How Thin Became the Ideal

The impact of fashion magazines on eating behaviors of female adolescents

Nena Neijenhuis



In contemporary society, the representation of female models in fashion magazines contribute to the shaping of a certain ‘thin-ideal’ of what women should look like. This has a huge impact, mainly young women, as they consider these models to have idealistic appearances. Body dissatisfaction, conceptualized by Omori, Yamazaki, Aizawa and Zoysa (2017) as considering one’s own body as unsatisfactory negatively impacting the self-esteem, has been determined as a threatening risk for developing negative self-perception, depression and subsequently, possible dangerous eating behaviors. 

In this essay, I want to shed a light on possible eating problems of female adolescents that arise due to the ‘thin-ideal’ of models in fashion magazines. The central question I will try to answer will be: ‘how can the ‘thin-ideal’ of fashion magazines lead to dangerous eating habits of young female adults?’ Research has proven a link between the general approval of a certain ideal female body type, social comparison and likeliness to engage in extreme weight-loss behaviors (Lewallen & Morawitz, 2016). Therefore, I will investigate my research question in the context of the Social Comparison Theory, developed by Festinger (1954).

First, I will outline the basis of the problem, which is the representation of models in fashion magazines – often being specifically aimed at increasing profit, rather than reflecting reality. Secondly, I will apply this knowledge to how this leads to stereotyping of what a ‘perfect’ model should look like, the ‘thin-ideal’. Lastly, I will apply this knowledge to the Social Comparison Theory and highlight how this can eventually lead to dangerous eating behaviors.

The focus of this essay is on young female adolescents, because media effects are more likely during adolescence as they are in the middle of social and emotional processes including identity development. Moreover, adolescence is a period where the body changes significantly, related to higher attention to body images. As the female body changes heavier combined with increasing insecurities (Eyal & Te’eni-Harari, 2013), this research focuses on girls. In order to simplify the research, it doesn’t focus on Black models, as there is a difference in representation between both races (Millard & Grant, 2006). 

The relevance of this essay lies in giving attention to and raising awareness for an increasing problem. Eyal and Te’eni-Harari (2013) in their article state that young adolescents indicate dangerous and even pathological attitudes toward eating habits, such as food obsessions, diets and body shredding activities in order to achieve thinness. These alarming indicators of an increasing problem should not be ignored nor accepted. 

Representation of models in fashion magazines: the thinner, the better 

Models have not always been represented ultra-thin as they are now. From 1959 to 1978 there was a remarkable shift towards a thinner ideal in the fashion industry: models represented in big magazines as Vogue, Ladies Home Journal and Woman’s Day decreased significantly in weight. During the 1980s and the 1990s the size of models in fashion magazines decreased even more (body represented around 13-19% below expected weight) and the focus shifted from the face and the product to the body (Wiseman, Gray, Mosiman & Ahrens, 1992; Ahern, Bennett & Hetherington, 2008). Moreover, it became more popular to photograph models in more sexual ways, revealing their bodies more by wearing less clothes.

This also connects to the fact that the pictures of models become more bodily-oriented rather than face-oriented (Millard & Grant, 2006). Overall, the representation of models shitted from ‘selling clothes’ to ‘selling dreams’: representing models in an idealized form of beauty, being thin and young. The idealistic bodies and beauty represented can be aspired, but never achieved. It is beneficial to increase desire and demand for products, because women tend to buy these products in the hope to become more similar. In other words, representing a perfect ‘dream’ was aimed at developing insecurities in order to increase profits (Barry, 2007). 

Representation didn’t only shift towards unhealthy pictures, rather they were also manipulated. Research has proved that young girls are more likely to purchase a product when a picture is modified, compared to when a picture is not. Therefore, manipulating advertisements by a computer became a trend – and is one of the most normal happenings in fashion magazines nowadays. The focus on money resulted in false representations of what the models look like: bodies of models shown in fashion magazines are most of the time incompatible with normal characteristics of the female body.

To exemplify, Western fashion magazines show bodies of models that are thinner and smaller than average. The waist of a model is sometimes as small as the head, which can almost never be real. Modification of a picture goes hand in hand with lower self-esteem of young women and a significantly higher desire to change their body (Borges, 2011; Eyal & Te’eni-Harari). 

How representation leads to stereotyping: the thin-ideal becomes the norm

It is clear that fashion magazines are representing models in an attempt to enhance their sexuality and beauty. Repeated exposure to such representations of models leads young viewers to accept the portrayal of models as a representation of reality, leaving possible doubts about realness behind. Moreover, the constant representation of the ‘thin’ leads women to consider this ideal as normative, expected and central to attractiveness – in other words, as the standard (Grabe, Ward & Hyde, 2008). Fashion magazines consider white women to be the standard for beauty and femininity, excluding Black models. Compared to Black models, white models are portrayed more often in sexual poses, including more nudity (Millard & Grant, 2006).

It is generally acknowledged that women consider confidence to go hand in hand with happiness. Research has showed that picturing fashion models in highly sexualized ways increases the idea of them being more powerful and confident. This results in the stereotyping that the ‘beauty’ being represented equals happiness. Consequently, due to the fact that female adolescents stereotype models as being happier, they tend to look at the cause of this happiness: the fact that they are very thin. This has led to the stereotype being thin to be idealistic: the so-called ‘thin-ideal’ (Reaves, Bush-Hitchon, Park & Yun, 2004).

