15 minutes is all it takes to shape our ideal of beauty

As someone who immigrated from one country to another, I was fortunate to experience the differences in culture first hand.
Whether it’s the food, the language or the people, there was always something new to learn and experience every day. One thing, which still fascinates me, was the ideal of beauty and what makes someone beautiful in their culture.

First of all, I’m from Vietnam, and the standard for beauty in Asia is very different to Australia. In Asia, the shade of your skin tone is enough for you to fall in the attractive or not-attractive category. Individually, not everyone would find paler skin attractive, but as a large group, the definition of beauty can no longer be attributed to any single person.

Science explains this phenomenon of shared taste as “mate choice copying“. In other words, we decided who we think is beautiful based on what our friends find attractive.

However, this theory cannot explain a nationwide obsession of achieving the same beauty ideal.

So, what created this definition of beauty anyway?
The first thing that came to my mind is the media because we always suspect that they influence what people find attractive.

This image is probably only one scroll down in your feed. Source: Flickr

Beauty ideals are represented in images, music videos and movies. They are so familiar to us that it is hard to test this theory.

And by the title, you must have known that science now can!

For the first time, researchers could show that looking at photos of thin women is enough to shape a person’s beauty ideals.

The story goes:

A group of scientists went to rural villages along the Coast of Nicaragua to find people who have not been exposed to images from the media.The villages that they found had no electricity beyond the odd solar panel used to power a light bulb. The government is still in the process of adding these communities to the electricity grid.

When they get electricity, people say they want two things: fridge and television.

Before the villages were exposed to the media, researchers asked men and women aged between 16 and 78 to create their “ideal” body shape for a woman.The villages were then shown images from a catalogue of Western’s clothing store. Images were shown in pairs, and the volunteer had to decide which models they thought was more attractive.

After this task, which lasted only 15 minutes, the researcher then asked the volunteers to create their ideal women’s body size again.

The volunteer who looked at images of thin women now created ideal women body size that was thinner than their original ideal.
In contrast, people who looked at images of plus-sized models showed the opposite effect – their ideal body shape increased in size!

Which one is the ideal? Source: Flickr

The effect of this finding:

Currently, the researchers don’t know how long the effect of these images lasts. But given that most of us are exposed to them regularly in our daily life, even if the impact of each exposure were only temporary, it would still have lasting consequences.

Eating disorders such as out-of-control binge eating, anorexia and bulimia are characterised by an obsessive desire to be “perfect”, like the images we see daily in the media.

These chronic and persistent disorders are a major public health problem. For example, binge eating not only affecting the individual’s mental health but could also contribute to a rise in obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the community. What makes it even worse is that these conditions are usually under-reported and under-diagnosed.

However, we shouldn’t demonise the media; it provides access to political information, entertainments and even storms warnings. We just need to be informed that having access to the media (not just television, but print and social media) is associated with these risks.

 

For more information on the study of beauty ideal in this article:

http://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2017/08/14/176107.full.pdf

For help regarding to eating disorder:

Support for Australians experiencing eating disorders – https://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/

Source of support, information, community education – https://www.eatingdisorders.org.au/


6 Responses to “15 minutes is all it takes to shape our ideal of beauty”

  1. Nancy R. Tran says:

    Hi Millera,
    Thank you for reading and commenting!
    From the scientific article, the volunteers were both men and women aged between 16 and 78. So I think both young people and older people would be affected by this phenomenon too. And you’re absolute correct about how hard it is to make judgement when we are constantly exposed to the media.

  2. Nancy R. Tran says:

    Hi Claudia,
    I do hope that famous celebrities are trying hard too. There will be a lot of young adults looking up to them.
    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Nancy R. Tran says:

    Yes, exactly. I also thought that my “ideal” is actually my own, until I found this article. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Vincent Chea says:

    This was a great piece! I’ll often be at a night out with mates and we’ll go through the whole, “describe, your ideal body type”. It’s interesting to note how much environment plays a role in this.

  5. Claudia says:

    Wow. How people change their beauty ideals in just 15 minutes shows just how malleable the human mind is and their need to fit into a social construct.
    Although, I do believe that current beauty ideals are slowly changing as famous celebrities challenge the status quo by maintaining a healthy body through healthy means.

  6. millera2 says:

    Such a relevant topic for (mostly) young people at our university! It’s always good and so interesting to be aware of how we are subconsciously affected by these things, especially because it’s so hard to live our life here without a constant media flow.