Obese People’s Perceptions of the Thin Ideal
Danielle Couch,1 Samantha L Thomas,2 Sophie Lewis,3 R Warwick Blood,4 Kate Holland4
and Paul Komesaroff1
1 Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University, Australia
2 Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia
3 Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
4 News and Media Research Centre, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra,
Danielle Couch, Centre for the Study of Ethics in Medicine and Society, School of Primary
Health Care, Monash University, Building 1, 270 Ferntree Gully Road, Notting Hill,
Victoria 3168, Australia
Phone: +61 468 312 831
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship and/or
publication of this article.
The author(s) disclose receipt of the following financial support for the research and/or
authorship of this article: We are grateful to the Australian Research Discovery Grant
Scheme for funding this study (Grant Number DP0878805).
Danielle Couch is grateful to receive an Australian Postgraduate Award in support of her
Obese People’s Perceptions of the Thin Ideal
The media play a key role in promoting the thin ideal. A qualitative study, in which we
used in depth interviews and thematic analysis, was undertaken to explore the attitudes of
142 obese individuals toward media portrayals of the thin ideal. Participants discussed the
thin ideal as a social norm that is also supported through the exclusion of positive media
portrayals of obese people. They perceived the thin ideal as an ‘unhealthy’ mode of social
control, reflecting on their personal experiences and their concerns for others. Participants’
perceptions highlighted the intersections between the thin ideal and gender, grooming and
consumerism. Participants’ personal responses to the thin ideal were nuanced – some were
in support of the thin ideal and some were able to critically reflect and reject the thin ideal.
We consider how the thin ideal may act as a form of synoptical social control, working in
tandem with wider public health panoptical surveillance of body weight.
Keywords: obesity, media, thin ideal, panopticon, synopticon, Australia
Body weight ideals have differed throughout history and across cultures, with one’s
perceptions of one’s own body shape and others’ body shapes influenced by social and
cultural factors (Furnham & Alibhai, 1983; Furnham & Baguma, 1994; Lake et al., 2000).
Social class, health, religion, gender and the media have all at times influenced weight
In many non-Western countries plumpness has been considered an attractive trait
and has been associated with caring, fertility and higher social class (Shuriquie, 1999).
Plumpness was also valued in America and Europe prior to 1900 as it was seen as being
protective against consumptive illness (Gibson & Zillmann, 1993). When food availability
is uncertain a larger body size may be deemed ideal in that it represents wealth and plenty,
whereas in societies and at times when food is abundant social, peer and media pressure act
to impose an ideal of thinness (Furnham & Alibhai, 1983).
In Western society it was in the late Victorian era when people who had enough
money to eat began to regularly deny themselves food in the quest to achieve an aesthetic
ideal (Bordo, 2003) and to create social distinction. By the end of the nineteenth century
being plump went out of fashion, and excess body weight came to be seen as indicative of
lack of will or as a sign of personal and moral inadequacy, and the shape and size of a
person’s body a marker of their moral, emotional or spiritual state (Bordo, 2003; Campos
et al., 2006). In the early twentieth century an increasing number of weight loss strategies
and diets became widely available (Gibson & Zillmann, 1993) to help people to try to
achieve this thin ideal. Social pressure to conform to body ideals can come from an array
of sources including family, friends, and peers to society as a whole (Park, 2005), as well
as various media.
The media, as key agents of socialisation, play an important role in the transfer of
culture and norms throughout society (Robertson, 1987; Schiffman et al., 2005). It is
generally accepted that the media are influential sources of messages and images about
ideal body types for both men and women (Andersen & DiDomenico, 1992; A. Field et al.,
2001; A. E. Field et al., 1999; Monro & Huon, 2005), and that the media may play a
significant role in the ways in which bodies are perceived and valued in modern Western
cultures (Grogan, 2006).
In modern Western society, thinness, particularly in women, symbolises and
supports dominant cultural ideals such as self-control, self-discipline and competitiveness
(Shuriquie, 1999). The thin ideal is portrayed in the media as the female body ideal by
depicting thinness as attractive and worthy (Harrison, 2000). For men, muscularity is
portrayed as the ideal body type (Ridgeway & Tylka, 2005) and it may be undesirable to be
insufficiently muscular or too thin (A. E. Field et al., 2005). Fatness is portrayed as an
undesirable trait, disgusting in and of itself, or accompanied by other negative traits such as
sloth and gluttony (Ericson et al., 1989), and as deserving of ridicule and shame (Harrison,
2000). Hence these body ideals are not only reinforced by promoting thinness as a
desirable trait, but also through media stigmatisation of obesity (R. Puhl & Heuer, 2009).
These ideals are further bolstered through media coverage which suggests that weight loss
is easy (Blaine & McElroy, 2002) and through the association of weight control and
thinness with healthiness (Davies, 1998).
