Research has found that 50 percent of young women are dissatisfied with their bodies. This dissatisfaction could be one of the reasons more than 10 million women in the United States face some form of eating disorder. Thin body types have long been glorified by television, film, and magazines, leading women to reach for an unattainable standard. Though some might dispute the media’s role in defining the ideal body type, a new study found a link between TV consumption and the desire to be thin.

Researchers from Newcastle University's Institute of Neuroscience went to Nicaragua to explore the link between body size preference and exposure to Westernized television programming.

The study was conducted in three towns on the remote Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua where residents had differing access “to electricity and to the media while at the same time sharing similar environmental and cultural constraints,” according to the researchers. They brought in 66 residents of Kakabila, a town with some access to electricity; 44 residents from Square Point, which had no access to electricity; and 41 residents of the capital of Nicaragua, Managua, which had full access to electricity. The residents were 57 percent female, and the average age was 27.

Residents were asked how much television they watched each week. Those from Managua, the most urbanized area, watched more than 20 hours per week. Kakabila residents watched about 13 hours each week, while Square Point residents, who had limited electricity, watched a little over an hour of TV each week. All residents were then shown 10 photographs of women representing each of the five body mass index (BMI) categories; underweight, normal or healthy weight, overweight, and obese. They then rated how attractive they found each woman in the photograph on a five-point scale.

The researchers found participants who watched the most TV had the greatest preference for lower BMI bodies while those who spent less time watching TV preferred larger bodies. On top of this, they also discovered that more than half of the women who watched the most TV were also dieting, which the researchers believe is an attempt to achieve the Westernized body ideal their televisions showed them.

"Internalization of a thin ideal is a well-established risk factor for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in the West,” said co-leader Dr Lynda Boothroyd, senior lecturer in Psychology at England’s Durham University, in a press release. "Our data strongly suggests that access to televisual media is itself a risk factor for holding thin body ideals, at least for female body shape, in a population who are only just gaining access to television.”

While these findings point to TV as a contributor to eating disorders, the exact cause is still unknown. Genetics and psychological and emotional health can also play a part in the development of the disease. As such, the researchers said they hope to elaborate on their findings to investigate “whether these body ideals negatively affect psychological well-being, such as body esteem and eating attitudes.”

Source: Boothroyd L, et al. Television exposure predicts body size ideals in rural Nicaragua. British Journal of Psychology. 2016.