Why do people keep buying beauty and fitness magazines if study after study shows staring at extremely thin models just makes people depressed about their own looks? A new study suggests it isn't just that we're gluttons for punishment. Readers who are unhappy with their looks will avoid comparing themselves to models, but they actually ogle them even more if they're told they can transform themselves into Gisele Bundchen.
In most studies on the topic, people are asked to stare at magazine images, then report on their reaction. Being forced to compare their bodies to those of models and actresses makes them feel bad, but in real life, people usually aren't forced to look at these photos (unless their obnoxious roommate tapes up magazine pages all over their dorm room).
To study how people actually respond to these images, researchers at Ohio State University asked 169 young adults to read a short online magazine featuring models with average and "ideal" body shapes (people categorized the models in pre-tests). One version of the magazine featured articles about diet and exercise and the other had general interest articles. Subjects also filled out surveys that included questions about how satisfied they were with their bodies.
Those who said they were unhappy with their looks spent 50% more time staring at ideal bodies if the magazine featured articles on diet and fitness. People who were satisfied with their bodies spent the same time looking at the ideal models regardless of which version they read. From EurekAlert:
"If the articles inspired them to go on a diet or start an exercise program, they would spend more time looking at the ideal bodies," said study author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick. "If the articles gave them no inspiration, they tended to avoid the photos ... It didn't make a difference to people who were satisfied with their bodies. They didn't feel the need to avoid the ads with the ideal bodies, and they didn't need them for inspiration either."
Making people feel dissatisfied with their looks is a major element of the beauty-industrial complex, and this study highlights the importance of selling people on the idea that they can achieve what society considers "perfection." Magazine editors are constantly talking about how images of impossibly thin models are meant to be "inspirational," and this is precisely what keeps people hooked.
Of course, if people realized that what they're looking at isn't achievable because it only exists as a heavily airbrushed illustration, they'd stop buying magazines filled with images that make them feel bad about themselves. It's the special formula of instilling low-self esteem, then advertising an (ineffective) solution to the "problem" that keeps beauty and fitness magazines in business.