Social norms have the important function of determining what is acceptable and
what is unacceptable in a society – they are rules that guide society (Macionis, 1993). The
thin ideal may be considered the current Western idealised social norm for bodies; whereas
obesity is commonly considered a deviant body form (Drury et al., 2002). Social control is
the way in which a society maintains obedience and adherence to social norms and how a
society eliminates or seeks to minimise deviance (Conrad & Schneider, 1980). The mass
media, along with other social institutions such as medicine, welfare, the criminal justice
system, the church and education, has a role in social control (Conrad & Schneider, 1980)
and may interact with these other forms.
Whilst there has been much research on the impact of the thin ideal generally ( and
Grabe et al., 2008 for overviews; see Greenberg & Worrell, 2005; Groesz et al., 2002), to
our knowledge there has been very little research into how the thin ideal is perceived by
obese people, who are the physical antithesis of thin ideal conformity. In this study we
have investigated how obese adults perceive and interpret the thin ideal and its potential
impacts. We explore the panopticon and synopticon and contend that they are useful
concepts for examining the thin ideal and the impacts this may have on obese people. We
consider how the thin ideal may act as a form of social control in tandem with other social
control mechanisms. We also discuss resistance to the thin ideal. Consideration of the
dialectical relationship between the panopticon and synopticon provides a new theoretical
perspective for the thin ideal.
The Panopticon and Synopticon – A theoretical framework
Foucault (1979) used Jeremy Bentham’s prison design, the panopticon, as a metaphor for
explaining the application of surveillance as a form of social control in modern societies. A
panopticon designed prison allowed a single guard to observe all prisoners, without the
prisoners knowing if they were being watched at any given time. Foucault used this
metaphor to contend that in modern societies social control is via surveillance where the
‘few’ can watch the ‘many’, and that surveillance in this manner replaced the spectacle of
physical punishment and torture used by sovereign powers of previous times (Foucault,
Foucault’s descriptions of the panopticon and surveillance outlined “methods of
fixing, dividing, recording” which are undertaken by an assortment of institutions and in
turn generate an “immense activity of examination that has objectified human behaviour”
(Foucault, 1979 p. 305). As a form of social control the panopticon contributes to a feeling
of being under constant surveillance, and so individuals become their own agents of
surveillance for conforming to normative expectations and conventions, without having to
actually be under surveillance. This self-surveillance and discipline has become the
primary source of social control in modern society. In relation to health and body weight
we see this reflected in common expressions such as ‘taking care of yourself’, ‘keeping an
eye on your weight’ and ‘watching what you eat’. Surveillance of others is also undertaken
and commented on in this manner such as: ‘he’s let himself go’.
Yet Foucault’s panopticon, as the preeminent form of modern social control, has
been critiqued for overlooking the development of the modern mass media (Mathiesen,
1997, 2004). The panopticon is inadequate as it ignores a whole other set of social control
mechanisms enacted through the media. Mathiesen (1997, 2004) contends that the
development of the mass media was concurrent with the expansion of universal
surveillance and that the mass media works as a complementary form of social control
alongside Foucault’s panopticon. Mathiesen (1997) used the synopticon concept to suggest
that various media messages considered together form a Gestalt which then acts as a form
of social control. As the complement to the panopticon, the synopticon allows “the many to
see and contemplate the few” (Mathiesen, 1997 p.230), in contrast with the panopticon
where the few surveil the many. He argues that when considered together, the panopticon
and synopticon acts as a decisive and persistent form of social control in modern societies.
Mathiesen (1997) saw the panopticon and synopticon interacting as a dyad of social
control which disciplines and controls our consciousness. In relation to body weight,
panoptic surveillance, through the collection of population-based height and weight data
sets, encourages self-discipline, whereby such data then informs synoptic public health
media campaigns that highlight ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ body weight. Similarly weight
loss diets encourage panoptic self-surveillance of body weight and food intake, and the
media celebrate weight loss success stories as examples of positive outcomes.
It is likely that public health campaigns which use the media to disseminate their
weight control and healthy weight messages contribute to pervasive social pressures to be
thin or thinner (Warde, 1997). Synoptic messages about body ideals may also take the form
of media fashion articles, stories about celebrities’ and models’ bodies, and advertisements
for weight loss products and services, along with general advertisements that use idealized
bodies to enhance product presentation. Media articles which celebrate weight loss and
disparage weight gain also contribute to this system of messages about ideal body type,
along with media images of ‘headless fatties’ and obese people gorging on junk food,
which dehumanise and stigmatise obesity (R. M. Puhl et al., 2013).
In critiquing the synopticon, Doyle (2011 p.284) notes that it is a very useful
concept for considering “how surveillance and the mass media interact and are
intertwined” but due to the increasing fragmentation of media audiences and increasing
presence of and evolution of the internet and digital media it is not applicable in the very
broad and general way as proposed by Mathiesen (1997). Media audiences interpret what
they see and hear within the context of what they already know and what they have learnt
from other sources, which may allow them to analyse and deconstruct dominant themes
(Kitzinger, 1998). Audience interpretations of media messages can be diverse and
demonstrate resistance as well as alignment with dominant ideas and norms (Seale, 2003).
