New research has suggested that using images of fit women exercising in magazines is no better at promoting a healthy body image than skinny, attractive models.
The study, conducted by the University of the Sunshine Coast, involved 322 women who responded to images of both fit, toned models engaged in active pursuits, and thin models traditionally found on the cover of beauty and fashion magazines.
USC lecturer in Psychology Dr Kate Mulgrew said participants who viewed the images of super-fit females recorded levels of dissatisfaction just as bad or worse than the participants who were exposed to images of fashion models.
Mulgrew said the trends emerging from the research counteracted the idea that ‘fitspiration’ photographs better help promote a healthy body image for women.
“There’s a belief that fitness images create a better ideal to work towards, rather than just being thin,” she said. “However, we found the women who viewed the fitness models actually felt worse about themselves than did the women who viewed the traditional models.
“Exercising and being fit are important things for women to work towards, but these fitness images should not automatically be seen as less harmful to body image.”
The conclusion Mulgrew came to was that while the fitspo women might not be emaciated runway models, their body types are still relatively difficult for the ordinary woman to achieve, even if they exercise regularly.
“It’s still only one body shape that’s being presented, not a range of shapes. The fitness image is still a slim, toned, attractive model,” she said. “Many women see it and think ‘well, I’m not that fit or flexible or toned’.”
But the results aren’t exactly new to everyone. Senior academic at Flinders University in South Australia Professor Marika Tiggemann said that while these kinds of images are intended to inspire women to be fitter and healthier, they often have the opposite effect.
“The images that we are seeing now on social media sites such as Instagram show us photographs of very slim, very fit women who are usually young dedicated athletes,” she said.
“They are usually emblazoned with an inspiring message such as ‘be fit, be strong, be the best you can be’ but what that seems to encourage in the women they are aimed at is a feeling that they will never be able to live up to that idea coupled with disappointment in their own bodies.”
Tiggemann was behind a similar study that examined the sentiments of 130 women who viewed images such as fit women on Instagram in a controlled environment late last year.
“The results showed about a difference between the intended positive feelings for some and the unintended negative feelings of the majority,” Tiggemann concluded. “I feel this is especially telling because the images that we used in the slide shows were not of the most extreme type that can be found on social media sites.
“Many objectify women by focussing in on selected body parts such as the muscular abdominal region – the six-pack – or on a women’s long slender legs.
“We live in a world that is deluged by imagery of this sort but very little research has been done so far on how it affects us. These results are a sound basis for continuing investigation.”