Fascinating study shows watching TV is a risk factor for unrealistic body ideals.

Do we all, instinctively, find the same types of bodies attractive? Or do TV, movies, and pictures in magazines subtly influence what sorts of bodies we're attracted to?

Miss America 2014. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jessica Barett/Kansas Adjutant General's Department Public Affairs Office.


Researchers at Newcastle University in the U.K. set out to study this question — and walked away with some really fascinating new data.

Newcastle University. Photo by Pwosidon/Wikimedia Commons.

The question they posed: Do people who have limited access to TV have different beauty ideals than those who watch more frequently?

Photo by Vidmir Raic/Pixabay.

It's hardly a secret that Hollywood prefers thin. A 2003 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that female characters who have bigger bodies were few and far between on TV at the turn of the last decade. When they did appear, they were less likely to have romantic partners and "less likely to considered attractive."

Things have improved in recent years but only slightly. And popular reality shows like, "The Biggest Loser" continue to sell the idea that weight loss is the ticket to feeling attractive.

It raises the question: Would we feel differently about our bodies if we didn't watch so much TV? Or if we saw more positive portrayals of people with bigger bodies on the air?

It's really hard to study this because there aren't a lot of places left in the world that don't have access to Western media.

Even most dogs have access to American TV these days. Photo by Bill Mill/Flickr.

In order to get good data, you need to talk to people who not only rarely or never watch TV and movies, but who are hardly even exposed to them and the culture they help generate.

American TV and movies — and locally-produced TV and movies that draw inspiration from our TV and movies — are pretty much everywhere by now.

But there are some. And that's where the researchers went.

Image by DaDez/Wikimedia Commons.

Specifically, they went to the east coast of Nicaragua, which is home to a number of remote villages, some of which have no or only partially electricity.

Researchers found a remote village with little TV access and asked participants there to react to various images of women's bodies of different sizes.

Photo (left) by Staff Sgt. Jessica Barett/Kansas Adjutant General's Department Public Affairs Office. Photo (right) via iStock.

The subjects were asked to rate each image on a scale of 1 to 5. Their responses were compared with those from an urban area and a similar village that had greater access to broadcast media.

Critically, the two villages chosen were very similar culturally — previous studies have had difficulty separating out media viewing habits from other cultural variables that might account for the difference in how the images were perceived. Standards of beauty vary from culture to culture, including certain cultures that prize fatness (much like the "thin ideal" in the West, this is often similarly harmful to women and girls).

The result? Participants in the village with the least media access preferred bodies with a higher body mass index on average than those in the urban area and more connected village.


There are caveats, of course.

Using BMI to measure normal versus abnormal weight has become increasingly controversial recently. It's also impossible to draw big, sweeping conclusions from a single study.

But it's real data. And it does suggest that perhaps we're not hardwired to find smaller bodies attractive.

Science! Photo by Amitchell125/Wikimedia Commons.

"Our data strongly suggests that access to televisual media is itself a risk factor for holding thin body ideals, at least for female body shape, in a population who are only just gaining access to television," said Dr. Lynda Boothroyd, senior lecturer in psychology at Durham University and co-leader of the study.

In other words, the more TV we watch, the more we're likely to be attracted to lower-weight bodies. The less TV we watch, the more we're likely to look favorably upon higher-weight bodies.

Most importantly, it's evidence that there's nothing inherently attractive about weighing less, and nothing inherently unattractive about weighing more.

It's just something we made up.

Like Mickey Mouse. Photo by PoonKaMing/Wikimedia Commons.

But the good news is that we can un-make it up.

How do we do that? Here's one idea: Let's get more people with more bodies of more shapes and sizes we can get on TV, in movies, and in glossy magazines — giving them real lives, real flaws, real romances, and presenting them, at least every so often, as attractive.

Like, you know. Real people.

Family

As a child, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia's parents didn't ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Instead, her father would ask, "Are you going to be a doctor? Are you going to be an engineer? Or are you going to be an entrepreneur?"

Little did he know that she would successfully become all three: an award-winning biomedical and mechanical engineer who performs cutting-edge medical research and has started multiple companies.

Bhatia holds an M.D. from Harvard University, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT. Bhatia, a Wilson professor of engineering at MIT, is currently serving as director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, where she's working on nanotechnology targeting enzymes in cancer cells. This would allow cancer screenings to be done with a simple urine test.

