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The Kate Moss Effect on Depression

Reading fashion magazines can give women the blues

TUESDAY, Oct. 29, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Women, you know that crummy feeling you get after leafing through a fashion magazine chock full of models who, let's face it, look way better than you?

It's not all in your head, a new study says.

Researchers found that women who looked at advertisements featuring stereotypically thin and beautiful women showed more signs of depression and were more dissatisfied with their bodies after only one to three minutes of viewing the pictures.

The women who registered the biggest drop in self-image after viewing the pictures were those who already felt bad about themselves to begin with, said Laurie Mintz, lead author of the study and an associate professor of educational and counseling psychology at University of Missouri-Columbia.

"It's like a vicious cycle for a lot of women," Mintz said. "Basically, women who already feel ashamed of themselves are the people who are going to be most impacted by those images."

Researchers divided 91 Caucasian women ages 18 to 31 into two groups. The first group was shown advertisements for underwear, nail polish, jewelry, lotion, gum, and liquor that featured rail-thin, seemingly flawless women. The other group of women was shown ads for the same types of products without people in them.

Mintz and graduate student Emily Borchers then used three well-accepted tests to measure psychological changes after viewing the images, including depression, self esteem, and body satisfaction.

The body satisfaction test, called the Objectified Body Consciousness Scale, is designed to assess to what degree women see themselves as an object, how ashamed they are that their body does not measure up to cultural ideas, and how much they believe they're responsible for their body not meeting the cultural standards.

One portion of the questionnaire asks women to rate, on a scale of one to five, their happiness with 35 body parts, including their nose, lips, waist, thighs, overall weight, and body hair.

Researchers found that after looking at the pictures of the beautiful models for one to three minutes, the women's body dissatisfaction increased significantly. Depression levels registered a slight uptick, while self-esteem was unchanged.

"What is really, really striking to me is that it took such a short time," Mintz said.

The study has not yet been published.

Joan Chrisler, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, said she's not surprised by the findings. "There have been several studies that have shown after women look at fashion magazine their body satisfaction and their feelings about themselves decrease," Chrisler said.

So what's a woman to do?

Avoid reading fashion or celebrity-gossip type magazines, Chrisler said. Of course, it's hard to avoid billboards, television, and all the other places these images are shown.

But try to remember images are not realistic.

Forget airbrushing. Models in today's ads can have portions of their bodies digitally altered to erase even the most minute mole, bulge, or asymmetry. Some "models" depicted in ads aren't real people at all, but composites, Chrisler said.

Today's mass media is blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, making it seem as if "perfection" is attainable with the right diet, the right beauty products, the right plastic surgeon, Mintz said. For the vast majority of women, this of course isn't the case.

"Within current mass media messages, the distinction between reality and a fictionalized ideal are often unclear," Mintz said. "Unlike art, literature and music, which are usually in the context of something unattainable, the images that that individuals are constantly exposed to through the mass media are perceived as realistic, and thus, seem to set cultural standards."

In the study, Mintz cited previous research that asked adolescent girls what the ideal woman looked like. The girls said she's 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighs 100 pounds, is a size 5, and is blonde and blue-eyed.

"What we need is for young women to stand up and say, 'I've had it. Enough!'" Chrisler said.

Define your standards for beauty, Chrisler suggested. "It's only the ideal if you accept it as the ideal, and you don't have to. You can ask yourself: 'What does beauty mean to me?' You can decide beauty is a range or something internal or a sparkle in the eye."

What To Do

To read more about women and their struggles with body image, visit the Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

About Face is a group trying to change the way the media and ad industry depicts women.

SOURCES: Laurie Mintz, Ph.D., associate professor of educational and counseling psychology, University of Missouri-Columbia; Joan Chrisler, Ph.D., professor of psychology, Connecticut College, New London, Conn.
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