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Do Average- and Plus-Sized Models Actually Help Reduce Body Anxiety?

Maybe for some people—but there's a limit to how much commercial images can do.

I can't stop looking at this photo of Amy Schumer. I know you feel the same way, because it's the most "hearted" photo on Schumer's Instagram account over the last two months.

I know, I know, it's nothing revolutionary. For more than a decade, both genuine activists and commercial companies have sought to celebrate body types that are outside the narrow norm for American media, producing swimsuit calendars, art projects, and advertising campaigns featuring both professional plus-sized models and random folks on the Internet. The result has been ever-more frequent depictions of heavier women in swimsuits, lingerie, and their birthday suits. Meanwhile, the vast majority of marketing still shows slim models. This contradiction made us wonder: Does the countervailing trend really help? It's well-established that, in general, girls and women feel badly about their bodies after viewing thin, idealized women in media. But do women feel better about themselves after viewing images of average- or plus-sized models, or at least not worse? (A quick disclaimer: I don't know if Schumer is plus-sized; however, she is different from the typical fashion model.)

Media depictions are important to how people think about themselves, but there's a short limit to how far commercial interests are willing to drive social change.

It turns out the research available to answer is still preliminary, and the results contradictory. For example, in one 2012 study, psychologists in Europe asked heterosexual female volunteers to view numerous images of heavier women dressed in expensive clothes. The researchers found that volunteers were less likely to pick the thinner cartoon lady when asked to choose between two. Yet in another study, women who watched television commercials featuring average-sized women didn't have less body anxiety than women who watched commercials featuring thin ladies. In fact, after watching the commercials with the average-sized women, study volunteers ate fewer snacks and reported being in a worse mood.

Taking into account study volunteers' existing neuroses didn't help clarify things. One study found that women still felt dissatisfied with their bodies after viewing images of plus-sized bikini models—if participants were neurotic to begin with. But another study found that neurotic women were more prone to feeling satisfied with themselves after seeing plus-sized models, while non-neurotic women were unmoved. It's enough to make anyone crazy.

Maybe social scientists just need more time to figure things out. Or maybe the fault doesn't lie in the women's neuroticism, but in the commercial nature of American culture. Most of the media images of women Americans see every day are aimed at getting them to buy something. Even Schumer's photo is part of a calendar produced by a luxury car-tire company. Media depictions are important to how people think about themselves, but there's a short limit to how far commercial interests are willing to drive social change that, in the end, has so little to do with their products and brands.