The Mental Health Foundation (n. d.) reports that 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder and the problem is increasing. Eating disorders can have a range of aetiologies, however in many cases they can be attributed to the influence of exposure to imagery promoting a particular appearance. The fashion and media industries generate images of thin (or muscular), young, white, and flawless individuals that present an unrealistic and unrepresentative ideal. Moreover, such images are unattainable as they are likely to have been dignitally altered to erase any ‘imperfections’ including those which arise natually through the process of ageing. In itself, fashion and media imagery should not be a problem, but becasue of its ubiquity and its powerful influence, the idealised stereotype of appearance becomes the norm. Thus women, and more recently men also, aspire to an appearance which is impossible to achieve. That there are many and varied negative outcomes of this is unsurprising. For example, research shows that exposure to the stereotypical appearance promoted by fashion adn media is related to body dissatisfaction in young girls and women. Moreover, internalisation of this ideal leads to body dissatisfaction, increased investment in appearance, striving for thinness and consequqnetly disordered eating behaviours (e.g., Cahill & Mussap, 2007; Dohnt & Tiggemann, 2006; Durkin & Paxton, 2002; Grabe & Hyde, 2006; Grabe et al., 2008; Harrison & Hefner, 2006; Knauss, Paxton, & Alsaker, 2007; Van den Berg et al., 2007). Body dissatisfaction in women has been identified as a risk factor for eating disorders and as a predictor of low self-esteem, depression, and obesity (e.g., Grabe et al., 2008).
Research on males has shown a positive association between exposure to media images of the lean, muscular male figure and body dissatisfaction (e.g., Blond, 2008; Cahill & Mussap, 2007; Galioto & Crowther, 2013; Jonason, Krcmar, & Sohn, 2009) or a concern with physical appearance (Morry & Staska, 2001) in men. Furthermore, changes in state body satisfaction following exposure to media images (Cahill & Mussap, 2007) and the internalisation of media ideals (Daniel & Bridges, 2010) have been associated with a greater drive to increase muscle mass.
Internalisation of media ideals has been found to mediate the effects of media exposure on body dissatisfaction and attitudes towards cosmetic surgery (Sharp, Tiggemann, & Mattiske, 2014). Decreased body satisfaction can lead to an increase in the use of body-altering interventions on the part of people who do not conform to the idealised appearance promoted by the fashion and media industries. Research has found that this affects people across the lifespan, ethnicities and genders. For example, in middle-aged women, body dissatisfaction and media exposure predict attitudes towards and consideration of cosmetic surgery and other cosmetic intervention (e.g., Sharp, Tiggemann, & Mattiske, 2014; Menzel, Sperry, Thompson, Cash, & Sarwer, 2011; Slevec & Tiggemann, 2010; Swami, 2009). A review of the literature conducted by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2010) found that in recent years there has been a rise in the demand for cosmetic surgery and non-surgical beauty treatments among young girls. Hunter (2011) highlights the use of dangerous skin-bleaching products and cosmetic surgery among Black people.
Although social psychologists have been researching the issues around body image for decades, until now few have worked directly with the fashion and media industries. Psychologists working in fashion can address these in context to help individuals become more media savvy and also provide guidelines for the fashion and media industries that enable them to understand the benefits of diversity and inclusivity for their consumers and their business.