Audiences are able to resist or reject media messages (Doyle, 2011; Seale, 2003), and
resistance may be demonstrated at the stage of media production or at reception (Doyle,
2011). Furthermore, definitions of what we mean by ‘the media’ are changing in the age of
the internet, along with increasing convergence between ‘traditional’ media formats and
newer ‘social’ media formats, creating further opportunities for resistance. With this more
comprehensive perspective, we see that the panopticon and synopticon are in a dialectical
relationship which may at times be aligned and complementary, yet in other instances there
is tension and contradiction.
In this paper we aim to provide a detailed understanding of how obese adults perceive and
interpret the thin ideal. The data is from a larger qualitative study, which examined the life
experiences of obese people. A semi-structured interview schedule was used, which
included questions in six main areas including physical and mental health, early weight
experiences, current weight experiences, body image, media, and public health approaches
to obesity. The initial group of interview questions was in the form of a structured survey
about individuals’ health-related behaviors. The remaining schedule was flexible in terms
of what questions were asked, their wording, and the order, as some questions were
relevant to some participants and not to others. Interviews were flexible in that additional
questions could be introduced during the interview by both the interviewer and the
interviewee, and also to allow for emergent themes to be explored in more detail.
Within the wider study we asked two main questions to stimulate discussion around
the ‘thin ideal’ and how this is portrayed in the media:
1. It is often said that society heavily promotes the idea that ‘thin’ is the ideal
body shape. What do you think of this and how it’s portrayed in the media?
2. Do you feel pressure to conform to the ‘thin ideal’?
The thin ideal was also discussed in other areas of the interviews, particularly in
discussions and questions pertaining to obesity and the media. Participants were also asked
to consider how more positive messages about people’s different body shapes and sizes
might be created. The responses to these questions and these broader discussions were
used in developing this paper.
Participants were recruited using purposive, theoretical and strategic sampling
methods to seek differing experiences of obesity and attitudes towards obesity (Denzin &
Lincoln, 2000). The sample included people trying to lose weight, those comfortable with
their weight, those uncertain about how to lose weight and people involved in fat advocacy
and fat acceptance activities. Attempts were made to sample people from lower and higher
socio-economic groups. Recruitment methods included a website, mass media advertising,
and advertisements in hospital, university and workplace newsletters, fliers in relevant
community and retail spaces (e.g. plus size clothing stores, weight loss centers, online
weight loss support groups, recreational centers and gymnasiums) and snowball sampling.
Participants were given a $10 voucher as reimbursement for participating in the study. We
received interest to participate in the study from 172 people, and of these 142 participants
were interviewed. Eight people chose not to be interviewed, and 22 people were excluded
because they were not classified as obese according to the World Health Organization’s
International classification of adult obesity (i.e., BMI of ≥30) (World Health Organization,
2011) or because they did not live in Australia. The majority of participants were female
(n=106). An overview of participant details is provided in Table 1.
[Table 1 is about here]
Telephone interviews were conducted between April 2008 and March 2009, and
lasted between 60-90 minutes, with all interviews transcribed within a week of the
interview. Telephone interviews allowed for participation by individuals living outside the
metropolitan area (where the research team was based) and those whose body size,
economic situation or co-morbidities may have prevented them from travelling to an
interview. Research suggests that telephone interviews can provide more open responses to
personal or sensitive questions because of the relative anonymity they give participants
when compared to face-to-face interviews (de Vaus, 2002). Telephone interviews also
reduced any impact the size of the interviewers, who were younger women in the ‘normal’
body mass index (BMI) weight range, may have had on participants’ narratives (Wilson et
al., 1998). Ethical approval was obtained for the project in January 2008 [ethics approval
We used thematic analysis to analyse the data. We initially noted preliminary ideas
and thoughts and then read and re-read the transcripts and coded and organized the coded
data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Further review and analysis continued and the codes were
reduced to a number of core themes (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). To assist in the explanation
of the findings, the frequency of themes is provided. We use the term ‘most’ to indicate
more than 75% of participants, the term ‘many’ for 50-75%, ‘some’ for 25-50% and ‘few’
for less than 25% of responses.
We present our findings in relation to the thin ideal as the social norm, personal responses
to the thin ideal, and the impact of the thin ideal.
Reflecting on the thin ideal as the social norm
Most participants felt that the thin ideal was the current social norm, conveyed through the
media, models, celebrities and health messages; that is has become the “normal” body
shape. Participants thought that thin people and thinness were “valued”, “emphasised” and
“desirable” in the media, and that the promotion of the thin ideal was “grossly over-
portrayed” and “overwhelming”, with the media being a key cause in making people
inherently focussed on the thin ideal and body image. A few participants also noted that the
general exclusion of positive portrayals of overweight or obese people in the media also
contributed to the promotion of the thin ideal. Participants saw the media as the main
source of promotion of the thin ideal.