Bhatia owes much of her impressive career to her family. Her parents were refugees who met in graduate school in India; in fact, she says her mom was the first woman to earn an MBA in the country. The couple immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, started a family, and worked hard to give their two daughters the best opportunities.

"They made enormous sacrifices to pick a town with great public schools and really push us to excel the whole way," Bhatia says. "They really believed in us, but they expected excellence. The story I like to tell about my dad is like, if you brought home a 96 on a math test, the response would be, 'What'd you get wrong?'"

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Don't test on animals. That's something we can all agree on, right? No one likes to think of defenseless cats, dogs, hamsters, and birds being exposed to a bunch of things that could make them sick (and the animals aren't happy about it, either). It's no wonder so many people and organizations have fought to stop it. But did you ever think that maybe brands are testing products on us too, they're just not telling us they're doing it?

I know, I know, it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that's exactly what e-cigarette brands like JUUL (which corners the e-cigarette market) are doing in this country right now, and young people are on the frontlines of the fallout. Most people assume that the government would have looked at devices that allow people to inhale unknown chemicals into their lungs BEFORE they hit the market. You would think that someone in the government would have determined that they are safe. But nope, that hasn't happened. And vape companies are fighting to delay the government's ability to evaluate these products.

So no one really knows the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use, not even JUUL's CEO, nor are they informing the public about the potential risks. On top of that, according to the FDA, there's been a 78% increase in e-cigarette usage among high school and middle school-aged children in just the last two years, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to officially recognize the trend as an epidemic and urge action against it.

These facts have elicited others to take action, as well.

Truth Initiative, the nonprofit best known for dropping the real facts about smoking and vaping since 2000 through its truth campaign, is now on a mission to confront e-cigarette brands like JUUL about the lack of care they've taken to inform consumers of the potential adverse side effects of their products. And they're doing it with the help of animal protesters who are tired of seeing humans treated like test subjects.

The March Against JUUL | Tested On Humans | truth www.youtube.com

"No one knows the long-term effects of JUULing so any human who uses one is being used as a lab rat," says, appropriately, Mario the Sewer Rat.

"I will never stop fighting JUUL. Or the mailman," notes Doug the Pug, the Instagram-famous dog star.

Truth, the national counter-marketing campaign for youth smoking prevention, hopes this fuzzy, squeaky, snorty animal movement arms humans with the facts about vaping and inspires them to demand transparency from JUUL and other e-cigarette companies. You can get your own fur babies involved too by sharing photos of them wearing protest gear with the hashtag #DontTestOnHumans. Here's some adorable inspo for you:

The dangerous stuff is already out there, but with knowledge on their side, young people will hopefully make the right choices and fight companies making the wrong ones. If you need more convincing, here are the serious facts.

Over the last decade, 127 e-cigarette-related seizures were reported, which prompted the FDA to launch an official investigation in April 2019. Since then, over 215 cases of a new, severe lung illness have sprung up all over the country, with six deaths to date. While scientists aren't yet sure of the root cause, the majority of victims were young adults who regularly vaped and used e-cigarettes. As such, the CDC has launched an official investigation into the potential link.

Sixteen-year-old Luka Kinard, a former frequent e-cigarette-user, is one of the many teens who experienced severe side effects. "Vaping was my biggest addiction," he told NowThis. "It lasted for about 15 months of my high school career." In 2018, Kinard was hospitalized after having a seizure. He also had severe nausea, chest pains, and difficulty breathing.

After the harrowing experience, he quit vaping, and began speaking out about his experience to help inform others and hopefully inspire them to quit and/or take action. "It shouldn't take having a seizure as a result of nicotine addiction like I had for teens to realize that these companies are taking advantage of what we don't know," Kinard said.

Teens are 16 times more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults, and four times more likely to take up traditional smoking as a result, according to truth, and yet the e-cigarette market remains virtually unregulated and untested. In fact, companies like JUUL continue to block and prevent FDA regulations, investing more than $1 million in lawyers and lobbying efforts in the last quarter alone.

Photo by Lindsay Fox/Pixabay

Consumers have a right to know what they're putting in their bodies. If everyone (and their pets) speaks up, the e-cigarette industry will have to make a change. Young people are already taking action across the country. They're hosting rallies nationwide and on October 9 as part of a National Day of Action, young people are urging their friends and classmates to "Ditch JUUL." Will you join them?

For help with quitting e-cigarettes, visit thetruth.com/quit or text DITCHJUUL to 88709 for free, anonymous resources.

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