Skinny, Unscripted: Reality TV’s Effect on Body Image beyond the Small Screen

May 17

Full disclosure: I’m a bit addicted to “The Bachelor.” Every few months, a new season premieres on ABC and, every few months, I swear to myself that this will be the last season I watch. But before I realize that it’s happened, I’ve been sucked back down into the abyss of beautiful people, scripted drama, and saccharine love stories once again.

However, I am not alone. Millions of people are tuning in with me, many of whom are also 20-something women. So, what keeps us coming back for more, season after season? In a Huffington Post blog post titled “‘The Bachelor’: Why Smart Women Watch (and Love) It,” Emma Gray tackles the question head-on, analyzing why so many viewers succumb to temptation every Monday night. She aptly compares watching the show with rubber-necking on the freeway; essentially we are unable to tear our eyes away from a “good train wreck.” She also credits the fake love on screen with making us grateful for the real thing in the real world.

What I believe is Ms. Gray’s most poignant argument, however, is that many viewers possess an innate need to pass judgment to relieve internal frustrations- with a bad day at work, a painful break-up, or simply their own inability to make it to the gym each night- in “safe” environments, such as their living rooms. In this way, the show acts as a cathartic kind of stress release.

Measuring one’s own worth through comparisons to others is a natural tendency, but unfortunately, watching programs such as “The Bachelor” provides viewers with a skewed representation of what “most people” look like and therefore an unrealistic contrast. It also reinforces the high standards of society and mainstream media’s definition of “attractive,” which, based solely on “The Bachelor’s” 10-year record of immaculately-groomed and perfectly-toned contestants, seems to be exclusive to sizes zero and two.

"The Bachelor" Cast: Season 14

In the 2006 paper, “The ‘Reality’ of Health: Reality Television and the Public Health,” the Kaiser Family Foundation expresses concern that the obsession with being physically attractive and sexually desirable as portrayed on shows like “The Bachelor” may contribute to the rise in eating disorders among young girls, since they are less likely than older generations to see the contrived nature of the shows and, therefore, more likely to take what they see at face value. This means that for the eight million Americans who suffer from eating disorders and the millions more with body image issues, shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” may only be adding fuel to the fire.

In a mainstream culture so saturated with superficiality, the effect of images portrayed as “normal” in reality TV programs on young women should be an important topic of study, since an eating disorder is as real as any other disease. Much emphasis and government funding is placed on solving the country’s obesity epidemic, as over 60% of American adults are carrying excess pounds, but it is important not to overlook those in need of gaining a few, or at least those who are in need of reassurance they do not need to be a size zero.

So what does this mean in the social marketing context? Although there is a plethora of coverage on eating disorders in the media, promotion of more general discussions about the pressure women feel to be “perfect” could go a long way. It seems the majority of existing anti-eating disorder campaigns is based in foreign countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, and Israel, and most are entirely ad-focused, relying heavily on shock tactics to grab attention. In truth, the possibilities for campaign messaging and tonality are plentiful. Whether by taking a shock-and-awe approach or promoting female empowerment and acceptance of all body types, the initiative could undoubtedly be customized to fulfill various client needs (think: Dove’s 2004 “Real Beauty” campaign.) These initiatives could incorporate tactics such as television PSAs that air during the programs of greatest concern (like “The Bachelor”), thereby easily reaching the young, female target audience. Perhaps this is also an opportunity to challenge entertainment and casting companies to include women who represent a more “typical” body image within the reality TV sector.

In the meantime, as long as we “The Bachelor” addicts are careful to maintain some distance and understand that what we’re watching is pure entertainment and NOT normal life, ordinary people, standard scenarios, or typical relationships… it’s fairly harmless. Or so I will continue to tell myself, this season and (most likely) next.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 17th, 2012 at 5:12 pm and is filed under Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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