Madison Memmott and Sarah Coyne, Family Life
Research shows that exposure to certain portrayals of women in media can influence women’s body image (Grabe, et al., 2008), self-esteem (Groesz, et al., 2002), eating behaviors and beliefs, as well as the tendency to have an eating disorder (Holmstrom, 2004). Accordingly, research shows that the effects of body disturbances are particularly salient in regards to women who have been exposed to various portrayals of celebrities (Krisjanous, et al., 2014; Hopper & Aubrey, 2013; Sumner, et al., 1993); this link is consistent across culture (Chae, 2014). Though these studies exist, almost no research focuses on media’s effects on the pregnant and postpartum population, specifically. For this reason, we conducted an experimental study that analyzed the effects of media use on pregnant and postpartum women’s body image. We hypothesized that exposure to unrealistic portrayals of pregnant and postpartum women would be associated with increased body dissatisfaction for pregnant and postpartum women, but not for women who have never been pregnant.
Pregnant and postpartum women (n = 159) aged 22-40 participated in this study under the guise that it was a “Mommy Brain” study, or a study on memory. In part 1, each participant completed an online questionnaire that obtained participant consent, screened for eating disorders and depression, collected demographic information, asked various filler questions with multiple measures of body image and media use, and included several pseudo questions that assessed women’s memory.
In part 2 of the study, participants read a 12-page segment of either People magazine (content rich in idealized images of celebrities) or Better Homes and Gardens magazine (content rich with images of interior design) for 5 minutes. After participants read their assigned magazine, they filled out a “filler” questionnaire, which they were told was a distraction task. The filler questionnaire included body image items, as well as other real filler questions (e.g., aggression and memory questions). Finally, participants received a debriefing form, which expressed real purpose of the study. At this point, participants had the option to allow researchers to use their data or to withdraw their data from the study. Participants were then thanked and given a copy of the debrief form, as well as copies of the resource guide that includes contact details for various counseling services available both at BYU and in the community.
An independent samples t test yielded a significant negative relationship between exposure to media containing unrealistic portrayals of pregnant and postpartum women and pregnant women’s body image, t(88) = -1.990, p < .05. However, a second independent samples t test revealed a non significant link between exposure to media containing unrealistic portrayals of pregnant and postpartum women and postpartum women’s body image, t(69) = .812, p = 382.
Our initial hypotheses that exposure to unrealistic portrayals of pregnant and postpartum women would be negatively associated to pregnant and postpartum women’s body image, but not to non-pregnant women’s body image was only partially supported. More explicitly, we found that pregnant women experienced decreased body image after viewing photo-shopped images of pregnant and postpartum women, but postpartum women did not experience a decreased body image after viewing the same images.
These findings suggest that pregnant women are especially susceptible to mediainduced body image concerns. While this study only assessed the short-term effects of the relationship between media exposure and body image, we believe that this relationship potentially exists longitudinally. Future researchers should focus their efforts on investigating the long-term influence of exposure to unrealistic media images on pregnant and postpartum women’s body image.
After more research has been conducted, we ultimately hope that preventative intervention strategies will be created and implemented with the purpose of helping women become critical viewers of the media, and thus, less influenced by they things they view in the media.
It is important for women of all ages and in all stages of life to understand how unrealistic media images are, especially of pregnant and postpartum women. As a result of this understanding, women will likely experience decreased body image disturbances, along with the associated effects.