Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.
When it comes to women's bodies, academics have identified a "tyranny of slenderness" in contemporary culture. This "tyranny" is perpetuated through the ultra-thin models almost exclusively featured in ads. But while advertisers have defaulted to the thin ideal, research has yet to prove conclusively that this tactic actually sells more stuff. (Research has been able to prove that looking at all of those unattainable bodies reinforces the thin ideal and makes women feel bad, so there's that.)
In a recently published study, researchers from Baylor University wanted to see if the “thin sells" maxim made sense, so they surveyed 239 women ages 16 to roughly 65 to find out how much each woman internalized the thin ideal. Then, they randomly divided the women into three groups to see if they would buy handbags based off of particular advertisements. One group was shown five ads for handbags with "skinny" models and another group was shown five handbag ads featuring "average size" models (these were the "skinny" models Photoshopped to look a bit heavier). The last group was shown ads with no models, just handbags. The researchers also collected their basic demographic information, as well as each woman's body mass index.
Of the 239 women in the sample, only 30 percent were what the researchers called "high internalizers" who fully subscribed to the thin ideal. The other 70 percent were either ambivalent (45 percent) or "low internalizers" who rejected the thin ideal (25 percent). Ads with ultra-thin models only convinced women who were "high internalizers" to buy the handbags; otherwise model body size had no direct impact on the effectiveness of an ad -- the "average size" models worked just as well as the "skinny" models. Fun facts about those "high internalizers": These women were younger, consumed more media, earned more money and were generally unhappier with their bodies than the other women in the study.
If, as this study would have you believe, advertisers pander to the insecurities of a small percentage of women, then also they're likely alienating 70 percent of female consumers. It seems that a wider range of bodies are just as effective, if not more, at selling products, so perhaps that's incentive enough for advertisers to embrace body diversity on a wider scale.
Until that actually happens, it might be helpful for women to keep in mind that previous research has shown that only 5 percent of women can actually achieve the thin ideal -- just something to consider while you're being bombarded with nearly 3,000 ads on a daily basis.