Why Do Beauty Standards Change? This Study Shows That Just One Image Can Warp Your Beauty Standards

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The human brain is extremely suggestible. It's constantly being molded by what you see and experience around you, and it absorbs new information throughout your life. So when you see ads for vitamins that feature extremely thin women as an "ideal" of fitness, your brain is quick to pick up on that messaging (no matter how misleading that may be). These kinds of images can change how we perceive beauty standards enormously, and a new study from British and Swiss academics has found that the process happens much quicker than previously thought.

The dominant standard of female beauty in Western media may have vacillated slightly over the decades, but for the majority of the 20th and 21st centuries, symmetrical, toned, white, and thin women have been advertised as the "ideal" by mainstream media. Increased visibility for diverse body types has ramped up significantly in recent years, showing that obviously there isn't just one kind of female body that's beautiful.

And for millennials raised on the internet, having a diversity of different types of bodies in the spotlight is a boon for general body positivity. But what influence could different images have on people who've never experienced mainstream media, or the beauty "ideals" it espouses? This new study aimed to answer that question, and what it found was that body standards changed much quicker than people might have previously believed.

What A Single Image Can Do

The new research is available as a pre-print and hasn't yet been peer-reviewed by other scientists, which means that we can't take its conclusions as gospel just yet. But it suggests something alarming enough to gain coverage in places like New Scientist, and it's not hard to understand why. The scientists behind the research wanted to find out how images of thin models might affect ideas about an "ideal" female body in people who'd never been exposed to those kinds of images before. They traveled to Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast, a deeply isolated area where villages have no electricity, and therefore no exposure to television or film. Eighty volunteers, male and female, in those villages were recruited, and asked to describe their ideal body shape. Half were shown 72 photographs of plus-size models, and the other half were shown 72 photographs of thin models.

The entire process lasted about 15 minutes, at which point the scientists then asked the villagers to describe their ideal body image again. The people who had been looking at plus-size images made their idealized female bodies fit that standard, while those who'd been gazing at size zero women also changed their ideal to fit what they'd seen. That is to say, they took their cues of what their ideal was from what they'd been exposed to, no matter what size or shape the images showed.

This population is what's called "media-naive": they haven't had decades of saturation of mainstream media's beauty ideals, though they have their own cultural ideals about beauty. They also haven't had education about the media creation and curation of images, and why unattainable beauty standards are profitable. The shocking element of the experiment was that it only took a small amount of exposure to this imagery for the subjects of this experiment to shift their ideals completely. The suggestibility of the human mind strikes again.

Why 15 Minutes Matters

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:

(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.