Psychology, and consumer research in marketing, has, since the 1990s, correlated images of stick-thin models with eating disorders and a lack of self-esteem among teenage girls and young women. Yet little has changed about the way in which the fashion industry markets its products.
Models continue to be airbrushed and are generally underweight
Models continue to be airbrushed and are generally underweight – so much so that if catwalk models (or models in women’s magazines) are close to resembling average sizes, as opposed to appearing painfully thin, this becomes a news story.
The use of such idealised images does not extend only to products aimed at young women. Observing an image of an apparently able-bodied woman of about 30 years of age, advertising handrails and seats to assist standing up in the shower, my colleague commented: "Why would they use her as the model? Why not photograph someone who looks as if they might actually use the products?" Similarly, looking at a clothing catalogue aimed at mature women, my mother wondered why the models were all thin, and aged probably in their late 20s.
Men, too, can be sensitive to idealised images of young, healthy (and often muscular) males used in marketing campaigns. Research shows that boys as young as eight can feel anxious about body shape and muscularity.
Through fixating on socially idealised images in marketing and ad campaigns, individuals can internalise negative images of their own bodies.
This affects people in the workplace, with adult workers, as well as younger consumers, feeling intimidated by glamorous images of youthful, healthy employees and entrepreneurs apparently maintaining high fitness levels while working long hours and producing great results.
This can result in unhealthy behaviours among employees, such as smoking to maintain low body weight, as well as depression and disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.
Yet is the marketing industry to blame if consumers’ health suffers as a consequence of the use of idealised, airbrushed body images within campaigns?
By continuing to promote such unrealistic ideals, the marketing industry might be ‘missing a trick’
Time for change
Some psychologists researching consumer behaviours argue that only people who are already unhappy with their body image will be affected by ads featuring thin, young models.
In this view, relationships with friends, family and work colleagues are more likely than the marketing industry to have a negative impact on health. So why should the industry worry – or change the habits of the past few decades – when tried and tested campaigns using glamorised images are known to sell products?
Perhaps because, by continuing to promote such unrealistic ideals, the marketing industry might be ‘missing a trick’.
When magazines feature models of average size or more, readers and consumers often rush out to buy them – even if advertisers are displeased. When UK cookery author and presenter Nigella Lawson was photographed in New York, wearing a figure-hugging red dress, it sold out quickly. And in January, when fashion label Rum and Coke launched a campaign featuring ‘larger’ black women, consumers of all sizes rushed to buy its products.
So maybe the time has come for the marketing industry to re-evaluate. The use of ‘ordinary’ models might make a real difference to enhancing positive self-image and healthy behaviours among consumers and workers alike. At the same time, such an approach – challenging the stereotypical industry view about body image and appearance – might just improve the bottom line.
Caroline Gatrell is professor of management studies at Lancaster University Management School.