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Pop Culture

Would we feel differently about our bodies if we didn't watch TV? Science seems to think so.

Researchers set out to study this question — and walked away with some really fascinating new data.

body image, television
Canva

Television has a way of tuning off... healthy images.

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?

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


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

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.

entertainment, studies, American media, global affects

Even most dogs have access to American TV these days.

Image via Pixabay.

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.

Country, TV access, body image, women

A map representing Nicaragua in South America.

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.

pageants, military, culture, BMI

A female Kansas National Guardsman competed in the 2014 Miss America Pageant.

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

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.

scientific data, psychology, university studies, media

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.

theme parks, globalization, studios, China

A sunny day captured at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Photo (cropped) 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.This article originally appeared on 02.26.16

All images provided by Prudential Emerging Visionaries

Collins after being selected by Prudential Emerging Visionaries

True

A changemaker is anyone who takes creative action to solve an ongoing problem—be it in one’s own community or throughout the world.

And when it comes to creating positive change, enthusiasm and a fresh perspective can hold just as much power as years of experience. That’s why, every year, Prudential Emerging Visionaries celebrates young people for their innovative solutions to financial and societal challenges in their communities.

This national program awards 25 young leaders (ages 14-18) up to $15,000 to devote to their passion projects. Additionally, winners receive a trip to Prudential’s headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, where they receive coaching, skills development, and networking opportunities with mentors to help take their innovative solutions to the next level.

For 18-year-old Sydnie Collins, one of the 2023 winners, this meant being able to take her podcast, “Perfect Timing,” to the next level.

Since 2020, the Maryland-based teen has provided a safe platform that promotes youth positivity by giving young people the space to celebrate their achievements and combat mental health stigmas. The idea came during the height of Covid-19, when Collins recalled social media “becoming a dark space flooded with news,” which greatly affected her own anxiety and depression.

Knowing that she couldn’t be the only one feeling this way, “Perfect Timing” seemed like a valuable way to give back to her community. Over the course of 109 episodes, Collins has interviewed a wide range of guests—from other young influencers to celebrities, from innovators to nonprofit leaders—all to remind Gen Z that “their dreams are tangible.”

That mission statement has since evolved beyond creating inspiring content and has expanded to hosting events and speaking publicly at summits and workshops. One of Collins’ favorite moments so far has been raising $7,000 to take 200 underserved girls to see “The Little Mermaid” on its opening weekend, to “let them know they are enough” and that there’s an “older sister” in their corner.

Of course, as with most new projects, funding for “Perfect Timing” has come entirely out of Collins’ pocket. Thankfully, the funding she earned from being selected as a Prudential Emerging Visionary is going toward upgraded recording equipment, the support of expert producers, and skill-building classes to help her become a better host and public speaker. She’ll even be able to lease an office space that allows for a live audience.

Plus, after meeting with the 24 other Prudential Emerging Visionaries and her Prudential employee coach, who is helping her develop specific action steps to connect with her target audience, Collins has more confidence in a “grander path” for her work.

“I learned that my network could extend to multiple spaces beyond my realm of podcasting and journalism when industry leaders are willing to share their expertise, time, and financial support,” she told Upworthy. “It only takes one person to change, and two people to expand that change.”

Prudential Emerging Visionaries is currently seeking applicants for 2024. Winners may receive up to $15,000 in awards and an all-expenses-paid trip to Prudential’s headquarters with a parent or guardian, as well as ongoing coaching and skills development to grow their projects.

If you or someone you know between the ages of 14 -18 not only displays a bold vision for the future but is taking action to bring that vision to life, click here to learn more. Applications are due by Nov. 2, 2023.
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