Researcher Gayle Bessenoff, PhD, reports the findings in Psychology of Women Quarterly. Bessenoff is an assistant professor in the University of Connecticut's psychology department.
Bessenoff studied 112 college women (average age: 18) in an introductory psychology course at an unnamed Northeastern U.S. college. Almost all were white.
Half of the women were quite harsh on their bodies, claiming they fell far short of their ideal.
The other women had a more upbeat outlook, saying their bodies were closer to their ideal.
Bessenoff gave the students packets of ads from women's magazines such as Glamour and Vogue.
Half the students got clothing ads showing thin female models. The rest got ads for products other than clothes that showed no female models.
Afterward, the students completed a series of surveys to rate their depression, agitation, self-esteem, and urge to lose weight.
Those who had viewed the ads of skinny female models fared worse on all the surveys, especially if they had low body image to begin with.
"Women who already have low opinions of their physical appearance are at an even greater risk for negative effects from media images," Bessenoff says in a news release from the journal's publisher.
The theory: Those women may compare themselves to the models, dredging up their bad feelings about their own bodies.
Reality Check: Airbrush Alert
However, notes girlpower.gov, a web site of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, media images aren't always realistic.
"The pictures of models you see have been airbrushed and touched up," states girlpower.gov.
"Things like wrinkles, blemishes, uneven skin tones, sags, bulges, or out of place hairs can be fixed by a computer before going to print," the web site says.
That's not to mention the makeup artists, lighting experts, clothing consultants, personal trainers, and other professionals who work with models.
Unless you go through the same process before you look in the mirror, it's not fair to compare yourself to the image of a model.
Boosting Body Image
If you have body image issues, counseling may help.
Also, here are tips from experts who spoke to WebMD in January about improving body image:
- Make sure the people around you make you feel good about yourself, no matter your size.
- Make sensible decisions about what you eat. If you need help, ask a dietitian.
- Choose positive role models that help you feel good about who you are.
- Focus on the inside, and let your body take its natural shape.
"You need to focus on eating healthy and exercising while working on what's inside of you and the way you feel about yourself," Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, a WebMD Weight Loss Clinic consultant, told WebMD in January.
"Don't get hung up on pounds and what size dress you are wearing," she said.
"Instead, focus on being healthy from the inside out: Eat well and exercise regularly. And remember that you can be sexy, and look fabulous, and feel fabulous, and not be thin," said Magee.
SOURCES: Bessenoff, G. Psychology of Women Quarterly, September 2006; vol 30: pp 239-251. News release, Blackwell Publishing, Ltd. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' girlpower.gov: "Bodywise: The Media." WebMD Weight Loss Clinic: "Look and Feel Great at Any Weight."
By Miranda Hitti
Reviewed by Louise Chang