Surprising Spin on Women's Self-Esteem

Moderately Thin Models May Help -- Not Hurt -- Women's Self-Esteem

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 15, 2006 -- Models, long blamed for making women feel badly about their own bodies, might actually improve women's self-esteem about their looks.

At least, that might be true of moderately thin models, according to a draft of a study scheduled for publication in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The key finding: Women felt better about their own looks after seeing pictures of moderately thin models. Gaunt or heavy models didn't have the same effect, the study shows.

The researchers were Dirk Smeesters, PhD, and Naomi Mandel, PhD. Smeesters is an assistant professor of marketing at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Mandel is an assistant professor of marketing at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.

Sizing Themselves Up

The study hinged on the idea that women would compare themselves, consciously or not, to female models. Sure enough, that's what happened.

The researchers studied 62 female college students. They showed the students pictures of models who were extremely thin, moderately thin, moderately heavy, or extremely heavy.

Afterward, the students finished the sentence, "I am.... " 20 times. They could use any word they wanted. The researchers focused on words about appearance, like "pretty," "thin," or "heavy."

The students described their looks more positively after viewing pictures of moderately thin models than after seeing photos of moderately heavy models, the study shows.

Rating Appearance and Self-Esteem

Next, the students completed questionnaires about their own appearance and self-esteem. Self-esteem scores were lower for those who saw pictures of extremely thin models, compared with those who saw images of extremely heavy models.

In short, self-esteem was highest after seeing moderately thin models, but gaunt models didn't spike self-esteem further. Moderately heavy models were better for self-esteem than extremely heavy models.

Lastly, 82 students viewed fleeting strings of words and gibberish on a computer screen. Those who had earlier seen pictures of moderately thin models were faster to recognize words like "thin" and "slender."

Students who had seen pictures of extremely thin models were quicker to recognize words like "fat" and "heavy." That finding might mean the students felt fat in comparison to ultra-skinny models, the researchers suggest.

Models' pictures might just affect women's self-esteem temporarily, write Smeesters and Mandel. But people see images of models all the time, and those pictures could add up, they note.

The students were young and most had a normal BMI (body mass index). The researchers don't know if the findings apply to men and people who are older or overweight.

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SOURCES: Smeesters, D. Journal of Consumer Research, March 2006; vol 32. News release, University of Chicago Press Journals.
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