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Let’s pretend we’re outraged about women’s body image issues (just so you will buy our magazine)

April 12th, 2006

Dr Petra

Yesterday I was busy reporting on a new conference that’s aiming to challenge how we medicalise sex, so I didn’t get around to also sharing the daftest ‘survey’ of the week with you.

You may have seen it though. It was the one that prompted the headlines:
Most women ‘hate their bodies’ – ITV.com
Women have constant body woes – BBC News
Only 2% of British women are happy with the way they look – Life Style Extra
Size matters…to women more than men – Telegraph
Glasgow girls claim they’re the laziest and ugliest in the UK – Glasgow Evening Times
Belfast women ‘most critical’ of their bodies – UTV Ireland

The ‘survey’ of 5000 women revealed that women not only dislike their bodies, they also worry about their size and shape every fifteen minutes – apparently more often than men think about sex. In fact 1 in 3 respondents claimed they think about their size and shape ‘every waking minute’, and 51% of participants claimed their body image issues spoil their sex lives.

Frankly I’m amazed they get any time for sex (or anything else for that matter) given they’re supposedly constantly obsessing about their bodies.

So what’s this really about?

Like you need me to tell you.

It’s about selling magazines. Or one magazine in particular. The women’s glossy, Grazia.

Look how easy it is. All you need to do is give women a load of leading questions in a survey and it’s headlines galore!

If you ask women to say how often they worry about their size and shape and give them options like ‘every waking minute’ it’s not exactly a surprise to find they report negatively.

The problem is you can’t measure things like how often you think about issues from a survey. It’s relying on someone self-reporting (there’s no independent measure of what they really were doing), remembering what they think they may have done, and fitting themselves into a limited number of categories. If Grazia had asked women to keep a daily diary for a month and found many women were thinking about their weight a lot we might be inclined to believe them. But answering a leading survey isn’t going to give us anything other than predetermined answers.

Which is of course what the magazine wanted.

It’s also interesting how the press have been excited about the ‘massive’ survey of 5000 women. Why bother? The whole point of a survey is you’d identify how many people you need to be representative of the population and study those. Just because you’ve stacks of participants doesn’t make your study more accurate, particularly if what you ask of those participants is crap to start with.

It’s also a sign of a study being ‘quick and dirty’. These 5000 participants wouldn’t have been painstakingly studied over time; they’d have been targeted in a telephone survey. In fact 5000 people may not have even been studied since it’s not uncommon for market research and PR companies to double or triple results to make figures sound more impressive.

The study also used a typical PR spin that indicates it’s all about sales and nothing about helping women. It highlighted regional differences (hence the lazy women from Glasgow and critical girls from Belfast). The way this works is the results from each region are calculated in percentages and these are fed to the regional press to expand coverage. Often there are little more than one or half a percent difference between regions, and statistical analysis would indicate there’s no significant differences to claim – yet PR companies will feed the regional press with these ‘shocking differences’ to ensure they get their client talked about.

The survey appears to have asked women to say how bad they felt about their bodies, and then presented them with a list of cosmetic surgery options to consider. After stating you think about your body problems all day you’re hardly likely to then say you’d not considered surgery. And as we know saying you want surgery on a survey doesn’t mean you’ve actually considered it seriously.

To use PR speak the most shocking thing about this survey was the fact it got so much coverage, and also that it didn’t actually tell us anything new. We all know women have serious body image concerns (although I sincerely doubt 98% of us do). I suspect for some women in the UK there may sometimes be other things they worry about. And some women may even like bits of themselves – in fact if the Grazia survey had asked women to describe the bits they liked rather than hated you’d have had a whole new angle. Perhaps they’ll go for that approach next time they want more publicity.

For a magazine like Grazia that prides itself on super-skinny celebs and features praising plastic surgery and untested medical treatments, such a survey appears even more cynical.

Interesting that whilst the papers were all criticising yesterday how Big Pharma hypes up health issues into major diseases, they didn’t notice how uncritically running a story like this nonsense Grazia survey does exactly the same thing about women’s health.

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