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Issue One 2013 - Issue #18

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Facing up to body image

Story by Fiona Marsden

View articles in related topics: Health & Medical, Psychology

Dr Nives Zubcevic-Basic; Photo: Eamon Gallagher

During the 1970s, consumers saw 500 advertisements per day. In today’s multimedia landscape, that figure has ballooned to 5000.

At the same time, there’s a growing gap between idealised images in the media and the way people look in real life. Advertising predominantly features super-thin models, even though the average clothing size is getting bigger. And although Australia is becoming more ethnically diverse, the media remains saturated with Caucasian images.

Unrealistic expectations

“Less than five per cent of women can achieve this media-driven ideal,” says Dr Nives Zubcevic-Basic, lecturer and director of Swinburne’s Master of Marketing program. “When young women don’t see themselves reflected in external images, they start believing those images are the cultural norm and the only acceptable form of beauty.”

Additionally, the rise of instant fame via reality television and YouTube, along with social media such as Facebook and Twitter, means young women are more influenced by images of attractive celebrities – and more likely to judge themselves and their peers accordingly. “In this environment,” says Dr Zubcevic-Basic, “it can be difficult for young women to maintain a positive self-image.”

It could be argued that many people are dissatisfied with their appearance in some way; most of us can see flaws that we’d rather not have. But what does this mean for young women in particular? At what point do faint or fleeting feelings of dissatisfaction become a major problem?

“Young women can develop issues when, instead of looking at their body as a functional entity, they examine individual body parts and pick them apart as flaws,” says Dr Zubcevic-Basic. “They genuinely believe they would be happier if those flaws didn’t exist.” These negative thoughts can extend into debilitating behaviours such as avoiding social events, altering nutritional habits or, in extreme cases, developing eating disorders.

Judging the book by its cover

In a study of body image Dr Zubcevic-Basic recruited 1111 male and female participants aged 18 to 55 from across Australia. Participants looked at images of models and rated their attractiveness. They were also asked how they felt about themselves before and afterwards. “Across the board, there was a significant decrease in participants’ own body image after looking at the models,” says Dr Zubcevic-Basic.

It wasn’t just women who responded to the images in this way. While women felt worse about their own bodies after seeing super-thin female models, men felt worse about their bodies after seeing muscular male models. “It’s clear that men – just like women – are increasingly feeling the pressure to conform to an unrealistic ideal,” says Dr Zubcevic-Basic.

Perhaps more disturbingly, participants in a subsequent study by Dr Zubcevic-Basic overwhelmingly equated physical attractiveness with success at university and in subsequent careers. The study recruited 242 university students aged 18 to 40.

“Regardless of age or life experience, participants attributed more importance to looks than personality, character or intelligence as a predictor of achievement,” says Dr Zubcevic-Basic.

On the plus-side, Dr Zubcevic-Basic sees two hedges against the factors predisposing young women towards a poor body image. The first comes from women themselves. “Research I did in 2010 found that women who maintained close ties with their traditional cultural and ethnic background were less affected by idealised media images, even if their family had been in Australia for several generations,” she says.

The case for regulation

Dr Zubcevic-Basic believes the second hedge must come externally, through government regulation. In 2010 the federal government established a voluntary code of conduct for the media, advertising and fashion industries.

Just two teen magazines took the initiative – discussing body image issues with readers and using photographs of models that weren’t digitally altered.

She acknowledges that advertisers continue using stylised images because intense competition makes them risk-adverse. However, she believes the industry’s lukewarm response towards the voluntary code puts more onus on government.

“UK regulators have begun banning advertisements that look overly airbrushed,” she says. “Australian regulators could restrict how images can be altered, alert consumers to retouched images and encourage more use of physically and ethnically diverse models in the media.” l

Detecting our true feelings about body image

“Every research methodology has limitations,” says Dr Nives Zubcevic-Basic. “If a participant is asked, ‘How do you feel when you look at this image?’, and they’re uncomfortable with the topic or unsure of how they feel, they may not reveal exactly what’s on their mind.”

She and her Swinburne colleagues use neuroscience technologies that bypass these roadblocks by picking up responses in milliseconds.

They include:

  • Magnetoencephalography (MEG): provides direct information about evoked and spontaneous brain activity in specific locations.
  • Steady State Topography (SST): developed at Swinburne by Professor Richard Silberstein and colleagues, SST records electrical brain activity while participants watch audio-visual material and/or perform a psychological task.
  • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI): produces activation maps showing which parts of the brain are involved in a particular mental process.

Research for the real world

Drawing on a background spanning psychology, brand management and advertising, Dr Nives Zubcevic-Basic has specialised in researching body image since 2006.

In 2011 she joined Professor Heath McDonald, Dr Julian Vieceli, Professor Richard Silberstein and Dr Joseph Ciorciari to form Swinburne’s Consumer Neuroscience Centre. The centre’s current projects include studying fanaticism in sport and the effects of individual personality differences on marketing.

The centre will also deliver a two-day consumer neuroscience course for managers and executives on 15–16 July. For details, visit the Business and Industry website.

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