Nearly all of the participants were able to talk about the thin ideal in relation to
themselves and others, but a few participants noted gender differences, with thin seen as
the ideal for women and an increasing pressure on men to be muscular and lean. When
considering women and the thin ideal one participant noted “...there is a sense that a
woman is meant to be slim and the media continually tells women that that’s how they're
meant to look.” (Female, aged 59). For men, these participants talked about the increasing
presence of an ideal male body that was being promoted in the media, which may provide
similar types of pressures on men, and that this has changed over time, with the ideal male
physique now lean and “ripped” [muscular]: “I think men ... it's a low body fat, not
absolutely thin ... muscular men...” (Male, aged 26).
Some participants discussed how celebrities are often profiled or criticised in the
media when they gain weight. As one participant explained “Britney Spears put on 5 kilos
and she's so fat and ugly” (Female, aged 39). A few noted the inconsistent messages the
media presents in relation to trying to promote healthy weight yet fixating on celebrity
weight issues, such as “’Oh no don’t be the stick thin model’ but then the minute somebody
else has put on weight, it’s all plastered all over the magazines” (Female, aged 55).
A few participants discussed the convergence and co-option of health messages and
the thin ideal suggesting that public health campaigns which focussed on healthy weight
and weight loss were contributing to the thin ideal as a social norm by creating a fear of
fatness. One participant perceived a relationship between the thin ideal and health
messages when he commented: “I definitely agree that society has gone way too far in
trying to promote thin and I guess even then on healthy lifestyle” (Male, aged 27). Another
participant explained “You're supposed to be this thin for your health not because they
think that this is a sexy shape which is the reality. So I guess the drive for thinness
becomes couched in all of these health terms when it's really just an aesthetic thing”
(Female, aged 36).
A small number of participants perceived that there was some movement away
from the thin ideal and its “very skinny models” as the social norm, to models with
“healthy” bodies along with some examples of “all sorts of different people” starting to
appear in the media. In these instances participants saw the media’s presentation of bodies
as becoming gradually more complex, offering two extremes – the thin ideal was still
present but also other body types were appearing and being presented as acceptable. A few
participants talked of television programs such as ‘How to Look Good Naked’ and ‘Trinny
and Susannah’ which provided positive representations of bodies, were “realistic about
attractiveness” and demonstrated that everyone has a “completely different shape and
size”. They also commented positively on advertising which celebrated body diversity such
as the ‘Dove’ campaigns which show: “you can still be healthy and happy even if you
might have larger thighs than some.”
Most participants in this study felt that thinness was the current social norm for
body weight, and that thinness or leanness were highly valued in both men and women,
along with fatness being excluded or stigmatised. A few participants noted for men the
ideal body was lean and muscular. A small number of participants felt that there may be
some movement away from these ideals towards greater recognition of body diversity.
Personal responses to the thin ideal
Personal responses to the thin ideal were varied and nuanced. Most participants perceived
the thin ideal as unrealistic, unachievable or irrelevant for them. A few of these participants
critically discussed the thin ideal as socially, historically and culturally contextual, and
used these critical understandings to reject the thin ideal. A few participants were positive
and accepting of the thin ideal and aligned thinness with health and social acceptability.
For some participants there was the perception that the thin ideal was so distant
from their current weight that trying to aspire towards it was not viable and they were
concerned with more immediate and achievable goals: “I would be happy if I was a [size]
16. I would even be happy if I was an [size] 18 again” (Female, aged 41). Another
participant stated: “... before I can be thin I have to become normal. So I feel a lot of
pressure to become normal. I'd love the pressure to become thin then” (Male, aged 54).
Others commented that they felt pressure to conform to the thin ideal when young but as
they aged this became less relevant to them. A few of these people outlined that they would
still like to lose weight but for health reasons now instead of appearance and social
acceptance reasons: “I think my pressure’s more I would like to be not as big so that I’m
healthier and feel better and more energetic and all the rest of it” (Male, aged 51).
Amongst those who rejected the thin ideal many perceived it to be freakish, ugly
and unhealthy, particularly in relation to models in the media, and they drew on strong
language and metaphors: “wasted away”, “stick thin”, “waif thin”, “skeletal anorexic”,
“look like junkies”, “skin and bone”, “somebody from one of those concentration camps”,
“emaciated”, “gaunt”, “abnormal”, “undernourished”, “could do with a decent feed”, “stick
insect”, “nauseating”, “repulsed”, “ugly”, “horrible”, “revoltingly perversely sexual”,
“images in Africa ... where there was malnutrition through the 60s and 70s”.
Participants who critically discussed the thin ideal perceived it as a social norm
which is historically, socially, ethnically and economically contextual. Participants from
non-Western or non-white backgrounds commented that the thin ideal was not their body
norm. For example, an Indigenous participant raised the cultural and ethnic context of the
thin ideal: “I see that as a white weight...I see that as Western. I see white Australian
women, Anglo Australian women aiming for that. I don’t see that for me” (Female, aged
42). Another demonstrated her disengagement from the thin ideal by noting that coming
from a Latin background she was voluptuous by nature and that to aspire to an “android
type slender type” (Female, aged 37) was not appropriate for her body. Others referred to
the change from female ideals apparent in the media in the middle of last century, such as:
“back in the 1950s the, you had the Marilyn Monroe’s who were very curvaceous
who were seen as being the ideal, where I think now they would be seen as being
closer to overweight” (Male, aged 33).
