Objective: To assess the influence of the media on girls' weight concerns, weight control/loss behaviors, and perceptions of body weight and shape.
Design: Cross-sectional survey completed in school. The questionnaire assessed body weight, dissatisfaction with body weight and shape, exposure to fashion magazines, the impact of media on feelings about weight and shape, attributes of and preferences for body types, and whether subjects had gone on a diet to lose weight or initiated exercise because of an article in a magazine.
Setting: Mandatory physical education class in public elementary, junior high, and high schools.
Participants: Subjects included 548 5th- through 12th-grade girls in a working-class suburb in the northeastern United States.
Outcome measures: Perceived influence of fashion magazines on body dissatisfaction, idea of the perfect body shape, dieting to lose weight, and initiating an exercise program.
Results: Pictures in magazines had a strong impact on girls' perceptions of their weight and shape. Of the girls, 69% reported that magazine pictures influence their idea of the perfect body shape, and 47% reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures. There was a positive linear association between the frequency of reading women's magazines and the prevalence of having dieted to lose weight because of a magazine article, initiating an exercise program because of a magazine article, wanting to lose weight because of pictures in magazines, and feeling that pictures in magazines influence their idea of the perfect body shape. In multivariate logistic regression models controlling for weight status (overweight vs not overweight), school level (elementary vs junior high school, elementary vs high school), and race/ethnic group, girls who were frequent readers of fashion magazines were two to three times more likely than infrequent readers to diet to lose weight because of a magazine article (odds ratio [OR] = 2.11, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.19-3.75); to exercise to lose weight because of a magazine article (OR = 3.02, 95% CI: 1.77-5.17); and to feel that magazines influence what they believe is the ideal body shape (OR = 2.81; 95% CI: 1.72-4.58). In addition, moderate-frequency readers were more likely than infrequent readers of fashion magazines to report exercising because of a magazine article (OR = 1.94; 95% CI: 1.14-3.30) and feeling that magazines influence what they believe is the ideal body shape (OR = 2.03; 95% CI: 1.30-3.15).
Discussion: The majority of the preadolescent and adolescent girls in this school-based study were unhappy with their body weight and shape. This discontentment was strongly related to the frequency of reading fashion magazines. Although previous studies have concluded that the print media promotes an unrealistically thin body ideal, which in turn is at least partially responsible for promoting eating disorders, the present study is the first that we are aware of to assess directly the impact of the print media on the weight and body shape beliefs of young girls. We observed that the frequency of reading fashion magazines was positively associated with the prevalence of having dieted to lose weight, having gone on a diet because of a magazine article, exercising to lose weight or improve body shape, and deciding to exercise because of a magazine article. Given the substantial health risk associated with overweight and the fact that during the past 2 decades the prevalence of overweight has increased sharply among children and adolescents, it is not prudent to suggest that overweight girls should accept their body shape and not be encouraged to lose weight. However, aspiring to look like underweight models may have deleterious psychological consequences. The results suggest that the print media aimed at young girls could serve a public health role by refraining from relying on models who are severely underweight and printing more articles on the benefits of physical