The women [on ‘How to Look Good Naked’] all have problems with their bodies and are trying to improve them. The implicit suggestion is that you should be doing the same.”

MORE: The Spirit Junkie's Secret to Loving Your Body

That begs the question: Are similar well-meaning shows, like talk show makeover episodes, NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” or TLC’s “What Not To Wear,” that use fitness and fashion to boost body confidence, also doing more harm than good? 

Unfortunately for all of us viewers, we don’t have the benefit of the personal trainers, stylists and makeup artists that makeover shows employ to help the contestants feel gorgeous. “The positive benefit for people on the show”—if it exists at all—“may not be felt at home,” says Swami. 

If you want to feel good about your body, flip to “Planet Earth” on the Discovery Channel. Or turn off the TV and take a walk.

COLUMN: Increase Your Self-Compassion

Thinkstock
Real Bodies TV

Which TV show is better for your body image: “How to Look Good Naked,” which encourages real women to love their bodies, or “America’s Next Top Model,” which parades skinny, young girls hoping to become the next Tyra?

Sound like a no-brainer? It’s not.

New research coming out next year in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, finds that TV shows promoting positive body image actually have the opposite effect—a conclusion most people wouldn’t expect.

MORE: Fat Talk: Ditch This Bad Habit

In the study, 120 female college students were separated into three groups: 40 students watched a TV show promoting positive body image (the British version of “How to Look Good Naked”), 40 watched a show promoting the thin ideal (“Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model”), and 40 watched a neutral nature documentary.

QUIZ: Do You Fat Talk ? Find Out for a Better Body Image.

The researchers, led by YouBeauty Attraction Expert, Viren Swami, Ph.D., measured mood, body anxiety and body weight dissatisfaction before and after subjects watched each show. The nature documentary boosted happiness, “Next Top Model” lowered it, and “How to Look Good Naked” had no effect. But more importantly, “How to Look Good Naked” and “Next Top Model” both significantly increased body anxiety and body weight dissatisfaction

MORE: Could You Go a Year Without Mirrors?

When “How to Look Good Naked” premiered in the United States, it was the biggest premiere event in Lifetime network’s history. A rave review in the New York Times called the show “the greatest triumph of cognitive therapy that reality television has ever produced” and “an antidote to makeover programs that tell us flesh is what must be made over.” 

That praise was well-intentioned, but clearly a little misguided.  

The main problem, Swami says, is that shows promoting positive body image define two types of women: the thin model versus the so-called real woman. “They’re constructing an idea of what it means to be a real woman,” he says. “The real woman, they say, rejects the thin ideal but still feels the need to work on the body.” In other words, the emphasis is still on attractiveness.

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