Another participant discussed how historical changes in food production and
economic order have resulted in food becoming more abundant and cheaper, which has led
to body weight becoming a way for people to differentiate themselves in terms of social
class – that overweight or obese people tend to be from lower classes and “the rich can
distinguish themselves by being able to afford personal trainers and be idle enough to have
the time to go to the gym ... and to do all the things that it takes to get that classically
skinny body” (Male, aged 41).
A few participants were positive about the thin ideal, seeing it as something they
should aspire to and some commented on how they were conditioned to the thin ideal “I’ll
look in magazines and ... you think they're just beautiful” (Female, aged 48). Others noted
that that their own “perceptions and vanity” (Male, aged 42) led them to spend much of
their time thinking about other people’s size and their own size. A few participants
demonstrated their acceptance of the thin ideal by positive statements about thinness and
that to be thin is to be attractive. Even when participants believed being thin was not
appropriate for them they still felt the pressure of the social norm and desired to be thin: “I
still would like to be the skinny size 10, yeah. So even if you logically know it might not
be right you still have that emotional side of the ideal in your mind” (Female, aged 33).
The participants who were accepting of the thin ideal associated thinness with the
traits of health and physical attractiveness. A few of these participants voiced concern that
if thinness was not supported and promoted then the flipside could be the legitimisation of
obesity with its associated health issues and problems, and that voices seeking to quash the
thin ideal may be more focussed on political correctness, whilst disregarding that “being
slim is the healthy way to live” (Female, aged 37). These participants cautioned the use of
models or television presenters who were “really big” or overweight as this might endorse
obesity as an acceptable body type. Yet within this small group of participants there was
some tension between their thoughts on promoting thinness whilst still acknowledging and
allowing for body diversity.
Most participants rejected the thin ideal as personally irrelevant or unachievable
and as unattractive. A few were able to discuss the thin ideal as situated within a modern
Western context. A small number of participants were accepting and supportive of the thin
The impact of the thin ideal on others
The potential impact of the thin ideal on others caused angst and anxiety for some of our
participants. Participants saw the thin ideal as dangerous in relation to vulnerable and
impressionable children and teenagers, because they perceived it promotes and upholds
unhealthy and risky behaviours, and because of the impact on the body image of
individuals. Participants discussed the thin ideal as being a key driver of binge eating,
dieting, poor eating habits, yo-yoing body weight, excessive exercise, smoking and drugs,
and as a cause of anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Participants provided examples of the
impact of the thin ideal by talking about the experiences and behaviours of people they
knew. One participant was concerned that her teenage grand-daughter who wanted to be
thin was having issues with eating: “She won't [eat] this and she won't eat that, and I'm
thinking oh 14, and you’ve got problems with food already. It's tragic, it's absolutely
tragic” (Female, aged 44). Another participant discussed how young men and boys were at
risk of unhealthy behaviours from the thin ideal: “plenty of boys who spend way too much
time at gyms and starving themselves” (Male, aged 39). Participants commented that the
impact of the thin ideal on young people could cause ongoing body and body weight issues
that people have to deal with for years -“setting them up for this constant battle” (Female,
aged 52) in managing weight issues.
Expanding on these comments about ongoing body and weight issues, a few
participants perceived that the threat of dangerous behaviours, such as disordered eating,
caused by the thin ideal were as bad as the outcomes from obesity, and in some ways
similar. One participant noted: “if you are anorexic, you are not going to get up in the
morning and have a good healthy day. And if you are obese, the same sort of thing” (Male,
aged 48). One woman (aged 39), who had a history of extreme dieting discussed how she
believed the pressure to conform to the thin ideal can lead to obesity in the long term:
“I think that it is a big reason for a lot of people’s obesity, because it creates eating
disorders and yo yo dieting and we all know the results of yo yo dieting, you end up
putting more on, your metabolism is lowered ... so it sets up failure in the future.
So I think it’s perpetuated a lot of problems.”
Our participants demonstrated concerns about the potential impact of the thin ideal
on others as they perceived it may encourage unhealthy and risky behaviours and have a
negative impact on body image. In this context, the potential harms of seeking to conform
to the thin ideal were seen as just as real and concerning as those associated with obesity.
Social norms, conformity and exclusion
Most of our participants felt that the thin ideal was the current social norm, which is in
keeping with other qualitative studies which have studied responses to the thin ideal in
specific population groups such as young women (Ahern et al., 2011) and lesbian and
bisexual women (Huxley et al., 2013).
Our participants discussed how the media valued thinness and thin people. They
perceived that the media plays a key role in creating the thin ideal, by promoting and
defining what is ideal and what is deviant through demonstrating what types of bodies the
media values, emphasises and portrays as desirable. They believed that the gross over-
portrayal of the thin ideal was an important influence on making people and society so
focused on body image. A few of our participants linked the media’s portrayal of the thin
ideal with the general exclusion of positive portrayals of obesity. Their perception was that
those who do not conform to this body ideal, such as obese people, are excluded or
portrayed negatively in the media, which is consistent with research into representations of
underweight and overweight characters in entertainment media (R. Puhl & Heuer, 2009).
