The Barbie Effect

With anorexia and other eating disorders threatening more lives every year, researchers are exploring the effect that viewing pictures has on body image, since a flawed perception of the way we look is a primary cause of disordered eating. Research reveals that girls as young as five become concerned about their weight after viewing images of figures with unrealistic, thin bodies. The first study of its kind had children look at Barbie dolls to discover the impact of cultural ideals relating to weight on the very young.

Damaged Body Image

More than 100 girls aged between 5 and 7 looked at books while being read a story about shopping and dressing for a birthday party. Some of the books showed images of Barbie dolls, while others showed pictures lacking depictions of people. It was found that girls who were exposed to the Barbie pictures reported less body esteem and a greater desire to be thin. Researchers concluded that early exposure to unrealistic pictures of too thin body shapes may damage a girl’s body image. This, in turn, leads to the increased risk of eating disorders with cycles of weight gain and loss.

The Pressure to be Thin Starts Young

The study was headed up by Dr Emma Halliwell of the University of the West of England, along with Dr Helga Dittmar and Suzie Ives at Sussex University. Dr. Halliwell said that it was clear that the pressure to be thin starts younger than we had supposed. “We found that when the children were exposed to these images of Barbie, they reported more negative attitudes about their appearance,” said Halliwell, a lecturer based at the university’s Centre for Appearance Research. “Quite strikingly, when they were looking at the control images (the neural pictures) there wasn’t a difference between the way they thought they looked and the way they wanted to look.”

But, concluded Halliwell, after the children viewed the Barbie pictures, they wanted to be slimmer, making it apparent that the ideal body shape no longer bears any relationship to what doctors consider healthy. The fact is that were an average woman to mirror the proportions of a Barbie doll, she would need to grow 17 inches in height and have a body shape found in less than one in 100,000 women. At the same time, there is a documented trend of using thinner models in advertisements, with the average model about 20% underweight.

When one takes into the account the increase in publications aimed at teens and even preteens, these facts have frightening implications.

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