How to Protect Body Image From Harmful Societal Messaging

How to Protect Body Image From Harmful Societal Messaging

Read Time • 12 Min
  • Category Mental Health


I was on a walk with my dog a while ago and saw a sign outside of a boutique fitness studio that said “Is it bikini season or coverup season?” I was instantly filled with so many reactions, and I’ll share a few:

  • Ooh that’s clever marketing. 
  • That’s also ridiculous, suggesting that you have to have a certain type of body to wear a bikini and otherwise you have to wear a coverup.
  • This is contributing to body image concerns and potentially disordered eating.
  • But, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they are playing off of one’s sense of confidence, not a particular body type.
  • Why are they profiting off of making people feel ashamed of their bodies?

The list could continue. I gave that sign more cognitive resources than it deserved. But, as a mental health professional, I felt a sense of responsibility to challenge this sort of message and help people to find ways to not fall prey to the potentially harmful effects of marketing like this. 

This sign and others like it, even if well-intentioned, contribute to an overall narrative about what a body should (or shouldn’t) look like. You see, many people with body image concerns struggle to identify the origins of where their negative thoughts and feelings toward their body stem from. In moments when we feel a bit self-conscious about our bodies or a desire to restrict food intake because our body looks a particular way, this sign doesn’t come to mind. However, marketing like this has a way of seeping into our psyche and operating in the background, even if we don’t fully buy into it or agree with it. This is why it is so critical to increase our awareness of harmful messaging in the moment and be able to challenge it before we move on to thinking about other things. 

There are several societal factors that contribute to the ways we view our bodies. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but here I will explore the research on three sources. 

Marketing and Advertising

First, the way that companies advertise for their products can send important messages about many things in life, ideals about bodies being just one. Some companies selling fitness-related goods and services want people to feel like they need to change their bodies as that is what will help sell their product. However, even seemingly innocuous messages for clothing, cars, or even food and drinks can send messages about what peoples’ bodies are “supposed” to look like in order to be seen as desirable.

For example, past experimental research has consistently found that exposure to ultra-thin and even average-sized models (which are typically still much thinner than the average person) within advertisements leads to decreased body satisfaction and self-esteem (Posavac et al., 1998; Clay et al., 2005) and even self-objectification (Harper & Tiggeman, 2008). 

A recent study examined the differences in body-positive advertising versus advertising based on the “thin ideal.” They found that the body-positive advertising (Dove for Real Beauty and Aerie Real campaigns) made women view diverse body types more positively and some even made them feel better about their own body. The “thin ideal” advertisement (Victoria’s Secret campaign) made women feel worse about their own bodies and even led to greater negative attitudes toward others who are overweight (Selensky & Carels, 2021). 

Other research has also shown that people tend to prefer to purchase from advertisements with models representing the average woman, regardless of that person’s own body type. The perceived similarity between the self and the model is an important and often overlooked factor in advertising campaigns that may have the power to increase sales (Lou & Tse, 2020). It has been proposed that people feel a sense of relief or lower levels of body-focused anxiety when they view advertisements representing the average woman (Halliwel et al., 2005). 

The vast majority of the research on the impact of media sources on body image is pertaining to women and female-identified folks and largely excludes people of other gender identities. However, we do know that advertising and marketing, at least in Western countries, attempts to portray “perfection” and the “ideal body” in their imaging. We know that the pressures of marketing and advertising also negatively impact mens’ body image (Parker et al., 2008). There is an extreme lack of research on the impacts of all sorts of media on the body image of people who identify as trans and non-binary. 

Other Media 

Other media sources like Facebook and Instagram or television and movies also hold significant power. The major source of the problem is that influencers as well as television and film companies know that displaying the thin ideal is what will get more views. Therefore, they are financially motivated to depict the thin ideal even despite knowing (in some cases) that this can lead to decreased well-being in viewers. 

These sources of media, when depicting the thin ideal, can foster generalized dissatisfaction with people’s bodies, increase self-conscious emotions, and has even been linked with increased disordered eating behaviors (Grabe et al., 2008).

