The Social Comparison of Fashion Print Advertisements and Female College Students Body Image

LaToiya C. Payton

Bridgett Clinton*
University of Maryland Eastern Shore


This study contributes to the understanding of how the mass media’s representation of the idealistic adult female affects the perceived body image and social comparison habits of the everyday woman. A self-report survey was distributed to female college students who responded to questions related to their body image, social comparison, and attitude towards advertisements. In addition, college females were exposed to a total of two advertisements featuring images of models advertising fashion products. Survey results revealed that the culture of society did not influence college females’ body image perceptions through the social comparison of print advertisements. However, the study did reveal that college females were more influenced by the social comparison of their peers rather than print advertisements.


In American culture, significant emphasis is placed on body, weight, size and appearance. As a result, American society often unfairly judges others and labels women based on their weight and size alone. Throughout history, the standard of female beauty often has been unrealistic and difficult to attain. Those with money and higher socioeconomic status were far more likely to be able to conform to these standards. The current media culture is complicated and very confusing, inundating women with mixed messages about what is sexy and making it difficult to choose a role model (Derenne & Beresin, 2006). Females often aspire to be perfect. The ideal female form is often described as tall, extremely thin, and blond. The media heavily portrays females in stereotypical ways in regard to body image and it has a profound impact on females. Media pressure to be thin influences females to have negative feelings about their appearance.

The influence of media is the strongest predictor of overall body satisfaction in college females (Schooler, Ward, Merriweather, & Caruthers, 2004). Although it is highly unlikely for a rail-thin woman to have natural DD-cup sized breasts, toy manufacturers set this expectation by developing and marketing the Barbie doll, whose measurements are physiologically impossible (Derenne & Beresin, 2006). If Barbie was a real human being, she would be 5’9”, weight 110lb, and she would have measurements of 39-18-33. Today’s women are faced with similarly unrealistic expectations every time they open up a fashion magazine. The reality is that most magazines airbrush photos and use expensive computer technology to correct blemishes and to hide figure flaws (Derenne & Beresin, 2006). Unfortunately the ideal is unattainable to the vast majority of females contributing to low self-esteem and body image. Perceived body image refers to the awareness and perception of one’s own body in relation to both appearance and function based on social norms (Champion & Furnham, 1999).

Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary (2002) defined body image as a subjective picture of one's own physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others. According to Thompson and Van den Berg (2002), body image concerns are in fact multidimensional and can include thoughts, feelings, and behavioral responses related to one’s body. This research will contribute to the understanding of how the mass media’s representations of the idealistic adult females affect the perceived body image and social comparison habits of the everyday woman.

Theoretical Framework
This study uses the Social Comparison Theory. Festinger’s (1954) Social Comparison Theory asserts that (a) individuals have a drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities; (b) in the absence of objective, nonsocial criteria, individuals engage in social comparison (i.e., they compare their opinions and abilities to those of other individuals); and (c) whenever possible, social comparisons are made with similar others. The affective consequences of the comparison process appear to be influenced by the direction of the comparison (e.g., whether it is upward or downward) and by the characteristics of the target (i.e., whether it is universalistic or particularistic). Downward comparison (i.e., comparing oneself to someone worse off on the dimensions of interest) is believed to enhance subjective well-being, whereas upward comparison (i.e., comparing oneself to someone who is better off in dimensions of interest) is believed to decrease well-being (Wheeler & Miyake, 1992).

Literature Review
Body Image
Grabe, Hyde, and Ward (2008), examined how media images are directly linked to women’s body images with a group of females ages of 10-32 in order to bring together a large group of studies that had been previously conducted. These studies used experimental ones where all participants were exposed to some media. Their results showed consistently that the media images the women were exposed to on a regular basis had a major effect on their body image as well as their eating habits and beliefs surrounding food. This study’s findings provided strong support for the notion that exposure to mass media depicting the thin ideal body was related to women’s vulnerability to disturbances related to body image. This research explained how the media’s thin ideal body shape could be internalized by females.

