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Media and Body Image: A Social Cognitive-Construct

Updated on March 6, 2013


An economy that is driven by consumers must help sustain itself through not only the creation of products to consume but also the perceived need for these products. One area in which this has become epidemic is the advertisement and production of name-brand clothing, perfumes/colognes, make-up, hair and nail products/services, cosmetic surgery and diet programs/products. These products and services all rely on the perpetuance of the consumer having a negative body image. In fact, most of the advertisements for these products and services present unrealistic situations glamorized and/or enhanced imagery and false associations between products and life satisfaction, resulting in an “ideal” body image and life style for individuals to aspire too. Does this not create an underlying state of perceived iniquity for individuals exposed to this type of influence? What long term effect has this had in a cultural context? How does this factor, if at all, contribute to the mental health of its constituents? In a social climate rich with perceived iniquities regarding physical appearance and subsequent perceptions of self, is it possible that because of this social pressure, a culturally expressed state of anxiety and or depression has developed in such a subtle manner as to become the social norm?

Studies have shown a direct correlation between an individual’s physical appeal and levels of victimization in children (Lisa, H. R., Marion, K. U., & Kurt, J. B., 2011). This type of victimization in the form of non-acceptance can lead to not only a negative body image but also increases the likelihood of the individual internalizing their problem and/or emotions. This can be particularly detrimental to children in that they learn to base their body image on other’s perceptions. Adding to this the media induced perception of what is attractive and not and the subsequent influence it has on children’s behavior helps create a paradigm in which the media portrays what it considers attractiveness and children are left do live up to that ideal and create the pressure for their peers to do so also simply based our psychological need for acceptance from others and our need to belong to a social construct. This can easily be evidenced by the marked increase of household spending on designer children’s cloths (D'innocenzio A., 2012).

It can also be postulated that this type of long-term influence has translated into increased perception of need and subsequent spending to maintain or create a socially “desirable” body image. The very industry that creates the negative body image is also there to provide hope. On average Americans spend $40 billion annually on weight-loss products and diet programs with most regaining the weight after a period of time (Reisner, R., 2013). If this is true then why do individuals continue to purchase these products? It seems reasonable to associate this behavior with another socially constructed and perpetuated behavior; the use of external products to “better” our lives or in short, the quickest and easiest solutions. This mentality extends beyond just augmentation of externally perceived body image but even in areas that may be disregarded as unimportant. Consider this; it is likely that a person looking for the remote to their television to change the channel will spend more time doing so that it would take to change the channel manually. This behavior can also be evidenced by the individual that rather then walk to the local store will drive instead. This is significant because it establishes an underlying propensity toward specific behavior that over time can have a significant impact on an individual’s health. In these two examples the effect would be a reduction in physical activity that could in part be a contribution to an individual’s weight and subsequent body image.

When this behavior is applied to the media induced perception of need for augmentation or changing of an individual’s appearance a cycle is created in which the individual perceives themselves as inadequate first and then acceptable after the use of appearance altering products. It is reasonable to postulate that this could result in many levels of dependency and negative self-evaluation and/or perception. This can have drastic effects on an individual’s esteem, trust and eventual actualization of self (Gillen, M. S., 2011). The frequency with which the media’s portrayal of what is attractive changes and their promotion of new and improved products to provide this image creates a psychological construct in which an individual views themselves as perpetually unacceptable in appearance, a higher attribution of value to physical appearance and the compulsive use of these products. It could be ascribed to an individual perpetually feeling unacceptable by social standards.

In the quest for social status based on appearance and possession the propensity for an individual to judge themselves by comparison to these superficial standards naturally creates a desire to acquire the news and best products available. This social value system instilled by years of exposure to advertisement driven media has created segregation based on economic status which is used to determine an individual’s social class. This in of by itself has been shown to have an impact on an individual’s mental health. One such example is a study reviewed in Psychiatric Services that examined the work improvement rates of individuals suffering from major depressive disorder based on their socio-economic status during and after treatment. The results showed that individuals classified as low-class showed less improvement in their work than those of higher socio-economic standing (Dahlén, M., Thorbjørnsen H., & Sjödin H., 2011). These results could also be evidence of a socially created false perception of wealth as many people considered low-class are financially able to provide their basic needs for survival and self-actualization. Yet because of a Media induced perception of what it is to be attractive and successful these basic needs are combined with false needs. By this I mean things that are not necessary for a human’s survival and actualization when removed from socially imposed ideals.

Currently however there are no definable terms to diagnose a culturally based mental health illness. The current diagnostic criteria set forth by the DSM-4 only addresses mental health on an individual level. Although causation is addressed and is shown to be in part environmental the collective cognitive state of cultures individuals is not. This has created a narrow perception of mental health that is specific to individual symptomology and causation.

One limitation for diagnosis presented by the DSM-4 is the length and severity of symptoms. For example; the DSM-4 establishes excessive devotion to work and inflexibility to moral, ethics and beliefs as criteria for diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder (Gerrig J. R & Zimbardo G. P, 2008). This does not seem to apply to the behavior earlier discussed, yet it would seem reasonable that the word “work” is replaceable in that the behavior is excessive devotion to a variable. The variable of work could be replaced by “body-image” thus adding another characteristic to the term excessive devotion. Inflexibility could be applied to the defense of their belief systems about themselves, how others perceive them and their need to augment themselves to maintain them. Just the fact that the media’s created body image and a cultures drive to assimilate to it have impacted finances, self-esteem, time with family and friends, opportunities etc. signifies a behavior that has negative results and/or effects. Why then is the possibility of a culturally motivated mental health disorder not addressed and explored? This is because it is more likely that a cultural mental health disorder would be less obvious and much more subtle in nature due to the subsequent behavior being considered normal. Yet consider the individual who spend an hour getting dressed and made up before going out on a daily basis. What effect does this have on daily productivity, the individuals stress level, time spent with family and friends or even the individuals sleep cycle?