One research study found that exposure to manipulated Instagram photos in adolescent girls directly led to lower body image, particularly in those with greater tendencies for social comparison. At the same time, these manipulated photos were rated more positively by these same girls, meaning they liked them more than the “real” photos and were unable to distinguish manipulated photos from untouched photos (Kleemans et al., 2018). This means that many people struggle to identify when an image has been manipulated and like them better when they have, even when those photos have negative impacts on their own self-image. 

Importantly, media forms can also be used to help promote positive health choices and behaviors. When influencers are intentional about the message and image they are portraying, this can help people live their best life. For example, some influencers embrace body positive, body neutral, health at every size, or other philosophies that educate and promote sustainable movement and activity as well as eating with the goal of fueling one’s life (Derenne & Beresin, 2018).

Familial Messaging

Finally, the way that families, particularly parents, talk to their children about their bodies can shape the way their children view their bodies. It can be really easy, particularly when people want to show care and concern for their children, to comment on their child’s body or weight without realizing that it can have unintended consequences. 

Parental teasing about bodies, encouragement to diet, and negative comments about childrens’ bodies have been linked with body dissatisfaction, disordered eating patterns, and eating disorders. These effects are even greater than parents modeling negative eating behaviors and negative self-talk (Rodgers & Chabrol, 2009). Women who have memories of their parents talking critically about their bodies and eating habits tend to have more shame about their bodies and adopt inflexible eating rules, which sometimes leads to disordered eating behaviors (Oliveira et al., 2019).

On the flip side, families can also be incredibly important in the development of a positive body image. Modeling positive food choices and physical activity can go a long way with helping children develop these habits on their own. Additionally, when parents provide support and acceptance about their childrens’ bodies (regardless of what they look like), this can promote a positive body image in their children (Andrew et al., 2016).  

Ways to Disrupt

Despite these influences on body image, there are ways that we can intervene and prevent these familial and societal messages from being internalized as negative views toward our bodies. Here are a few tips that might help out!

  • Increase Awareness of Messaging: First and foremost, increasing your awareness in the moment of the potentially negative side of societal messaging is important. If you can disrupt the internalization of the message at the source, it is less likely that the message will operate without your awareness. Therefore, whenever you see advertisements, social media posts, or other media discussing anything body-related, ask yourself “what is this trying to say?” Reflect on all possibilities. For example, the sign I discussed at the beginning could be interpreted negatively or positively, depending both on intentions of the business and how the consumer understands it. This will help you to identify the nuances and be able to make a decision for yourself regarding the messaging.
  • Reduce Social Comparison: Because social comparison seems to be the primary mechanism through which marketing/advertisements and media can impact body image, it can be important to be intentional about comparing yourself with others. When you notice yourself doing a social comparison, ask yourself “how does this comparison make me feel?” and “does this help or hurt my ability to live according to my goals and values?” Then, try to make adjustments based on the answers to those questions. Interventions based on reducing social comparisons have been shown to be effective in reducing body image concerns (Posavac et al., 2001). Check out this article for more on the nuances of social comparison.
  • Be Intentional About Social Media: Because we know that following bodies that look like our own and media sources that promote movement over a particular body size leads to more positive body image, be sure to seek this out on your social media. Unfollow any accounts that make you feel negatively about your body or make you want to engage in behaviors you know are not good for you. This can be a delicate balance as you want to follow those sources that promote motivation, but sometimes those can lead to negative thoughts or behaviors.
  • Mind Your Criticism: We are all in relationships. The way that we talk about ourselves and about other people can send important messages to the people in those relationships (whether it is family, friends, romantic partners, etc.). If you find yourself criticizing either yourself or others often, consider the impact this has both on yourself and the people in your life. I find that when I am around people who criticize their own or others’ bodies, this can heighten my own inner critic. As a result, I try to stay away from people who engage in this sort of talk (especially if we have talked about it first). 

What societal messaging have you noticed that you saw as questionable? How do you manage harmful messaging? We would love to hear from you in the comments!


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