Helen Bennett is a freelance writer previously employed in the healthcare sector for many years, with a varied career that took in many aspects of helping people, particularly in matters relating to diet, nutrition and fitness. She joins us today to discuss the positive influence of plus-size models.
Plus-Size Models: A Psychological Boost for Women
The rise in popularity of plus-size models has been the subject of much debate in the media of late. While many consumers of media and social media welcome the advent of a greater variety of body types and praise the positive effect they can have on young women, others have criticized the phenomenon. The most widely cited scandal involved 1980s supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, who indirectly stated that being full figured and being healthy, were mutually exclusive concepts.
Ashley Graham, arguably the world’s most famous full-figured model, noted that health was an individual matter that could not be judged from a photograph. The model has a 29-inch waist which is far from ‘dangerous’ according to experts on ‘metabolically healthy obesity’, who deem that in general, women with a high BMI but a waist size of no more than 35 inches, can be healthy, whenever their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels are within normal range, they have normal sensitivity to insulin and they enjoy good physical fitness. Experts at Harvard University note that genes also play an important role in how a person’s body and metabolism respond to weight – some may be genetically protected from becoming insulin resistant, which is good news in terms of keeping life-threatening illnesses at bay.
Although matters of physical health continue to be debated, one area that is clearly benefited from the curvy model phenomenon, is our psychological health. A new study by researchers at Florida State University has shown that women were more likely to pay attention to and recall average and plus-size models, in comparison to thin models. They also enjoyed a boost in their psychological health, as measured by psychophysiological responses, when they were exposed to these images.
For the study, researchers gathered 49 college-aged women, all of whom had expressed the desire to be thinner. The women were shown various photographs of women of different sizes—thin, average and plus-size. The researchers recorded the participants’ psychophysiological responses; after image exposure, the women also answered questions about their level of satisfaction with their own bodies and the way they compared themselves to the models they had seen in the imagery. The results showed very different reactions to thin and plus-sized models, respectively.
When participants looked at thin models, they made more comparisons, paid less attention to the details of the photographs and remembered less about the models as a whole. They also reported lower body satisfaction, which can be harmful to mental health. However, when average and plus-sized women were seen in images, participants concentrated more on the images, made fewer comparisons with themselves and remembered the models more. They also reported feeling better about their own body image. The researchers concluded that portraying more realistic body types in the media can wield important advantages for women, primarily because it would help them feel more body positive.
Other research has shown that poor body image can be damaging to more than just a woman’s psychological wellbeing. One study carried out at the University of Mississippi Health showed that having negative feelings about one’s body can lead women to engage in riskier health behaviors, including substance abuse or unsafe sex. The researchers also stated that it was important for parents and those producing social media content, to help young women overcome these issues by avoiding the publication of unrealistic images.
Another study published by researchers at Chapman University found that both men and women can benefit greatly from feeling good about their bodies. "Our study shows that men's and women's feelings about their weight and appearance play a major role in how satisfied they are with their lives overall," stated the lead researcher.
Despite the known effects of poor body image, only 24 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women feel very or extremely satisfied with their weight and only 50 per cent feel somewhat to very satisfied. There is still an unrealistic expectation on women to be thin, and men to display a lean/athletic physique. In addition to unrealistic imagery published by the media, additional factors that are linked with lesser satisfaction with one’s appearance and weight include watching numerous hours of television a week, and having a fearful or dismissive attachment style.
While we still have a long way to go in terms of self-acceptance, the research universally shows that repeated exposure to unrealistic body images can influence our eating patterns and psychological wellbeing. The media has certainly come a long way in terms of diversity and acceptance.
photo credit: Charlotte Astrid <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/47526043@N04/4497292636">Body Image. The subjective concept of one's physical appearance based on self-observation and the reactions of others.</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>