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self-esteem & mental health

On this page you’ll find:

  •  Mental Health and Media Messages

  •  The Thin Ideal and Low Self-Esteem


Mental Health and Media Messages

In February 2007, The American Psychological Association (APA) released a report, Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, examining and summarizing the best psychological theory, research, and clinical experience addressing the sexualization of girls via the media and other cultural messages [APA, 2007]. This superb report connects the dots between girls’ psychological health, their behaviors, and media influences. You’ll find many references to those findings below.

The Thin Ideal and Low Self-Esteem

When women and girls feel bad about their bodies, they often feel bad about themselves. This outcome is what the field of eating-disorders treatment is trying to capture when pointing out the seriousness of poor body image. Yet weight-loss products focus on instilling feelings of body hatred in consumers. See the section on weight-loss marketing for detailed facts.

  • The thin ideal is unachievable for most women and is likely to lead to feelings of self-devaluation, dysphoria (depression), and helplessness. [Rodin et al., 1984]
  • Studies also show that self-objectification is associated with negative mental-health outcomes in adolescent girls. In early adolescence, girls who had a more objectified relationship with their bodies were more likely to experience depression and had lower self-esteem. [Ward, 2002]
  • Among African-American and white adolescent girls, self-objectification is a significant predictor of depression, body shame, and disordered eating, even when controlling for race, grade in school, and body-mass index. [Ward and Rivadeneyra, 1999]
  • One study exposed undergraduate women to 40 full-page photographs from CosmopolitanVogue, and Glamour magazines. Young women exposed to images of idealized models indicated more eating-disorder symptoms than women in the control group, as well as more negative mood states and lower self-esteem. [Zurbriggen and Morgan, 2006]
  • Attitudes

    • Girls and young women who more frequently consume or engage with mainstream media content also support the sexual stereotypes that paint women as sexual objects. [Ward, 2002;Ward and Rivadeneyra, 1999; Zurbriggen and Morgan, 2006]
    • Media exposure has been found to constrain young women’s conceptions of femininity by putting appearance and physical attractiveness at the center of women’s values.
      • Frequent viewing of reality TV programming among young women is associated with a stronger belief in the importance of appearance. [Tolman et al., 2006]
      • When they were asked to rate the importance of particular qualities for women, white and African-American high school students who consumed more mainstream media attributed greater importance to sexiness and beauty than did students who consumed less media. [Ward, 2004; Ward and Averitt, 2005]
  • Self-esteem
    In psychology, self-esteem (also called self-worth, self-confidence, and self-respect) reflects a person’s overall self-appraisal of their worth. According to the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls(2007), low self-esteem is associated with health-compromising behaviors in adolescence, such as substance use, early sexual activity, eating problems, and suicidal ideation. Surprisingly, there is little longitudinal research addressing this issue. Just at the time when girls begin to develop their identities, they are more likely to suffer losses in self-esteem.

    • In the eighth grade, girls who objectify their bodies more have much lower self-esteem. For this reason, diminishing self-esteem arising in early adolescence may make girls particularly vulnerable to cultural messages that promise them popularity, effectiveness, and social acceptance through the right “sexy” look. On the other hand, the drop in self-esteem may be a result of how responsive they are to these cultural messages. [McGeer and Williams, 2000]
    • In one study, white and African-American girls (ages 10 to 17 years) threw a softball as hard as they could against a distant gymnasium wall. The researchers found that the extent to which girls viewed their bodies as objects and were concerned about their bodies’ appearance predicted poorer motor performance on the softball throw. Self-objectification, it appears, limits the form and effectiveness of girls’ physical movements. [Van den Berg et al., 2007]
    • Perhaps the most insidious consequence of self-objectification is that it breaks down one’s thinking process. Ongoing attention to physical appearance leaves fewer resources available for other mental and physical activities.
    • While college students who were alone in a dressing room were asked to try on and evaluate either a swimsuit or a sweater. While they waited for 10 minutes wearing the garment, they completed a math test. The young women in swimsuits performed significantly worse on the math problems than did those wearing sweaters. No differences were found for young men. In other words, thinking about the body and comparing it to sexualized cultural ideals disrupted mental capacity in young women. [Fredrickson et. al., 1998]
      • This impairment also occurs among African-American, Latina, and Asian-American young women. [Hebl et al., 2004].
      • This impairment extends beyond mathematics to other cognitive domains, including logical reasoning and spatial skills. [Gapinski et al., 2003]
  • Low self-esteem is often associated with health-compromising behaviors in adolescence such as substance use, early sexual activity, eating problems, and thoughts that may lead to suicide. Surprisingly, there is little longitudinal research addressing this issue. [APA, 2007]
  • One longitudinal study examines the predictive association between self-esteem in young New Zealanders ages 9 to 13 years and a variety of health compromising behaviors at age 15. Low levels of self-esteem significantly predicted adolescent reports of problem eating, suicidal ideation, and multiple health-compromising behaviors. [McGeer and Williams, 2000]