Gentry and Jung (2006) assessed college women’s mood and body image after exposing them to attractive models in the media in order to see whether there was a positive or negative effect. The participants in this study were 106 college women who were separated into two groups (high- vs. low-appearance self-schema) that were questioned twice within an interval of 4 weeks. To assess the information received during the two meetings with the 106 college women, Gentry and Jung used a general linear model (GLM) repeated measures analysis of variance, which provided both univariate data and multivariate test results for the repeated measures data. The findings of this research showed that the media images of the cultural ideal of beauty might negatively affect mood as well as body image and appearance self-schema.

Posavac and Posavac (2002) examined the extent of discrepancy women perceive between their personal attractiveness and body image when compared to images in the media. These images were supposed to represent the “ideal feminine attractiveness” in advertising and broader media, which was identified as self-media ideal discrepancy. In this research, 46 female undergraduate students participated in small groups of 3 or 4 in exchange for a course credit. The participants filled out the Rosenburg self-esteem scale, then they were asked to complete the weight concern subscale of the body esteem scale as a measure of subjective body image disturbance. Next, they were shown 20 slides of fashion models wearing various clothing from ads in popular magazines. Finally, they responded to two questions that measured participants’ perceived discrepancy between their own attractiveness and that of the media ideal of attractiveness.

After their responses were taken, participants were released. The results of this study revealed that perceived self-media ideal discrepancy and self-esteem are independent of each other but both predict weight issues in young females. However, according to this study, when women perceived a large difference between their own attractiveness and the models presented in the media, she was likely to exhibit weight concerns.

Social Comparison
Englis, Solomon, and Ashmore’s (1994) research on the cultural encoding of beauty types in magazine advertisements as well as music television, found that there is a long history of using female beauty to sell products, and that mass media has a history of associating appearance with self-worth. This research also stated that the “Media Gatekeepers” are fashion/beauty editors, film directors, and other individuals that play a crucial role in what people recognize as beautiful. The fashion and beauty editors seem to hold the most weight in deciding what is appropriate for the public because it has the most effect on the young women of our culture as they are growing older (Englis, Solomon, and Ashmore, 1994).

Engeln-Maddox (2005) examined college-aged women’s cognitive processing of print advertisements with pictures of very attractive thin models. This study focused on critical processing and social comparison in response to these images. The sample included 202 undergraduate females and the research was conducted in two parts. In the first part, participants responded to three advertisements in recent women’s magazine. In the second part, women completed a self–report survey focusing on body image, with other distracting questions so that the exact reasoning for the study was hidden. The results suggested that upward social comparisons in response to these images associated itself noticeably with a greater internalization of the thin ideal and decreased body image or self-satisfaction. 

Social Comparison as explained by Morse and Gergen (1970) occured by “comparing oneself with someone inferior in appearance [is] associated with higher self esteem, whereas comparing oneself with someone superior in appearance was associated with lower self-esteem.” This is important because women tend to be compared to others as well as they compare themselves to the idealized images in the media. What makes this worse is the fact that the idealized women in media are very thin and highly attractive, which can represent very few women in reality.

Lennon, Lillethun, and Buckland (1999) researched the social comparison processes in the context of apparel and beauty product advertisements through focus group interviews and in laboratory experiments. Self-esteem, body image, attitudes toward social comparison and idealized advertising images were investigated. Part of the research involved a focus group and another part was experimental. The focus groups were used to see if people read, paid attention to, and compared themselves to fashion advertisements for clothing and beauty products. The experiment was to determine the effects of forced social comparison with models in ads for clothing and beauty products. From these two queries, the results suggested that the subjects (16 females and 1 male) either did not compare themselves to idealized advertising stimuli or the self-esteem and body images were not affected by the comparison (but they were clothing and textile majors). Findings revealed that not all of college women passively absorb harmful media images.

This study will investigate the influence of print media images on young female college students’ body image and social comparison. Based on the literature presented in this paper the following is hypothesized:

  • Young college females with negative body images will be negatively affected by print media images.
  • Young college females with a positive body image will not be affected by print media images.
  • There is a relationship between young college females’ social comparison and body image.


A convenience sample of 72 college females between the ages of 17 to 23 were surveyed. There were no specific characteristics that were needed from the participants besides being female and enrolled in a 4-year university. The instrument was distributed by the researchers. The participants were told that participating was completely voluntary and that all of their answers would be confidential.

