Linking goal attainment to happiness: A moderator of the media effects on eating disorders?
Eating disorders have been recognized as a significant problem, particularly for women in Western society. Sociocultural theories of eating disorders have implicated the media in the promotion and maintenance of eating disorders, for the media portray an ultra-slender body image which is unattainable by many women. Researchers have begun to empirically test the potential effects of the media, and preliminary findings have suggested that looking at pictures of thin women, compared to looking at pictures of average or overweight women, leads subsequently to body dissatisfaction, depression, stress, shame, and insecurity. This study was designed to examine the question of why, if all women in our society are exposed to media images of thinness, only certain women develop pathological eating behaviors. Linking goals to happiness was examined as a potential moderator of the media effects on eating disorders. "Linkers", those who believe that the attainment of goals is necessary for happiness, were expected to report more distress after presented with images of thin women versus images of average-weight women. "Nonlinkers" were expected to be relatively unaffected by the experimental condition. There were 125 undergraduate students at American University who served as participants for this study. Subjects were randomly exposed to one of three sets of 15 magazine pictures: thin women, average-weight women, or control pictures containing no people. Overall, linkers reported more distress than nonlinkers, regardless of experimental condition. Contrary to previous research, those in the thin condition did not experience more distress, overall, than those in the average-weight condition. However, multiple regression analyses indicated an interaction between linking and condition, as expected. Linkers who were exposed to pictures of average-weight women reported higher levels of self-esteem, and lower levels of dysphoria, negative affect, and eating pathology than linkers who were exposed to either pictures of thin women or to control pictures. Nonlinkers exhibited the opposite pattern: they actually reported slightly higher levels of distress after viewing pictures of average-weight women than in either of the other two conditions. Additionally, the number of magazines that one typically reads was positively related to distress; the amount of television that one usually watches was not found to be related to distress.