Participants’ discussion of how the media ridicule celebrities who gain weight highlights
how the media is used to present the ‘few’ (celebrities) as ‘spectacle’ to be scrutinised by
the many (media audiences) (Mathiesen, 1997). The participant who discussed how
Britney Spears weight gain was portrayed in the media is consistent with a case study of
Britney Spears which suggests that the media
…makes visible a larger cultural mandate about mental health, gender, and class:
a woman’s slender body correlates not only with her moral fibre and professional
success but with her mental well-being and separation from working-class codes of
excess (Weber, 2012 p.346).
The presentation of the thin ideal in various media modalities, such as through
stories, news items, visual imagery (both celebrating thinness and ridiculing fatness),
celebrity, commentary and advertisements, together represent a system of messages which
promotes and reinforces social norms and standards of acceptability, and so reinforces and
strengthens the thin ideal. In these ways we see how the synopticon acts as a form of social
control by demonstrating what is acceptable and unacceptable, and also enacting social
sanctions through the ridicule and derision displayed in the media. Yet this is despite
population prevalence data in Australia now suggesting that overweight and obesity are the
actual norm with three out of five adults overweight or obese (Australian Institute of
Health and Wellbeing, 2013).
A few participants critically discussed public health messages about body weight,
suggesting such messages contribute to the thin ideal and have created fear of fatness.
Thinness has become an aesthetic demonstration of healthfulness. Similarly, scholars have
also argued that public health discourses about body weight encourage fat-loathing, create
a culture of disordered eating (Austin, 1999) and reinforce weight discrimination (Germov
& Williams, 1996).
Public health campaigns exemplify how the panopticon and synopticon work
together as a dyad of social control. These campaigns draw upon epidemiological data
(panoptical surveillance) and present (synoptical) messages that are aimed at changing
behaviours to improve health outcomes. For example, individuals are commonly
encouraged to monitor and regulate their own health and health-related behaviours, such as
alcohol consumption, food intake, physical activity levels and sexual behaviours. In this
way panoptic surveillance promotes personal responsibility and self-discipline so that
individuals and their bodies “are turned into ‘objects’ ” on which they enact control
(Eckermann, 1997, p.157).
When the thin ideal is the promoted and accepted social norm then even those who
see it as unrealistic or unattainable for themselves still feel pressure to conform (Milkie,
1999) and enact personal responsibility. Our participants who noted the thin ideal was
unrealistic demonstrated this, as they discussed how they undertook panoptic self-
surveillance and they felt pressure to lose weight and reduce their body size even if they
could not conform to the thin ideal. This is suggestive of the social control role enacted by
these synoptical messages of thinness, along with the self-surveillance encouraged by the
Our participants raised concerns regarding the role of the thin ideal on others,
particularly the role they perceive it plays in influencing problematic and dysfunctional
behaviours in young women and men and boys and girls, such as binge-eating, smoking,
drugs, excessive exercise, poor eating habits and dieting, in order to conform to the thin
ideal. These responses are indicative of participants’ perceptions of the power of the media
as a form of social control in relation to body ideals. Our participants’ concerns about the
role of the thin ideal in causing body dissatisfaction, problematic weight loss strategies and
disordered eating behaviours is consistent with research which has found that for women,
media exposure to the thin ideal is linked to “generalized dissatisfaction with their bodies,
increased investment in appearance, and increased endorsement of disordered eating
behaviours” (Grabe et al., 2008 p.471). Our participants also highlighted some
commonalities between the thin ideal, disordered eating and obesity. This is an interesting
finding as there is increasing recognition amongst scholars of shared risk factors (one of
which is the media) for obesity, eating disorders, disordered eating behaviours and
unhealthy weight loss practices, and calls for integrated approaches to address these issues
(Haines & Neumark-Sztainer, 2006; Irving & Neumark-Sztainer, 2002; Neumark-Sztainer,
2003; Neumark Sztainer, 2005).
The responses of our participants’ suggest that they experience a synoptical system
of media messages (Mathiesen, 1997), such as thin ideal images, exclusion of obese people
and public health body weight messages, which promote the thin ideal, rather than a
singular type of media coverage or content. Our participants were highlighting their
perception of the media’s role in reinforcing body norms and acting as a method of social
In contrast with the critical responses, a few of our participants, when discussing
the thin ideal and their positive perception of it, indicated that they perceived obesity as
unhealthy and something that should not be promoted or portrayed as being socially
acceptable, as this would potentially legitimate obesity (Holland et al., 2013). It may be
that these people have internalized social expectations of an ideal body, as portrayed
through the synopticon and panopticon. Others who were positive about the thin ideal
discussed their panoptical behaviours of undertaking surveillance of themselves and others,
including others in the media. The few participants who noted that they wanted to lose
weight for health reasons rather than image reasons may have been reflecting motivations
grounded in a sense of the lived body as ‘process’, as distinct from the body as object or
‘project’ (which tends to emphasise the importance of the look of the body and is common
in consumer culture) (Featherstone, 2010).
