Thursday, February 07, 2013

Chick lit 'harms body image', study finds

Virginia Tech study finds fictional representations can affect female readers' self-esteem

Bridget Jones
Depressing stories ... Renee Zellweger in the film version of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext / Allstar Colle

Bridget Jones and the army of weight-obsessed young heroines who followed in her footsteps have a lot to answer for, according to academics, who have found that women's body image is negatively affected by chick lit.

New research from Virginia Tech, published in the journal Body Image, analysed "the effect of protagonist body weight and body esteem on female readers' body esteem", and concluded that "scholars and health officials should be concerned about the effect chick lit novels might have on women's body image". Co-author Melissa Kaminski, a chick lit fan, said she was prompted to launch the study after noticing that "body image research frequently looked at how visual images of thin women negatively affected women's body esteem, [but] no research had examined how textual representations of body esteem and body weight affected female readers' body esteem".

Researchers chose two chick lit novels – Emily Giffin's Something Borrowed, and Laura Jensen Walker's Dreaming in Black and White, each of which features heroines with "healthy body weight" but "low body esteem". They adapted a passage from each of them to come up with nine versions for each novel, from an underweight heroine with high body esteem to an overweight one with low body esteem, so there might be a character who states: "I'm 5'4", 140lb, and a size six", or one who says: "I'm 5'4", 105lb, and a size zero".

They then distributed the passages amongst 159 female university students, who after reading them were then asked to rate how they felt about various body parts and sexual attractiveness. The study found that when the narrative was about a slim heroine, participants felt "significantly" less sexually attractive, and that when it featured a protagonist with low body esteem, readers were "significantly more concerned about their weight" than participants in the control condition.

"The negative effects produced from the current study underscore the concern of previous scholars for the potential effect of chick lit protagonists' obsession with weight and appearance," write Kaminski and co-author Robert Magee in the study, "Does this book make me look fat?". "Scholars and health officials should be concerned about the effect novels have on women's body image, especially since these issues could lead to disordered eating and other health issues."

The academics suggest that a future study could look at using chick-lit narratives as an "intervention tool" to fight poor body esteem in teenage females, with the creation of stories in which characters with low body esteem seek support from family and friends.

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