Which came first—plus-size models or plus-size people? It may seem obvious to most of us that the increasing use of curvier models in ads and on runways is a direct result of the increased demand for larger clothing, due to a growing number of plus-size women. But results from a new study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing suggest an opposite chain reaction: The influx of plus-size models is making us obese.
Say what? (Just look at these Fitness-Inspiring Instagrams from Plus-Size Models.)
To look at the relationship between advertising and health behaviors, researchers conducted five experiments where women were shown ad campaigns that showed plus-size models in a normalized or positive way. Women who saw the ads that suggested "the acceptance of larger body types" ate more food afterward and reported a reduced motivation to engage in a healthier lifestyle. This, the scientists speculated, could lead to weight gain and contribute to the obesity crisis.
"One reason why being larger-bodied may appear to be contagious is that as it is seen as more socially permissible, individuals exhibit lower motivation to engage in healthy behaviors and consume greater portions of unhealthy food," wrote study authors Brent McFerran, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Beedie School of Business, and Lily Lin, Ph.D., an assistant professor at California State University. "Usage of larger body types [in advertising] increases unhealthy behaviors."
They call this phenomenon "the ironic Dove effect" in reference to the famous Dove #realbeauty campaigns that showcase bodies of all shapes and sizes, showing their skepticism of the effects of body-positive campaigns.
Heres' the thing: While these researchers do acknowledge the flip-side—that too-skinny models can inspire unhealthy behaviors, such as eating disorders—we're a bit bummed out because the simple fact is that thin is still very much the beauty ideal. Heavier body types are not usually seen as aspirational. So we'd like to think these ads are helping plus-sized women to stop hating their bodies. Unfortunately, McFerran says the study tested for this—and found no evidence that seeing positive plus-size ads helped women hate their bodies less.
The bottom line: Learning to love and accept a body that isn't waif-thin asks women to go outside current trends and requires major courage. (Has Body Image Become Oppressive?) And despite the research, we think there's something to be said about seeing all kinds of bodies displayed in magazines and on runways—and for making a healthy lifestyle about more than just what your body looks like. Because exercise and eating well don't just help you look good, they help you feel good too.