What Is the Connection between Television and Body Image?

Alan Rankin

Television is one of the most widespread communications and entertainment media on Earth. The connections between television and body image have been the subject of much discussion since the late 20th century. Various scientific and social studies have suggested a connection between images presented on television and body image, a person’s satisfaction with his or her own physical appearance. The chief concern is that such images foster a negative body image for viewers, potentially leading to health problems such as eating disorders. The actual extent of this connection and its effects remains a matter of debate.

A person's satisfaction may be affected by what is seen on television.
A person's satisfaction may be affected by what is seen on television.

Television was introduced in Europe, Asia, and North America during the 1930s. By the 21st century, television broadcasts were available in every nation and continent on Earth, including Antarctica. Television is a prominent medium of communications, information, and entertainment, and TV advertising generates tremendous revenue worldwide. Much study and discussion has been devoted to the effects of television on the culture and psychology of its viewers. This includes the precise relationship between television and body image.

Media is often considered detrimental to the body image of teenage girls.
Media is often considered detrimental to the body image of teenage girls.

In the late 20th century, several high-profile books discussed the changing role of women in culture, particularly that of the United States. These included Backlash by Susan Faludi, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, and Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher. Each paid close attention to the connections between television and body image. The general consensus of these and similar works was that television, and advertising in particular, presented an idealized image of women. Real women, consciously or unconsciously, were comparing themselves to these images, and their own body images were suffering as a result.

A 2007 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that such images tend to be highly sexualized, emphasizing the importance of physical attractiveness over other characteristics. A later APA report, however, found that factors such as peers and family also influence a woman’s idea of her body image. A widely quoted statistic from the 2007 report cited increased eating disorders among the women of Fiji after TV was introduced on the island nation. The later report questioned the data behind this assertion. In short, the precise connection between television and body image is the subject of ongoing study and debate.

Images on television and body image satisfaction are issues for men as well. The figure rating scale is an analytic tool used by psychologists to measure body image satisfaction by having subjects choose their own body shape and an ideal shape. Studies with this tool have found that many men are also dissatisfied with their body image, although to a lesser degree than most women are. While women generally prefer an ideal that is more slender than their own body image, men tend to choose an ideal that is more muscular. In both genders, cultural values appear to be a factor as well as the media images that reinforce those values.

Images on television and advertising can create unrealistic body image ideals, particularly in women.
Images on television and advertising can create unrealistic body image ideals, particularly in women.

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Discussion Comments


I think it was just different with guys in general. We could get a little intimidated by seeing handsome characters like Magnum, PI or the Duke boys on television, but I don't know if it really hurt our self-esteem that much. I think the difference is that television started putting out the idea that young girls needed to look like Charlie's Angels, and anything less would be unacceptable.


I remember the phenomenon known as "Jiggle TV" back in the late 70s. Practically every show on prime time television featured at least one sexy female character. It could have been Daisy Duke on "Dukes of Hazzard" or Chrissie Snow on "Three's Company", but there was always one actress with a perfect figure and a willingness to show it off. I think that's when television as a whole shifted towards a more sexualized image.

It's hard for me as a man to understand the relationship between the impossibly sexy images on television shows and a real woman's body image issues. As a young boy watching these jiggle shows, I knew I was supposed to find that sort of woman very desirable and ideal. Sometimes it worked, but other times I thought of her as completely unattainable, as well as self-absorbed. I would much rather be with someone in real life who carried herself well and had more to offer than just her physique.

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