It turns out you’re probably more impressionable than you think. But don’t take our word for it — look to a recent study by researchers at Australia’s Macquarie University, which found that the vast majority of participants view their own bodies as “abnormally thin” when showed pictures of themselves digitally altered to appear heavier, and “abnormally fat” when showed their slimmed-down figures, according to New Zealand’s Stuff.
The possible effects of this phenomenon are far-reaching. “There’s a link between the misperception of a person’s own body size and eating disorders and chronic body image disorders,” said associate professor Kevin Brooks, who led the study. And Brooks and his team found that it takes as little as two minutes of being exposed to another body type for most people to start turning negativity and criticism inward.
Society’s ongoing preoccupation with ultra-slim bodies has resulted in body-positive movement in the past few years, but thinness is still in vogue — and women’s bodies are still heavily scrutinized by the media and beyond. Just last week, Jennifer Aniston wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post, in which she called out publications that criticize her body and send the wrong message to young girls.
“If I am some kind of symbol to some people out there, then clearly I am an example of the lens through which we, as a society, view our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, female friends, and colleagues. The objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing. The way I am portrayed by the media is simply a reflection of how we see and portray women in general, measured against some warped standard of beauty,” Aniston said. She calls cultural standards “an unconscious agreement,” which essentially encapsulates the findings of this study.
“Body image is very dependent on your culture and what surrounds you, so I’m not surprised that feelings about personal body image can change so quickly,” says Senior Priory psychotherapist Julia Cole, of Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Southampton. “It’s really important for women in particular to develop a positive sense of themselves from an early age so that they can combat unrealistic expectations when they are teenagers and adults. The way to achieve this is to eat healthily, exercise regularly but importantly avoid images that are triggers for negative thoughts.”
Of course, if unrealistic bodies are plastered all over websites, ads, and social media — and have a negative impact on women — then the opposite holds true too: If we’re more inclusive of all body types when we represent women in a public forum, people will start to be positively influenced by other women who look like them, and their attitudes will be affected for the better. In other words, we have the power to control the message we send.
Psychotherapist and body image specialist Holli Rubin agrees. “Limiting exposure to social media and being disciplined to ‘switch off’ from all the imagery and visual noise will lessen its negative impact on self-esteem,” she says. “We know what [people in the media] seem to look like may more than likely not be real.”
“Overall, these results confirm that adaptation to images that have been manipulated to appear thinner or fatter than normal are effective in creating aftereffects of perceived body size,” Brooks and his co-authors wrote. Such aftereffects increase over time, so if women are bombarded with unrealistic body images, their distorted senses of self are bound to last longer.
A woman can look perfectly normal — in the literal sense of the word — but still be negatively influenced by the images she sees every day. In the report, Brooks says that despite the fact that participants were “in pretty good shape and are pretty psychologically healthy,” the study shows “we can till manipulate their perception — and it’s very quick.”
The study used 59 subjects in total — psychology students from the university. Of the group, 24 students were shown digitally altered photos of other people, and 35 were exposed to altered images of themselves. In both cases, self-perception and self-esteem were affected alarmingly quickly.
Brooks believes that the results of this study strongly pertain to real life, and that we are influenced by external stimuli subconsciously every single day of our lives. Everything we think is normal is the result of all the aftereffects of a lifetime of stimulation,” he says.