A self-report survey was distributed. A consent form for each survey was provided to all participants. A nine-part survey instrument was prepared and participants were exposed to a total of five advertisements with two featuring images of models advertising various products (i.e., cosmetics and apparel). Participants began the questionnaire by completing demographic questions (age, race, and classification) and responding to questions related to their body image, social comparison, and attitude toward the advertisement. Participants were then asked to carefully evaluate each of the advertisements, with the understanding that a short questionnaire, focusing on each ad was to follow.

This study adopted a quantitative research method through survey. Diener and Fujita’s (1997) Frequency of Social Comparison Scale (FSCS) was used to determine the degree to which each participant was prone to social comparison. Participants responded on a 10-point Likert scale, with “1” indicating “never,” “5” representing “once or twice a week,” and a score of “10” meaning always. The reliability of this scale was .930.

Attitude toward the advertisement was measured by participants’ responses to the following three items: “Overall, what is your impression of this ad?”, “To what degree did you feel positive toward this ad?”, and “Overall, how well did you like this ad?” These items were measured using a seven-point scale (1=dislike it very much through 7=like it very much). Reliabilities ranged from .899 to .948.

Cooper, Taylor, Cooper, and Fairburn’s (1987) body shape scale was used to measure participants’ body image. The scale consists of 34 questions with nine questions being omitted because they weren’t relevant to the purpose of this study. The questions omitted were: have you been so worried about your shape that you have been feeling that you ought to diet, have you worried about your flesh not being firm enough, have you avoided running because your flesh might wobble, have you imagined cutting off fleshy areas of your body, has worry about your shape made you diet, have you vomited in order to feel thinner, have your worried about your flesh being dimply, have you worried about other people seeing rolls of flesh around your waist or stomach, and have you taken laxatives in order to feel thinner. Participants responded on a 6-point Likert scale with “1” indicating “never,” “3” representing “sometimes,” and a score of “6” meaning “always.” The reliability of this scale was .942 (see Table 1).

Table 1. Scale of Reliabilities for Dependant and Independent Variables

Dependant Variables

Social Comparison


Body Image


Independent Variables

Attitude Towards Advertisements


J. Brand Ad


Essence Advertisement


Design and Procedure
This was an experimental study. The independent variable was the types of media images shown and participants’ attitude towards these advertisements. The dependant variables were the effect of the media images on female college students’ body image and social comparison.

A Microsoft PowerPoint XP slideshow of two advertisements featuring female models found in InStyle and Essence magazines were shown to the participants. These publications were chosen because of the emphasis each places on beauty and manifests the “ideal female” through clothing and beauty products advertisements. In both of these conditions, each picture included one female model that met or exceeded the culturally established depiction of the ideal female image (see Appendix for sample images). Consistent with previous research (Wallers, Hamilton, & Shaw, 1992), the following criteria determined an image’s eligibility for inclusion in the slide presentations. Each portrayed only one model per slide, with at least three-fourths (from head to mid thigh) of her body visible. A slideshow of three additional pictures were shown that did not include any human models or feature products related to health or beauty, but instead included beverages, electronics, and deodorant. The two fashion advertisements were positioned second and fifth throughout the entire five-slide show. In all conditions, the images were standardized to approximate the same size (filling the vertical dimensions of the screen) and each slide was presented for 10 seconds. Participants completed the body image and social comparison scales prior to viewing the slide show. Participants recorded their attitude toward each advertisement after a 10-second exposure to each ad.

The independent variable was the media images shown, and the dependent variables were the effect of the images on participants’ body image and social comparison.


The sample consisted of 72 female college students enrolled at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The majority of the participants were of African American descent (88.9 percent). They were selected based upon accessibility, and data were gathered during class hours as well as after school hours (see Table 2).

Table 2. Sample Characteristics








































Black/ African American






Spanish/ Hispanic



American Indian



Data Preparation
To categorize participants as having a high or low body image and social comparison, the variables were divided into two groups. Mean scores were obtained for each participant’s body image and social comparison. Body image was split at the median (61.5) and participants who scored below 61 had a high body image and those who scored above 61 had a low body image. Social comparison was split at the median (66.2) and participants who scored below 66 had low social comparison and those who scored above 66 had a high social comparison.

