TV soap operas may help make adolescent girls desperate
for a thinness few can healthily achieve, new Australian
The study of nearly 1,500 8th-to-11th graders also
found that boys who watched music videos were at
higher risk of developing the emerging male version
of body-obsession -- a drive toward lean, hyper-muscular
The findings break new ground because they show
that "it is not how much TV adolescents watch, it
is what they watch that is bad for them,"
according to body-image expert Helga Dittmar, a
senior lecturer in psychology at the University
of Sussex, in England.
"In addition, this study is the first to give insight
into several underlying psychological processes
explaining how TV has this negative impact," said
Dittmar, who was not involved in the research.
The study, conducted by Marika Tiggemann of Flinders
University of South Australia in Adelaide, appears
in the current issue of the Journal of Social
and Clinical Psychology.
According to Dittmar, media pressures on young
people to look thinner (for girls) or more pumped-up
(for boys) have never been stronger.
"The media is getting worse," she said. "There's
good evidence that the female ideal has become progressively
thinner, so that typical female models are now often
as much as 20 percent underweight (with 15 percent
underweight a diagnostic criterion for anorexia
For boys, she pointed to the increasing bulk of
children's action figures "that have become more
muscular than even extreme bodybuilders."
For years, researchers have studied the effects
of television viewing on children's body image,
but those studies have come up with mixed results.
Tiggemann decided to tackle the problem from a
different perspective, looking not only at kids'
total viewing time, but what they watched and their
stated reasons for watching.
In her study, Australian junior high and high school
students filled out questionnaires detailing their
previous week's TV viewing, including their motivations
for tuning into particular shows. They also filled
out standard tests aimed at measuring attitudes
toward eating and body image.
Total time spent in front of the TV was not related
to an unhealthy body image or attitudes that might
heighten risks for eating disorders, Tiggemann reported.
However, "watching soap operas and, to a lesser
extent, music videos, were associated with poorer
body image," she said. "Although girls [were] worse
off in absolute terms," Tiggemann said she saw the
"same pattern of relationships for girls and boys."
Why might soap operas and music videos be particularly
associated with a drive to extreme thinness or muscularity?
According to Tiggemann, music videos "present ideal
styles of 'what's cool' that young people probably
want to copy," while daytime and prime-time soaps
"don't explicitly say people should look a particular
way, but they show that being attractive and thin
is associated with being rich and high status, etc."
Both of these scenarios are largely divorced from
contemporary reality, she added.
Tiggemann noted that Australian soap operas tend
to follow the American ideal, focusing on the struggles
of the very rich and very thin. In fact, she said,
"I think the most popular soap watched by young
people is The O.C., and Desperate Housewives
by slightly older folks."
The study also found that the reason a teen watched
a particular show was very important to whether
or not viewing was connected to body-image problems.
Watching TV for sheer entertainment was not
related to body insecurity, whereas watching for
what Tiggemann called "social learning" -- finding
out about trends in behavior or fashion, for example
-- was related, as was TV watching aimed at escapism
or forgetting the day's troubles.
The Australian researcher said it's difficult
to tease out a cause-and-effect relationship from
these findings, because kids with body-image issues
may simply be drawn to watching soap operas or music
videos. "Most likely the influence goes both ways,"
Dittmar said the findings reflect the continuing
power of media, especially American media, to influence
"For example, in Fiji -- which had a full-bodied
ideal for women -- girls quickly adopted the thin
ideal after American TV was introduced," she added.
Of course, the vast majority of girls will not
go on to become anorexic or bulimic, and most boys
will not take dangerous steroids to build muscle.
But Tiggemann believes television has the power
to trigger insecurity and anxiety in everyone.
"Most people are perfectly healthy but cannot
look like the TV stars without doing something unhealthy,"
she said. "As I see it, a whole heap of people are
unnecessarily miserable about this and waste energy
on something that is trumped up [by the media].
Here I'm talking about everygirl, everywoman."
Dittmar agreed, adding that the time to attack
this problem is when children are young. "Not just
parents, but educational programs in school, could
help children and adolescents develop a more critical
view of these ideals, and particularly mistaken
beliefs linked with 'beauty' -- that it will make
you happier and more successful," she said.