Why the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show might be bad for body image, according to scientists

There’s been some debate over whether models make women feel bad about their bodies, and one new study finds that, for most women, they do.

According to research published by Chapman University in Orange, Calif., some women — but not all — feel worse about their bodies when looking at images of thin, bikini-clad models compared with neutral ones such as abstract art (surprise!).

“A controversy has been brewing among researchers who study body image,” David A. Frederick, assistant professor of health psychology, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Some researchers claim that media has substantial effects on how women feel about their bodies, but a recent summary of the existing research claimed there was little evidence of these effects. Those researchers claim that pressure from friends and peers is what really matters. So we wanted to hear from women themselves.”

Here’s a sample of what women said after seeing photos of the models:

“The images made me feel worse about myself because the models’ bodies were all so toned and beautiful. They were tall, skinny, had smooth skin, and had perfect breasts. Compared to them, I felt ugly and not attractive.”

“They all look so fit and healthy. I look much worse in comparison. I feel worse because there is nothing that I could do to look like them.”

“It made me feel way worse about my appearance because I do not look as fit as the girls in those pictures. I don’t have that kind of body and couldn’t without extreme exercise and diet. I already was feeling a little down about my body today because I haven’t been eating well and now I feel worse that I definitely don’t look like that and summer is coming.”

Images like this are complicated. (Photo: Getty Images)
Images like this are complicated. (Photo: Getty Images)

If that’s not depressing enough, after exposure to the models, women expressed more interest in diet and exercise with the goal of losing weight, and 47 percent said they were less willing to wear a swimsuit in public.

The aspects of the models that caused the women the most distress were, in order: stomach, weight, waist, general appearance, muscle tone, legs, thighs, buttocks, hips, arms, and breasts.

Surprisingly, a small fraction of women — 5 to 11 percent — felt better about their bodies after looking at the models. It’s possible that the images reminded women of their own hotness or allowed them to engage in a theory called “downward social comparison,” in which people compare themselves with those they consider less attractive.

“Many of these models must spend extraordinary time and energy to sculpt their bodies — it literally is a full-time job,” says Frederick. “Also, lighting, makeup, and digital manipulation of images can alter their appearance.”

He adds, “Think of these models like athletes — the average person can watch LeBron James play basketball and admire his athleticism and skill, but not feel worse because he is not a realistic comparison point.”

Most important, attraction is not one-size-fits-all. “Studies show repeatedly that women overestimate the level of thinness that men find attractive,” says Frederick. “While most men likely agree that the typical Victoria’s Secret model is attractive, they also have their own set of idiosyncratic preferences about the other body types they find attractive.”

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