This behavior may not be considered extreme yet that is a matter of perspective. To some, spending that much time could seem obsessive. This example like many others is evidence that an individual’s cultural standards and norms created by society directly impact our cognition and subsequent behavior and these variables are directly influenced by our exposure to different types of advertisement driven media as evidenced by a report in the Journal of Advertising regarding the prevalence of predictable behavior based on advertisement type (Defever, C., Pandelaere, M., & Roe, K. 2011).

Addressing mental health as a collective and culturally influenced phenomenon could grant a better understanding of the relationship between our socially and/or culturally created ideals and our general state of self-perception and mental health. This study’s goal is to establish whether there is probability and validity for further research into cultural mental health disorders as a diagnosable phenomenon.

This study will evaluate current trends in cosmetics in comparison to statistics on the prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders in the United States. Information on the methods used by advertising agencies to market products will be used in conjunction with the resulting perceptions of the viewers to examine whether these advertising methods create a negative body image and the possible ramifications to an individual’s mental health as a result.



The study will be conducted through the use of both nonprobability and probability sampling. An internet survey will be used to collect 100 samples from each age groups consisting of 15-21, 22-28, 29-35, 36-42 and 43-49. The participants will be selected randomly through stratification from the sample groups. This will allow for both male and female samples to be representative of their respective gender population as a whole so as to avoid selection bias. Although there are many different ethnicities in the U.S. this factor is not relevant when establishing a cultural mental health issue as regardless of their ethnicity the individuals still live in the collective culture created in the U.S.


The instruments used in this study will be that of an internet survey administered through a social website. This will allow for the most comprehensive amount of participant response and can also increase the cityhood of people who use their phone to utilize the internet because they do not own a computer or possess internet service. The use of archival research inclusive of census data, governmental statistical data and past psychological studies will establish propensity and validity to the need for further research and evaluation into this possible phenomenon.


The availability of the web based questionnaire on social web sites will continue until 100 responses are received for each age group. This could take an extended amount of time as the rate and age of participant response cannot be controlled. However this will allow for a more accurate representation of the sample and help establish probable generalization for the populous. The questionnaire will consist of open-ended questions, closed questions and ranking questions pertaining to the individual’s exposure to mass media, their use of advertised products and their perceptions of self. . The scores for each the respective individuals for each variable will then be calculated and applied to a 3-way ANOVA to establish correlation and the statistical significance of the variables effects on one another.

Ethical Issues and Resolution

The major ethical issue presented with this study is that of selection bias. As internet sampling is convenience sampling by nature and access to the internet varies across subgroups it will be difficult to gain an accurate representation of the populous from the sample. In addition to this the inability to debrief participants and the inherent bias in internet surveys due to the inability to control participant response in regards to ethnicity and economic status, both which may be influential variables in the psychological effects of advertisement driven media. To combat this, a stratified sample will be taken with no completion of data retrieval until parameters of age and quantity are met. The issue of debriefing the participants can be combatted by including a debriefing page at the end of the survey in which the participants are provided the opportunity to give feedback.


The online survey resulted in a total of 3254 male and 4765 female participants. Of these 100 individuals from each gender group where chosen through random selection. From this list 49 male and 51 female participants were again randomly selected to reflect the gender population according to the U.S Census of 2010 of 49.1 % male and 50.9% female (, 2013). Of the male participants media exposure was measured by the amount of time viewing advertisement driven media such as television shows and commercials. The mean time spent exposed to advertisement sponsored media for men was 21 hours per week with the female participants garnering a mean of32 hours per week. Both groups were also evaluated based on their self-perception of being unattractive, below average, average, above average, and attractive without the use of body image augmenting products using a rating scale from 1-5. The results were that males showed 8% prevalence toward scores below average. Female participant scores displayed 24% prevalence towards scores below average.

Furthermore data pertaining to the participant’s frequency and time spent maintaining or augmenting their physical appearance was collected. Frequency was measured by the number of various situations presented as 20 hypothetical social interactions that would be indicative of the individual spending more than 10 minutes focusing on the augmentation of their physical appearance. The mean frequency for males was 5 and the mean frequency of the female participants was 16. The comparison of these three data sets suggest a parallel correlation between exposure to advertisement sponsored media, perceived body image and frequency of external focus.


The data presented establishes a correlation between media exposure and an individual's perception of themselves or their body image. Due to the nature of product creation and advertisement driven consumption is reasonable to postulate that this system has created a perpetual social perception of personal inadequacy. This type of self-image is developmental variable that contributes to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders. The consistent 30-34% disparity between male and females on each measurement scale suggests consistency and congruence between each variable measured and their subsequent effect of the participants. Yet due to this consistency this could be considered normal as well because there is no statistically significant deviation between measurements. However, simply because a behavior has become a social norm does not mean that the behavior is free from negative consequences.

Perhaps a perception of mental health disorders as a social construct as well may help us understand this phenomenon better. Examining symptomology for the various defined mental health disorders in the DSM-4 and qualifying them in a more subtly expressed but consistent manner may help researches identify causation of mental health disorders more comprehensively on an individual level as well. Perhaps a new evolutionary stage of development for the DSM will present itself.


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