This study sought to examine the relationship between body image, social comparison, and participants’ attitude towards the advertisements. Prior to testing hypotheses 1 and 2, a correlation was conducted between the two fashion advertisements used in the study. Both advertisements featured a single model advertising a fashion product. However, one model was African American and one model was Caucasian. The results of the correlation for the two fashion advertisements revealed a moderate relationship between the participants’ attitudes towards both the advertisement featuring the African American model and the advertisement featuring the Caucasian model (r=.405, p=.000). Thus participants felt the same about both advertisements regardless of the model’s race (see Table 3).

Hypothesis 1 proposed that young college females with negative body images would be negatively affected by print media images. Hypothesis 2 proposed that college females with positive body images would not be affected by print media images. A correlation between the body image variable and attitude towards the advertisement showed no relationship between the two variables. The correlation between the two variables was not significant (r=-0.18, p=.882). Participants’ attitudes towards the advertisement had no impact on their body image whether they were categorized as having a low or high body image. This data revealed that college females’ body images are not influenced by print media images (see Table 3).

Hypothesis 3 proposed that there is a relationship between young college females’ social comparison and body image. A correlation between social comparison and body image revealed a positive, moderate relationship between these two variables. The correlation was significant at the 0.01 level (r=0.495, p=.000) (see Table 3). These findings suggested that participants with high body image had low social comparison and individuals with low body image had a high social comparison. According to the findings the participants were comparing themselves to others in their environment (i.e., friends and family) and images in print media were not influencing the way they feel about their bodies.

Table 3. Correlation Results for Hypothesis 1-3

Participants Attitude Towards Both Advertisements

Pearson Correlation


Sig. (2-tailed)




Influence of Print Media Images on Females’ Body Image

Pearson Correlation


Sig. (2-tailed)




Relationship Between Social Comparison and Body Image

Pearson Correlation


Sig. (2-tailed)





The purpose of this study was to investigate the effect of print media images on body image and social comparison of young college females. Based on this premise, we proposed that our female sample of college students would exhibit positive and negative attitudes towards print media advertisements based on the way they viewed their own bodies (i.e. low body image or high body image). This hypothesis, regarding the influence of print media images on females’ body images, was not supported.

Gurari, Hetts, and Strube’s (2006) research supported the findings from this study. They found that idealized images of beauty had no effect on the external self-evaluations that young women had of themselves. A survey revealed that the female participants did not internalize the ideals that were presented in the ideal media portrayals. Authors stated that although images depicting the ideal female did not effect how the female sample perceived themselves, seeing the idealized images caused them to change their behaviors. Even though it did not affect how they perceived themselves, some participants were influenced by the image to eat less junk food as well as to read more of the information in health magazines. The results of this study suggested that females’ behaviors are impacted by images of the ideal female body, which is an area that warrants further analysis.

Halliwell and Dittmar (2004) examined the effect of media model images on women’s body image. Their study also found that participants had no external reaction to the ideal female body image, but evidence showed that there was still a perceived internal reaction to the advertisement on the way female colleges students perceived themselves.

Additionally, we sought to uncover the relationship between social comparison and body image. Our findings revealed a positive relationship between social comparison and body image, supporting what we hypothesized. 


The results of this study can only be generalized to represent the opinion of local female college students. For more valid and representative measures, another study should be conducted taking samples from a larger, more diverse population. The major contribution of this study lies in the finding that the college females in our sample appear to be more affected by the social comparison of their peers rather than print advertisements. This is not surprising considering the influence peer-to-peer relationships can have over females’ daily lives. Paxton, Schutz, Wertheim, and Muir’s (1999) research found that young female’s perception of her friends' views and actions with respect to body image concern and dieting, and the extent to which she reported comparing her body with others, significantly contributed to the prediction of variance on measures of body image concerns.

Further research should examine the relationship between females’ self-image, regarding appearance and the social comparison of their peers. Questions to be addressed include: How does the presence of peer opinions impact females’ opinions of themselves? How can peers influence females to develop more positive body images?   Further examination of these issues should provide society (i.e., individuals, media, advertisers) with a better understanding of how the world’s representation of females truly has a lasting impact on the way many females in the United States today view themselves.


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“Ideal” Female Images

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