Why have obesity and eating disorders become so common in children and adolescents? Along with an unhealthy obsession with food, diet, and appearance, there also seems to be an underlying belief in an "ideal" body weight and shape. For those young people who believe that they fall short of this ideal (as the vast majority do), the outcome is low self-esteem, biased perceptions about how much food they should eat, and a tendency towards poor eating habits that can aggravate health problems.
Adolescents diagnosed with serious eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia often report that their symptoms can be linked to the bullying they often receive from their age peers as well as the unrealistic media images presented as an ideal for them to follow. When overweight people are shown at all, they are presented as comic relief and often ridiculed. The romantic heroes and heroines on the other hand, typically have bodies that are smaller and thinner than average. This is especially true for female characters while males are allowed the option of "bulking up" with greater muscular development.
Content analysis of female characters show a bias towards body weights well below the recommended size and weight for people in their age group. As a result, adolescent females who are unable to conform to the ideal being put forward by movie and television find themselves taking extreme measures to be more like their role models. With thinness presented as the ideal body shape and a necessary prerequisite for health and happiness, anyone falling short of this ideal is vulnerable to depression, poor self-esteem, and general body dissatisfaction. The effect of media content on ideas of physical beauty appears remarkably robust with women reporting greater feelings of inadequacy regardless of their real body weight. Though the problem is most commonly seen in females, it is hardly limited to them. While there is slightly wider variation in body shapes among male characters in movies and television who are presented as ideals of physical attractiveness, obesity is still regarded as unattractive.
To read more, check out my new post in Psychology Today.