‘Thinspiration’ through mass media

The pages of a beauty magazine, mass media images and movies can offer some temporary encouragement to dieters trying to resist temptation during Thanksgiving and other food-centred holidays. Dieters may be surprised to learn that those mass media images of idealized female bodies in movies, beauty magazines and the fashion industry can provide them with a temporary but powerful form of encouragement, dubbed by York University Professor Jennifer Mills as the “thinspiration effect”.

Right: Jennifer Mills

After conducting a number of psychological experiments, Mills found that women who are dieting actually feel thinner after looking at idealized images of the thin body regularly served up by the mass media. Mills says that the thinspiration effect works best for dieters who only have five to 10 pounds to lose.

“These images actually inspire women to diet. It’s a powerful motivator for women who want to lose weight, and it challenges the myth that the images just make women feel hopeless,” said Mills.

“The dieter’s goal has to be attainable,” said Mills, “Otherwise, they get discouraged and tend to fail.” In the case of failure, Mills noted, women tend to blame themselves – saying they “cheated” – rather than blame the diet.

“Despite claims to the contrary,” explained Mills, “most diets do not work over the long term and can result in chronic dieting, binge dieting and even eating disorders.” She cites the fact that very few diets provide support or follow-up as a prime reason for their failure.

Mills is doing follow-up studies to determine what happens when the thinspiration effect wears off. “We think the effect is relatively short-lived,” said Mills, “and may dissipate as dieters come down from the so-called dieting high.”

Her results have altered the way researchers think about the changes in self-perception that women undergo during the dieting process. The research will also impact the theoretical assumptions that clinicians use when treating patients in other areas where media images appear to influence behaviour. “We want women to be aware of how images affect them,” said Mills, “and we want to give clinicians the tools to help people.

“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,” Mills added.

York University offers several body image and eating disorder education and outreach programs available to the University community through its Student Affairs office and Counselling and Development Centre.