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SFSU Public Affairs Press Release

Published by the Public Affairs Office at San Francisco State University, Diag Center.

#014--October 12, 1998; For immediate release
Contact: Rol Risska
Phone: 415/338-1665

SF State researchers release study about women, the mass media, and the development of body image

Big contrasts discovered in how women of different sexual orientations view their bodies.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, October 12, 1998 -- Revealing for the first time surprising differences among women and how they view their bodies, researchers at San Francisco State University have released the results of a groundbreaking new study that continues with an exploration of the relationship between body image and mass media among women and men of different sexual orientations across the life span.

One of the first goals of the study is to explore the impact of both mass media and messages from people on the development of body image. Strongly affected by the images presented by the media, women in the study developed conceptions of their bodies that differed significantly depending on whether they are lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual, the authors reveal. Issues of weight are prevalent in all three groups, but much more so among the heterosexual and bisexual women studied.

Conducted by principal investigator Michelle Wolf, San Francisco State professor of broadcast and electronic communication arts, along with David Decelle from Cheskin Research and Sandy Nichols from the University of Wisconsin, the authors include bisexual women for the first time as subjects in a study of this kind. Both Decelle and Nichols worked as research assistants with Wolf while earning their master’s degrees in broadcast and electronic communication arts from SF State.

The women in the study were between the ages of 18 and 33. The most startling contrast emerged between lesbian and heterosexual women. Lesbian women emphasized the importance of being a "whole" person, balancing a healthy body with a well-rounded personality. The lesbian women were much less likely in the development of their self images to be influenced by the idealized images of women presented in the mass media.

Heterosexual women, in contrast, were more likely to be affected by mass media and the opinions of others when forming their own views of their bodies. Unlike lesbian women, they internalized to a greater extent the views and perceptions of others, including boyfriends, family members and even complete strangers. Their body images were much more often influenced by advertising, fashion magazines and movies.

Like the lesbian women, the bisexual women focused more strongly on describing the body as a whole, including both outward appearance and inner qualities. Bisexual women, while more susceptible than lesbian women to mass media images of women, were as likely as lesbian women to value traits other than physical beauty.

"Even if people don’t believe the images of an alleged "ideal body" that they see in the mass media, they live in a world that does," Wolf says. "We need more diverse portrayals of body images and media literacy education that can help debunk these myths."

Among the researchers’ findings for lesbian and bisexual women were:

Among the key findings for the heterosexual women were:

All of the women believed that the most direct messages and influences on the development of their body image came from family members. The women also agreed that narrowly-defined media images played an important role in creating and perpetuating stereotypes and providing audiences with unrealistic, and often unhealthy, images of "beauty."

"People are dying from anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders while trying to attain some ideal body image that is initially created by a family and peer group dynamic and is then reinforced by a consumer culture that is driven by narrowly-defined images of beauty," Wolf says. "The topic of body image has been on the public agenda for years, long before Karen Carpenter died from starving herself. Women, and an increasingly large number of men, are trapped. The bad news is that nothing is being do ne on a policy making level to help not only children but also persons throughout the life span."

A documentary on Wolf’s research that features the body image issues of heterosexual women ages 20 to 25 is in the final stages of editing and, according to producer Kelly Briley, is expected to be completed by December. Through this and her research, Wolf hopes to raise awareness about the effects of mass media on the lives of women and men of all ages and sexual orientations. She advocates education introduced at a young age into the public school curriculum as one way of dealing with some of the ef fects of the narrowly-defined media images of women and as a way of beginning to explore a broader and more inclusive range of standards of beauty.

Wolf has been expanding her research with broadcast and electronic communication arts graduate students Kathy Skillicorn, Sara Brewer and others. The results of her discussions with heterosexual, bisexual, and gay men ages 18 to 35 years will be presented in New York this November and she is currently analyzing the data collected from her studies of men and women over 45+ years of age in the same sexual groups. She is also gathering a group of transgender persons to include in this project and is plann ing to expand the scope of this study to include children, as well.

Wolf earned a Ph.D from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. and B.A. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She has taught in the Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts Department at SFSU since 1983 and frequently provides expert analysis and commentary to media representatives. Her research focuses on the impact of mass media on individuals. Wolf has written widely about children, television, mass media, and sexual identity.

San Francisco State University is a highly diverse community of 27,000 students and 3,500 faculty and staff. It is one of the largest campuses of the nationally-recognized 23-campus California State University system. Founded in 1899, the University is approaching its 100th year of service to San Francisco, the Bay Area, California and beyond.


Editors: For assistance with contacting Prof. Michelle Wolf for an interview or more information about this study, call Rol Risska in the SFSU Public Affairs Office at 415/338-7109.

This release was co-written by student writer,Chris Kilkes.

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