We've known about the psychological impacts of idealizing thinness in media for quite some time. Study after study from the 1990s onwards has reiterated that, particularly for young women, exposure to thin models in media causes more problematic body image issues and lower self-esteem about their own appearance, and internalization of these ideals raises the likelihood of eating disorders. The results were enhanced if women were already feeling dissatisfied with their own bodies, but the pervasiveness of imagery affected women whether they were happy or not. We also know it has the same effects when it first comes into other cultures, increasing rates of eating disorders and body issues among non-Western women. As the scientists behind the Nicaraguan study explained:
"Media consumption is associated with a drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and disordered eating in women of western and/or industrialized societies. Furthermore, cross-cultural research suggests that the media have similar effects when they are introduced into non-western or non-industrialized societies."
(It's important to note that these sorts of idealization issues aren't confined to women; men also suffer from body image idealization in the media, as well as eating disorders as a result.)
So what can be done about it? Media literacy, it's been discovered, can go a long way to helping this issue. A 2005 study of 123 young college women found that images that idealized thin models were far less impactful if the women were first given a course on how media distortion works, from Photoshop to the production of unrealistic ideals. A 1998 study found that analyzing and understanding the fashion industry itself among female undergraduates helped them distance themselves from idealized thinness. The idea of "cognitive dissonance" programs, which ask people to actively question their ideas and create discomfort around their beliefs, has also been raised as a possibility to help challenge images that champion thinness as ideal, though their success hasn't always been clear.
Another part of the puzzle, of course, is increasing representation of all kinds of bodies. A study from Florida State University in June found that college-aged women who were dissatisfied with their bodies — all of whom had been raised surrounded by media that privileged thinness — found viewing images of plus-size models psychologically beneficial, raised their self-esteem, and prompted them to make fewer comparisons between themselves and the models. It's part of the collection of concrete proof that diversity in representation of female body types is particularly helpful to a media-saturated population.
The Nicaraguan experiment, notably, didn't measure how long the effects of the exposure to different body types lasted; whether the 80 people still had new beauty ideals a week, a month or a year afterwards is unknown. (The villages will also now have electricity and television, so they're no longer media-naive in the same way.) The impact of those initial 15 minutes may well have fizzled out within a day, for all we know. In populations where the onslaught of imagery is constant, though, that's a moot point. The big lesson to take away from the Nicaraguan experiment is that images, of any kind, can warp our beauty standards within the time it takes to bake a batch of cookies. Knowing about why that is, through media literacy and other education, can stop it.