Science has long had a bone to pick with skinny models, whose negative effect on women’s self-esteem is well-documented. But a groundbreaking new study has uncovered an intriguing exception to the rule.
When women feel a personal connection to a thin celebrity, researchers find they’re more likely to assimilate than to contrast. In other words, seeing their favourite slim star in a magazine actually gives their self-image a boost because they assume likeness – much the way spouses focus on the similarities, and not the differences, between them.
“Ironically, it may be that we don’t need to reject thin celebrities, but rather make women feel closer to them in order to allow these protective benefits,” says lead author Ariana Young, who reports her findings in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science.
It’s a controversial notion, to be sure. But across multiple experiments with some 150 college women, it consistently proved true that a “parasocial” (one-sided) relationship with a thin female star or model moderated the negative effects otherwise seen with skinny media figures.
In the initial study, women who were led to believe they shared a birthday with an unknown thin model reported feeling better about their bodies after seeing her photo than those who didn’t perceive that subtle similarity.
A second study showed women were more satisfied with their bodies after exposure to their favourite thin celebrity than when exposed to a thin celebrity who was only moderately liked.
The final study suggested assimilation was the underlying mechanism behind the results of the previous experiments.
According to Young, the message for magazines wanting to showcase slim women is that they can reduce the potential for harm by using models or stars that are widely admired by fellow females.
She also adds that it’s “not surprising” nearly all previous body image research has shown women feel worse about their bodies after exposure to thin media images, since a contrast effect occurs when there’s no relationship with the person pictured. It’s only when women feel a personal connection that the paradigm appears to be flipped.
“We assimilate the traits of our favourite celebrities the way we do a real close other, such as a friend,” explains Young, a PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo. “So, having a parasocial bond with favourite celebrities is actually protective, and may even be beneficial for women’s body image.”
Paradoxically, earlier studies have widely shown a link between body image concerns and one-sided relationships with skinny stars. This correlation has previously been interpreted as evidence that waifish media darlings are harmful to self-esteem.
In light of the latest findings, however, Young proposes that it may instead be that women who dislike their bodies are drawn to thin celebrities and models because the images make them feel better about themselves.
“If we know that women are assimilating the body traits of their favourite celebrities, we might assume that they seek out those celebrities when they’re feeling low,” says Young, who is currently investigating this theory further.
For recovered bulimic Caroline Adams Miller, now working as a professional coach, it’s a concept that makes a lot of sense.
“Thin women are not just a bag of bones. We shortchange them when we (ignore the fact) that they have other qualities or traits that other women might admire,” says Adams Miller, a Harvard alumna specializing in positive psychology. “When those qualities are positive, I can see why aligning with that person would be a good thing.”
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