If you’ve ever found yourself enviously scrolling through photos of that Instagram fitness model with the impossibly thin and toned body and feeling like there’s no way you could measure up, you’re probably right. Most people can’t.
Rachel Rodgers, an associate professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at Northeastern, argues that seeing such “idealized and unrealistic” images can be detrimental to one’s body image and mental health.
Young people and women are especially at risk, she said. A study she conducted in 2017 found a link between the amount of media girls as young as 3 years old are exposed to and weight, eating, and appearance-related attitudes.
“Exposure to these images leads people to endorse these ideals and to feel pressure to try and look that way,” Rodgers said Thursday in a taped segment for NBC’s The Today Show. “It’s impossible to hold yourself up to those standards.”
Rodgers, who studies sociocultural influences on body image such as the media, the beauty and fitness industries, and our peers and families, was asked to comment on the effect of digitally altered and manipulated photos on self-esteem and self-image.
“We know from research that using images that are less idealized result in less body dissatisfaction. So images that are more realistic make people feel comfortable with their own appearance and more satisfied.”
Her remarks came on the same day that CVS unveiled an initiative to make it clear when photos of models in its ads have been digitally altered. A year ago, the company pledged to stop airbrushing photos in stores, online, and on social media with the goal of promoting more realistic beauty standards.
As part of its “Beauty in Real Life” initiative, the retailer agreed to distinguish its un-retouched photos with a watermark that reads “beauty unaltered,” and pledged to no longer change or enhance “a person’s shape, size, proportion, skin or eye color, wrinkles, or any other individual characteristics.”
Rodgers said that we’ll all be better off if the media stops Photoshopping images and diversifies the individuals it portrays in ads. “We know from research that using images that are less idealized result in less body dissatisfaction,” she said. “So images that are more realistic make people feel comfortable with their own appearance and more satisfied.”
The ramifications of failing to address this problem aren’t pretty, Rodgers said, suggesting that body dissatisfaction often leads to severe conditions that can include eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and “weight control behaviors that can have a very harmful effect on health and even be life-threatening.”
“Any efforts that can be made by companies to limit the amount to which they are exposing people to idealized imagery and make the media environment more supportive of body image will make a significant impact,” she said.