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Does looking at skinny models make you feel bad? Science says you’re not alone

Just looking at a picture of a skinny model on the cover of Glamour or Elle makes many women feel bad about their own weight. Now, science is backing them up. The largest study of its kind finds images of thinner women make even healthy weight women less satisfied with their own bodies—but looking at heavier women makes them feel better.

Researchers showed nearly 200 18- to 25-year-old female study participants with a “healthy” body mass index score between 19 and 25 images of normal-, underweight-, or overweight-looking women of the same age and ethnicity. All the images were originally of healthy weight women, but researchers altered some of the pictures to make the models appear larger or smaller by increasing or decreasing the width of the images by 150 pixels.

Women who viewed images of the resulting healthy and “overweight” models reported feeling more satisfied with their own body size than women who viewed images of “underweight” models did. After looking at pictures of “underweight” models, women’s satisfaction with their own bodies hardly changed, whereas after seeing healthy weight models, women reported feeling nearly 9% more satisfied with their own body size, for example. Plus, women who viewed images of normal and overweight models perceived their own bodies as smaller, including women who came into the study already feeling highly dissatisfied with their bodies—similar to how eating disorder patients feel. Participants rated whether they thought they were too thin or too fat on a 0-to-10 scale when looking at themselves in a mirror. How they scored themselves dropped by almost 6% after looking at pictures of healthy and overweight models, researchers report today in Royal Society Open Science. In addition, these women felt better about themselves after seeing images of overweight women. And those differences in body satisfaction stuck around for 24 hours.

Previous studies have shown that women who feel bad about their bodies are at higher risk for eating disorders. So the researchers say that more images of healthy and even overweight models in the media could help.