Chick Lit May Be Hazardous to Your Self-Esteem

New research suggests novels in which characters agonize about their bodies lead female readers to worry about their own weight.
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New research suggests novels in which characters agonize about their bodies lead female readers to worry about their own weight.

We have been warned of the impact of violent video games and sexually aggressive song lyrics. But little attention has been paid to another media phenomenon that may influence its fans to think and act in unwanted ways.

Psychological danger may lurk between the covers of that beach book.

Reading “chick lit” may lead women to think of themselves as less attractive and express more concern about their weight. That’s the conclusion of new research from Virginia Tech, published in the journal Body Image.

As co-authors Melissa Kaminski and Robert Magee note, previous research has found a strong link between images of thin women in magazines and movies and low body esteem on the part of female readers and viewers. This is a problem because dissatisfaction with one’s shape can lead to eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.

The researchers decided to explore whether the depiction of female characters in popular novels would have the same impact. So they turned to the world of “chick lit,” that popular genre that emerged in the 1990s and typically focuses on female characters and their “struggles with weight, dating and successful careers.” Bridget Jones’ Diary is one popular example.

Kaminski and Magee took 3,200-word excerpts from two such novels and manipulated them in terms of the central character’s weight, and her feelings about her body. The author’s voice was retained, but references to the heroine’s height and clothes sizes were changed, as were the comments she makes to herself and others reflecting her bodily self-esteem.

One-hundred-and-fifty-nine female participants (median age just under 20) read one of these altered texts and then answered questions about their own weight and sexual attractiveness. The results suggest a “nuanced pattern of effects for chick lit,” the authors write.

Women who read a narrative featuring an underweight protagonist were not more likely to regard themselves as overweight. However, compared to those who read about an average-weight or overweight woman, they were less likely to view themselves as sexually attractive.

On the other hand, those who read a version of a story in which the central character expressed negative thoughts about her body “were significantly more concerned about their weight than participants in the control condition,” the researchers report.

In other words, readers had a stronger, more personal reaction to the character’s internal dialogue than to the novelist’s description of her body.

The researchers have a pretty good idea of why this is. Compared to the immediate impact of a visual image, “perhaps it was more difficult for (fiction readers) to imagine the protagonist’s weight,” they write. “On the other hand, textual representations of body esteem seemed to have a strong effect on weight concern, possibly because novels allow for participants to enter the minds of the protagonists and read their innermost thoughts.”

So, negative thoughts about one’s body—especially as expressed by a compelling, relatable fictional character—appear to be contagious. Bridget Jones is a hoot, but spending quality time with her may come at a cost.