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 V.18 No.23 | June 4 - 10, 2009 

The Radford Files

A Skeptical Look at American Beauty

It is widely assumed that Americans are heavily influenced by pop culture, including the belief that thin fashion models harm girls and women. But is there good scientific evidence to support this? That question was raised May 3, when the film America the Beautiful was screened in Albuquerque. The premise is simple: America has an unhealthy obsession with beauty and perfection, with disastrous consequences. The film claims that airbrushed media images of thin models are leading most women to a vicious cycle of starvation diets, low self-esteem and anorexia.

Filmmaker Darryl Roberts’ documentary perpetuates several common myths. He claims that most women are constantly dieting, in a futile and lifelong struggle to lose weight and fit into a size 2. This is widely believed, but most studies and surveys (such as those by Amanda Gruber and Harrison Pope, in their 2001 article “Why Do Women Diet?” published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry) find that most women are not dieting at any given time, and a third to half rarely or never diet. In 2000, a People magazine survey found only one-quarter of women had dieted at any point in the last year. In 2002 a Glamour magazine survey asked more than 1,100 women what they would give up to slim down permanently: 75 percent would not give up eating dessert, and fewer than half (41 percent) would pay $3,000 to be thin forever; almost a quarter said they would not give up anything at all to be thin.

Young women can no more “catch” anorexia from seeing thin models than they can “catch” depression from watching an actress cry in a film.

Roberts believes that most women (99 percent of them, according to his informal survey that opens the film) feel unattractive or are unhappy with their looks. Yet many studies show that about 90 percent of women say they are happy with how they look, and most consider themselves to be more attractive than average. In 1998, USA Weekend conducted one of the largest surveys of American youth (of which 57 percent of the respondents were girls, and 43 percent boys); 93 percent said they feel good about themselves. In 2000, the British Medical Association issued a report (“Eating Disorders, Body Images, and the Media”) that concluded, “The majority of young women (88 percent) say they are of average or above average self-confidence.” Harvard’s Dr. Nancy Etcoff found in her 2004 report “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report” that the majority of 3,200 women surveyed described their body weight as “just right”; 88 percent said they were average or above average in attractiveness, and only 10 percent of women said they were “very or somewhat dissatisfied” with their beauty.

Roberts also believes that anorexia is a threat to most young women because of media images they see, though there’s little scientific evidence to support that. Anorexia is a rare and complex psychological disorder with many indications of a genetic component. Young women can no more “catch” anorexia from seeing thin models than they can “catch” depression from watching an actress cry in a film. Most research studies have failed to find a cause-and-effect link between media images of thin people and eating disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, only about 1 percent of women develop anorexia. If there was a strong link between media exposure and anorexia (or bulimia), we would expect to see an incidence many orders of magnitude higher than is found.

The issues are real enough. Anorexia is a tragic disease; some young women (and men) do diet to excess and have body image issues and low self-esteem. But the scientific research shows that they are the exception, not the rule. The first step in solving a problem is understanding it, and films like America the Beautiful may actually end up doing more harm than good. Since research suggests that the causes of anorexia probably have more to do with genetics than thin fashion models, money spent educating young girls about the artificiality of airbrushed media images won’t do anything to treat or cure anorexia. Girls deserve facts and truth instead of myths and misinformation.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Benjamin Radford has investigated mysterious and unexplained phenomena for more than a decade. He is a columnist for LiveScience.com and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His latest book is Lake Monster Mysteries , available at his website: RadfordBooks.com.

 

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