Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Vanderbilt University found that adolescent girls and young women exposed to beauty pageant news coverage were more likely to feel bad about their bodies, particularly when their home state contestant won.
UMass researcher Brandyn Churchill, a health economist, said the results were not surprising – as many people assume exposure to a thin-ideal could affect body image. But comparing old news coverage of Miss America and Miss USA pageants to adolescent health surveys taken around the same time and place allowed them to pinpoint cause and effect.
The new study comes just as the U.S. Surgeon General released a report warning that social media content can harm teen mental health, leading to body dissatisfaction, disordered eating and low self-esteem.
Churchill's research showed that, within a year of the pageant coverage, there was a 4-5% increase in the number of girls worried they were more overweight than they actually were — or who were trying to lose weight — when compared to places without home-state news coverage of the pageant.
Churchill said the increase was 20 to 30% right after the pageant, when coverage was greatest.
“When you think about the fact that this is just one type of media exposure, it allows you to, you know, hypothesize what might happen when you're exposed to this type of imagery every single day or every single hour that you're awake,” he said.
When doing research on widespread media exposure, he said, it’s often hard to know whether people are exposed to images and then develop mental health problems, or whether people with mental health problems actively seek out the images. So Churchill said the beauty pageant research was essentially a “natural experiment” based on a narrow set of circumstances that tell a larger story.
The beauty pageant study period ended in 2010, and social media images have only increased since then. Churchill said researchers are now looking at how sudden exposure to high-speed internet affects adolescent mental health and self-image.
“I don't think we're going to put the genie back in the bottle with regards to technology, internet exposure, these types of things,” Churchill said. “I think that we should just be aware about the fact that these could be influencing our health behaviors and… we just need to be a little bit more aware about how we are engaging with this type of media and how it might be sort of engaging with us.”
This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.