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.

It's one thing to see a little kid skateboarding. It's another to see a stereotype-defying little girl skateboarding. And it's entirely another to see Paige Tobin.

Paige is a 6-year-old skateboarding wonder from Australia. A recent video of her dropping into a 12-foot bowl on her has gone viral, both for the feat itself and for the style with which she does it. Decked out in a pink party dress, a leopard-print helmet, and rainbow socks, she looks nothing like you'd expect a skater dropping into a 12-foot bowl to look. And yet, here she is, blowing people's minds all over the place.

For those who may not fully appreciate the impressiveness of this feat, here's some perspective. My adrenaline junkie brother, who has been skateboarding since childhood and who races down rugged mountain faces on a bike for fun, shared this video and commented, "If I dropped in to a bowl twice as deep as my age it would be my first and last time doing so...this fearless kid has a bright future!"

It's scarier than it looks, and it looks pretty darn scary.

Paige doesn't always dress like a princess when she skates, not that it matters. Her talent and skill with the board are what gets people's attention. (The rainbow socks are kind of her signature, however.)

Her Instagram feed is filled with photos and videos of her skateboarding and surfing, and the body coordination she's gained at such a young age is truly something.

Here she was at three years old:

And here she is at age four:


So, if she dropped into a 6-foot bowl at age three and a 12-foot bowl at age six—is there such a thing as an 18-foot bowl for her to tackle when she's nine?

Paige clearly enjoys skating and has high ambitions in the skating world. "I want to go to the Olympics, and I want to be a pro skater," she told Power of Positivity when she was five. She already seems to be well on her way toward that goal.

How did she get so good? Well, Paige's mom gave her a skateboard when she wasn't even preschool age yet, and she loved it. Her mom got her lessons, and she's spent the past three years skating almost daily. She practices at local skate parks and competes in local competitions.

She also naturally has her fair share of spills, some of which you can see on her Instagram channel. Falling is part of the sport—you can't learn if you don't fall. Conquering the fear of falling is the key, and the thing that's hardest for most people to get over.

Perhaps Paige started too young to let fear override her desire to skate. Perhaps she's been taught to manage her fears, or maybe she's just naturally less afraid than other people. Or maybe there's something magical about the rainbow socks. Whatever it is, it's clear that this girl doesn't let fear get in the way of her doing what she wants to do. An admirable quality in anyone, but particularly striking to see in someone so young.

Way to go, Paige. Your perseverance and courage are inspiring, as is your unique fashion sense. Can't wait to see what you do next.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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