Dieting: the ‘thinspiration’ effect

Why do so many women diet? What role do advertisers play in leading women into yo-yo dieting?

York psychology Professor Jennifer Mills (left), Faculty of Arts, is examining these issues and others, including the psychological consequences of restrictive eating and the effects of media imagery on body image among young women.
The Canada Foundation for Innovation recently sent a certificate of congratulations to Mills, one of several York faculty members who have received CFI grants during the past year.Mills began her research in the psychology of eating disorders knowing the paradox that, while exposure to idealized body images is assumed to make women feel worse about their own bodies, fashion and beauty magazines are still hugely popular with young women who are chronic dieters.
The treatment-resistant nature of eating disorders has been puzzling and frustrating for clinicians, says Mills. “Given the already elevated body dissatisfaction of chronic dieters, it was reasonable to ask why they would want to expose themselves to media images of ultra-slender models.”

Through controlled psychological experiments, she has been able to demonstrate that women in this group actually feel thinner after looking at idealized images of the thin body, and, oddly, this motivates them to diet. She is now exploring this “thinspiration” effect on the psychology of chronic dieters to understand the shifts in self-perception that occur when such women decide to diet to lose weight.
Her results have already changed the way researchers view these processes in the laboratory, and will have important theoretical applications in other areas of social, personality and abnormal psychology.

“If we can isolate the conditions under which women are vulnerable to worsened body image and increased propensity to diet, we are closer to understanding and preventing eating disorders,” says Mills.
The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI ) is an independent corporation established by the Government of Canada in 1997.