The Social Comparison Process: A Root Cause of Negative Body Image


“10 Ways to Improve Your Body Image,” “5 Ways to Improve Your Body Image and Mental Health,” “Low Self-Esteem? 15 Ways to Improve Body Image.”

If you type “how to improve body image” into Google, I’m guessing it’ll return articles like these. There are various steps reputable sources like National Eating Disorders Association recommend to improve body image, ranging from “Remind yourself that ‘true beauty’ is not simply skin-deep” to “Become a critical viewer of social and media messages.”

But rather than reiterate a list of steps that can be implemented to improve body image, I want to dive into that last one I just mentioned, “become a critical viewer of social and media messages,” because of an article I read by Romeo Vitelli Ph.D titled “Media Exposure and the ‘Perfect’ Body.” In a culture that puts enormous emphasis on the thin-ideal through media distribution, the first (true) step to improving negative body image is to understand what creates it in the first place.

a clipping of a paper that says Warning: reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of 'beauty' taped in front of a mirror in which someone is taking a selfie.
The thin-ideal displayed by the media affects how we see ourselves in the mirror. Image courtesy of Woking Mind.

Eating disorders are now more common than ever in adolescents, and researchers believe the prevalence of anorexia nervosa and bulimia, for example, are augmented by constant media exposure.

The main reason is because of the clear difference between the way overweight characters and thin characters are portrayed in all media. Obese characters are, more often than not, ridiculed on television shows and social media. They’re made fun of while thin/in-shape characters are the heroes and heroines — the characters we admire and want to be like.


A black and white photograph of a woman holding a print out of a Barbie doll's face in front of her own to indicate the beauty expectations placed on people.
The media promotes unrealistic expectations of beauty. Image courtesy of Safeline.


Negative body image results from a desire to conform to these positively represented characters (the heros and heroines). This desire to conform affects everyone of all ages, but Vitelli says adolescents are particularly impacted because they are the most vulnerable to media exposure.

Greater danger arises when this desire to conform is acted upon — people, mostly adolescent females, go to extreme measures to look like a certain celebrity they idolize. As explained by Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory, individuals rely on these celebrities as external models to “form their own self-perceptions.”

A diagram of the social comparison theory. Image courtesy of Theorizeit.

“In the case of physical attractiveness, seeing media celebrities presenting a certain standard of beauty leads to upward comparisons which can lead to increased action to resemble that standard.” When people fall short of conformity, mental health disorders such as depression arise.

So members of our society, especially youth members, are constantly evaluating themselves based on models from mass media. According to Vitelli, media scholars have found that adolescents use media to “find their way” in the world.

So, the lesson here: To improve body image, it’s crucial that we all recognize the influence mass media has on every member of society. The social comparison process exists on a wide scale — Vitelli says that knowing this can help encourage healthier lifestyles in our society, especially for adolescents.


Header image courtesy of Baltic Review.

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