Modeling Healthy Body Image: Celebrities Speak Up

Earlier this month actress Emma Stone grabbed headlines when she spoke out against body-shaming in an interview with Seventeen magazine. And Stone isn’t alone. She is part of a trend of celebrities using their fame to fight back against the unrealistic standards of beauty perpetuated by the media:

  • Teen Pop Star Lorde recently called attention to the excessive use of airbrushing in the media, posting two photos of herself, one retouched to “perfection,” the other revealing her real skin, blemishes and all. “Remember flaws are OK,” the singer tweeted.
  • Actress Shailene Woodley refused to wear makeup to several high profile Hollywood events. She also opted to go barefaced for the majority of her role in last summer’s teen flick The Spectacular Now.
  • Actress Jennifer Lawrence slammed fat talk in an interview last December: “I just think it should be illegal to call somebody fat on TV. I mean, if we’re regulating cigarettes and sex and cuss words because of the effect it has on our younger generation, why aren’t we regulating things like calling people fat?”

It’s certainly a refreshing change to have celebrities engage in healthy dialogue about body image, but does it actually matter? Unfortunately, science has yet to catch up to this seemingly positive trend, so it’s hard to say for sure. However, there are a few questions that we can more confidently answer about the media, body image, and eating disorders:

Does the media contribute to negative body image or eating disorders?

Many factors — biological, environmental, and temperamental — contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Media messages likely comprise only a small portion of the broad category of environmental stressors (and even then, the media impacts some individuals much more than others). A number of studies, including those that assess behaviors and attitudes before and after exposure to media, have demonstrated that, for certain individuals, media messages can perpetuate unhealthy eating attitudes and behaviors as well as poor body image.

Are there effective ways to reduce the media’s negative impact?

Yes! Here are some examples:

  • The Body Project/Reflections: This scientifically-supported group intervention draws on principles of cognitive dissonance to promote healthy body image and decrease the risk for disordered eating. Cognitive dissonance is accomplished by promoting a state of inconsistent thoughts and feelings to change attitudes. In this case, this is achieved as group leaders guide girls and young women through activities that encourage them to think, speak, write, and act in ways that critique the thin-ideal and challenge their previously held notions about beauty.
  • Media Literacy: Educating consumers is generally important in creating smart shoppers and this appears no different in matters of media literacy. Teaching people, especially young people, to think critically about the images they see on TV, in print, or online may help to reduce body dissatisfaction.
  • Disclaimers and warnings: Recent research has examined the impact of disclaimers (alerting readers about retouched photographs) or warnings (e.g. Warning: Trying to look as thin as this model may be dangerous to your health.) on advertisements. Results are mixed, and more research is needed to determine the usefulness of these tools.

How might celebrities’ positive body image messages fit in?

Research tells us that adolescents and teens model many potentially harmful behaviors that they see in the media, including drug and alcohol use. Perhaps the mechanism of behavioral modeling can be used to impact positive change as well. If so, then celebrities who model healthy behaviors and attitudes are putting their influence to good use. Their contributions to the discussion about beauty, weight, and eating represent a step in the right direction that could redefine real as the ideal. The leading ladies mentioned above are paving the way in modeling comfort in their own (barefaced) skin and emphasizing the importance of eliminating “fat talk” in favor of focusing on other, non-physical qualities. Paired with large-scale campaigns to reform media messages about beauty, there’s simply no telling the difference that healthy dialogue at an individual level may make—whether that individual is famous or not.

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