Grooming, gender, consumerism and the synopticon
A few participants discussed what they perceived to be emerging diversity in media body
ideals, with the appearance of “all sorts” of bodies of different shapes and sizes in some
television shows, such as makeover shows like ‘How to Look Good Naked’, and
advertising, such as the ‘Dove’1 campaigns. These participants thought this was a positive
change in the presentation of bodies in the media, yet makeover shows, such as those
1 These campaigns used real women whose appearances and bodies are outside the stereotypical
norms of beauty.
mentioned by our participants have been criticised for being part of a broader culture of
neoliberal surveillance which positions body management, personal development and self-
management as the new sites for governmental regulation (Lewis, 2008). In these shows
bodies are presented as deviant, and so require expert advice to return to conformity, and
require ongoing self-government (Rodrigues, 2012). Such shows also encourage
consumption of products and services as people are taught how to buy attire more suitable
to their body type, and then the celebrities who host these shows commercialise their
expertise through the sale of branded clothing and having themselves associated with
department stores (for example Gok Wan from ‘How to look Good Naked’ has marketed a
specific range of clothing at the Australian department store ‘Target’). In this sense these
shows are still part of the panopticon/synopticon dyad as they promote self-surveillance
and surveillance of others and provide messages about socially acceptable body
presentation, along with contributing to consumer culture. Although such shows do
perhaps promote social acceptance of body sizes beyond the thin ideal.
Most of our participants were able to discuss the thin ideal for both men and
women, although a few noted gender differences. These participants perceived that the
female ideal is to be slim or thin, and the male ideal is to be lean and muscular. These
gendered ideals have been described as the “thinness schema” for females and the
“muscularity-power schema” for males (Levine & Harrison, 2004), whereby girls and
women are conditioned to believe that thinness equates to success, and for males a
mesomorphic build is seen as a sign of healthfulness and attractiveness, and associated
with power and success. Our participants’ comments about male body ideals highlight the
changing representations of men’s bodies in the media and the increasing pressures for
men to conform to male body ideals. Other research supports these findings; in the last two
decades there has been a change in the visual representation of men in the media, with
men’s bodies going from “near invisibility to hypervisibility” (Gill et al., 2005 p.39). In
this way, men’s bodies are becoming ‘spectacle’ within the media to be examined and
surveilled by the ‘many’ (Mathiesen, 1997). Research into young men’s body work
practices has found that young men do experience social pressure and have concerns and
anxieties about how their bodies look (Coffey, 2013), suggestive of the possible impact of
the synopticon. Consistent with this is the large growth in retail markets for male grooming
and beauty products (The Australian Centre for Retail Studies, 2005), which highlights the
increasing importance of appearance for men, and the commercial sector’s response to
these market opportunities. Men are “increasingly drawn into the consumer culture body
image game and are becoming more critical and vulnerable about their bodies”
(Featherstone, 2010 p.202). Consumer culture and products and services promoting body
maintenance are contributing to an increasing array of synoptical messages about
acceptable male body types.
Resisting the synopticon and panopticon
A few of our participants appeared to resist and reject the thin ideal by positioning it as
inappropriate for them or by developing a critical understanding of what has led to the
development of the thin ideal and who stands to profit most from it.
Our participants who were able to critically discuss the thin ideal, such as those
who highlighted the role of public health campaigns in creating a fear of fatness, or those
who highlighted changes in food production and body weight as a demonstration of
socioeconomic status, may have been somewhat protected from the negative effects of the
thin ideal (Choate, 2005). Those who highlighted the role of public health campaigns in
creating a fear of fatness were demonstrating an awareness of how epidemiological
(panoptical) data can be used to stigmatise obesity and promote behaviour change
Ageing or being from a non-dominant culture may also provide some protection
from synoptical messages of thinness. Our participants who felt the thin ideal was less
relevant to them as they aged were not explicitly admiring of their non-conforming bodies,
but they were able to downplay the importance of their ‘deviance’ and indicate that they no
longer felt pressure to conform to this body ideal. This is similar to research with women
which has found that, whilst body dissatisfaction remains fairly constant throughout the
lifespan, as women age their physical appearance is no longer such a central part of their
identity and they place less importance on it (Tiggemann, 2004). Our participants from
non-Western cultures discussed the thin ideal as inappropriate for them, which is consistent
with research which has investigated culture and the thin ideal (Goodman, 2002; Milkie,
1999; Padgett & Biro, 2003). It may be that if the synopticon does not present messages
consistent with cultural norms, then it is easier to avoid social pressure to be thin.