This thin-ideal is a sociocultural factor that plays a significant role in the promotion and maintenance of dangerous eating habits and even eating disorders, as it is unattainable to achieve to most. The ‘thin-ideal’ leads to such a societal obsession with weight amongst young women, that already a dangerous degree of body dissatisfaction is ‘normal’ among women, paired with dieting, purging and skipping meals (Stice & Shaw, 1994; Grabe, Ward & Hyde, 2008). 

Social Comparison Theory and the shaping of body image

In this essay, Social Comparison Theory is used as the theoretical framework in order to explain the forming and shaping of body image perceptions resulting in body dissatisfaction. As aforementioned, body dissatisfaction is related to the comparison of one’s body to others’ bodies – here, ‘thin-idealistic’ bodies – leading to negative perceptions of one’s own body. Festinger (1954) was the first to state that in order to explore the ‘self’, individuals tend to compare themselves to others, including known people as well as unknown people. The comparison to others leads individuals to confirm or deny aspects of their own identity, determining levels of personal successes and abilities (Lewallen & Behm-Morawitz).

Since its original formulation, Social Comparison Theory used nowadays has undergone some changes, from which one includes that “social comparison now also may occur on dimensions such as physical appearance and eating habits” (ibid p. 575). It includes two ways of comparing. First, downward comparison implies that we perceive others to be less successful than ourselves, which enhances mood. On the contrary, upward comparison means comparing to others we perceive to be better, negatively impacting mood and threatening self-evaluation. When a young girl compares herself to an image represented in a fashion magazine, this almost inevitably results in upward social comparison, leading to evaluate themselves as lacking (Morrison, Kalin & Morrison, 2004). As Eyal and Te’eni-Harari (2013) proved, representation of the thin “serves as upward comparison models and inspirations rather than as targets who make one feel better about oneself” (p.137). When young women engaged in social comparison to thin models, negative mood increased, as well as body dissatisfaction and eating disorder symptoms (Bessenhof, 2006; Tiggemann & McGill, 2004).

Moreover, many studies show that social comparison is often linked with lower levels of self-compassion and high levels of shame and insecurity, as well as a drive for thinness. Body-dissatisfaction is often associated with self-criticism, also closely related to the drive for thinness. The drive for thinness makes young adolescents vulnerable for eating disorders (Pinto-Gouveia, Ferreira & Duarte, 2014). Martin and Kennedy (1994) claim that social comparison of young female adolescents to fashion magazine models leads to changes in self-perceptions of physical attractiveness and as this is closely related to determining self-esteem, it also affects levels of self-esteem.  

Bessenhof (2006) states that self-discrepancy serves as a mediator of negative effects of ‘thin-ideal’ representation in fashion magazines. As self-discrepancy is the gap between the “ideal self” and the “actual self”, it forms an important aspect in the relationship between Social Comparison Theory and the effects of fashion magazines. High levels of self-discrepancy are closely related to emotional distress, low self-esteem, emotional vulnerabilities and eating disorders. There exists a causal relationship between long-term exposure to thin-ideals and increasing self-discrepancies. The ‘thin-ideal’ heavily affects body dissatisfaction and weight-loss related thoughts.

On top of this, young women who suffer from high body image self-discrepancy are more vulnerable to negative consequences from exposure to the thin-ideal. Notwithstanding, it also has a significant negative influence on confident female adolescents. 


The aim of this essay was to answer the question how can the ‘thin-ideal’ of fashion magazines lead to dangerous eating habits of young female adults? In order to answer this question, I explained the way models are represented in fashion magazines and how this constant representation leads to the ‘thin-ideal’-stereotype. Lastly, I applied this information to the Social Comparison Theory.

From 1958 onwards, models represented in fashion magazines became thinner than average and that partly due to increasing nudity and sexuality, the focus shifted from face to body. Representing the truth changed to representing an unattainable dream, having a significant impact on young female adults, being in a vulnerable transition phase in their life. Moreover, image manipulation also gained popularity, making the bodies even thinner and out of proportion, with heads sometimes as small as the waist. 

The repeated exposure to these images resulted in absence of doubts concerning the authenticity of the pictures. The bodies became considered the standard, as the expected body a woman should have. This resulted in the development of the ‘thin-ideal’. Moreover, as models in these magazines seem to be very confident, it was stereotyped that this beauty equals happiness – ignoring the dark, slightly unknown world behind the model industry. As this ideal is unachievable to most, this is a very dangerous development. Obsessions with weight, food and weight loss are nowadays normal for young females, having significant consequences.  

Social Comparison Theory served as the approach to look at how the representation and stereotypes influences eating habits. Research proved that upward comparison takes place when a young female compares herself to a fashion magazine model. Body dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem, a feeling of lacking etc. are frequently occurring consequences, resulting in an active drive for thinness. Obviously, active drive for thinness has a causal relationship with shredding food, dieting, skipping and even vomiting. Self-discrepancy is an important mediator in the relationship between Social Comparison Theory and the influence of representation and stereotyping of models in fashion magazines, which should not be ignored.

This essay tried to highlight the danger young females undergo and therefore I claim specific laws to change the current representation and subsequent stereotyping to be of heavy importance. For future research, I recommend researchers to focus more on how to tackle the current problems, rather than only addressing them. For instance, proper education about the misleading representations could be a starting point. 

Nena Neijenhuis is a student of media studies focused on politics and global citizenship, at the University of Groningen. She works on her second minor in political sciences and media at the University of Helsinki, Finland. After graduation, she will start working on a Master’s degree in security in international relations.


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