Our participants’ who perceived the thin ideal and the representation of thin bodies
in the media as abnormal, freakish and unhealthy may have been interpreting these bodies
as threatening, or be casting them as deviant ‘Other’ in order to demonstrate rejection of
the thin ideal. They were undertaking surveillance of others’ thin bodies, as presented in
the media, and indicating that they perceive them to be outside what should be considered
normal, and that this is problematic. It is interesting that the language they used evokes
examples of extreme thinness. Thin bodies may be surveilled but not to the extent of fat
bodies (which are generally surveilled with the endorsement of medicine and public health
authorities who deploy rhetoric of an 'obesity epidemic' and a 'war on obesity'). It is
perhaps not surprising in this context that obese people are moved to defend themselves,
and distance themselves from the thin ideal and the flaws they associate with it by
discussing it using extreme language which uses a similar tone to the disparaging and
stigmatising language that is often used against obese people.
Whilst not explicitly explored in the data which informed this paper, it is important
to consider the increasing convergence of traditional media formats with the Internet and
social media. Doyle (2011) suggests that the Internet may offer opportunities for resistance
(alongside its role in dramatically increasing opportunities for surveillance), as it can
support and foster a significantly different set of social relations from the (mainly) uni-
directional communication of more traditional media forms. In relation to the thin ideal we
see resistance to this through online communities such as the ‘fatosphere’2 which has been
found to empower people who are a part of it (Dickins et al., 2011). Although the Internet
also allows body ideals to be amplified to extremes. General and niche social media sites
become platforms for promoting such extremes. For examples there are ‘thinspo’3 and
‘thighgap’ hashtags on Twitter, along with thinspo boards on Pinterest and pro-ana4 and
pro-eating disorder websites. Some research suggests that viewing such websites can
reductions in caloric intake and increases in disordered eating behaviours (Jett et al., 2010).
So whilst the Internet may offer opportunity for resistance to dominant media messages
about body weight, it can also be another channel where these messages are reinforced and
Our participants who critically discussed and rejected the thin ideal in terms of its
cultural, social, historical and economic context, or their own personal circumstance, were
drawing on their cultural and social situations and backgrounds to resist and reject the thin
ideal. Our participants who rejected the thin ideal as freakish were positioning thinness as a
deviant body type, whereas participants who were accepting of the thin ideal were showing
greater alignment with the dominant body ideal. Newer media formats may provide
additional opportunities for resistance, yet they may also extend synoptical messages.
2 Fatosphere is the online fat-acceptance blogging community (Dickins et al, 2011).
3 Thinspo is an abbreviation for thinspiration, which is an amalgamation of the two words – thin
4 Pro-ana is an abbreviation for pro-anorexia
Strengths and limitations
A key strength of this paper is that it considers the thin ideal with a broader conceptual
framework, by examining how it is part of a wider system of social control of bodies.
Another strength of this study is the large sample size, although despite this large sample
size our study included more women than men, and participants were relatively well-
educated. A limitation of our study may be gendered interpretations of the concept of the
thin ideal. Our study specifically asked about the thin ideal. Whilst this garnered personal
responses from both our male and female participants, it may be that if we had explicitly
asked about male and female body ideals participants may have provided somewhat
Our study was focussed on traditional media and did not consider new forms of
media or the convergence of traditional media with social media in detail. Future research
could explore the dyadic role of panopticon and synopticon in relation to the thin ideal in
these different media formats, and the interaction between these different media formats,
and how people may respond to and participate in these interactions.
Our research highlights the importance of using qualitative approaches to understanding
people's interpretations of the thin ideal, capturing the complexity of responses, including
critical interpretations. Our findings have provided insight into obese people’s diverse and
nuanced responses to the thin ideal - a previously underexplored area.
Our findings indicate that obese people perceive that public health campaigns about
obesity may be contributing to problematic presentations of ideal body types. These
findings may contribute to consideration of how public health media interventions can be
used in both positive and detrimental ways to support behaviour changes and to change
social norms around health issues. Our research supports that there is increasing panoptical
and synoptical pressure for men to conform to body ideals. Our findings also contribute to
evidence that suggests responses to the thin ideal are influenced by cultural, historical and
social contexts, and that different contexts may support resistance or compliance to
synoptical messages which promote the thin ideal. Whilst there may be examples of media
presentations of body diversity, these seem to still be enacting and encouraging panoptic
surveillance of self and others and providing synoptical messages about socially acceptable
body presentation for those that may not be able to meet the thin ideal. Where newer media
forms may be offering opportunities for messages of diversity and resistance, they also
offer opportunities to further reinforce dominant synoptical messages about body ideal.
Other work has considered the panopticon/synopticon dyad in relation to crime
(Mathiesen, 1997), general relevance (Doyle, 2011), health (authors, under review) and
news reporting of obesity (authors, under review), this paper extends the synopticon and
panopticon by highlighting how it can be a useful conceptual tool in considering responses
to the thin ideal. The panopticon/synopticon allows for consideration of the interaction
between modern forms of surveillance enacted by states and individuals, and how this
interacts in a dialectical manner with the media. It has demonstrated how the synopticon
acts as a form of social control towards obese individuals, and also how obese people
perceive the media acts as a coercive form of social control of the body weight of others.
Table 1: Participant demographic details
Demographic category N (142) (%)
< High school
High school graduate < University degree
University or postgraduate degree
Income before tax (AUD)
*One participant did not reveal height or weight to calculate their BMI
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