Gerbner's Cultivation Theory and Poor Body Image Among Women
University of Colorado at Boulder
There are numerous communication theories, but Gerbner's Cultivation Theory is especially applicable to many situations. It focuses on the idea that television plays a central role in viewers' perceptions of the world by affecting attitudes, beliefs, and ways of thinking. The severity of these effects depends on the amount of television an individual watches each day. Even though the immediate consequences of watching television are small, they accumulate and have a significant impact on the viewer and our culture as a whole. The images depicted on television can have an immense impression on the aspects that make up a society.
Gerbner places viewers into three categories: light (watch less than two hours of television a day), medium (watch between two and four hours of television a day), and heavy (watch more than four hours of television a day). His research focuses mainly on the heavy and light viewers. Through various experiments, Gerbner has discovered that heavy viewers hold opinions and ideals that are typically portrayed on television rather than in the real world. He believes that "for heavy viewers, television virtually monopolizes and subsumes other sources of information, ideas, and consciousness," which in turn leads to influencing the viewers' belief system (Gerbner, 1980). Varying social groups may also play a part in the cultivation of attitudes with regards to the amount of television that is watched.
The Cultivation Theory concentrates on two processes known as "mainstreaming" and "resonance" to explain the differences between groups of viewers. According to Gerbner, mainstreaming is the idea that heavy viewers that come from different demographic groups still acquire similar ways of seeing the world. He uses the example of the "mean world syndrome" to illustrate this concept, where respondents to particular questions regarding trust, no matter what their demographical situations, would typically display sentiments of mistrust (a notion often shown in television) as long as they were heavy viewers. The data collected from this experiment points to the idea that "television does contribute to the cultivation of common perspectives. In particular, heavy viewing may serve to cultivate beliefs of otherwise disparate and divergent groups toward a more homogeneous 'mainstream' view" (Gerbner, 1980).
Resonance, Gerbner believes, has to do with relevant ideas portrayed on the television. If people watch television and see something that connects to their reality, then it is likely that they will receive what Gerbner calls a "double dose" of the message and will eventually experience intensified cultivating effects. If heavy television-viewing individuals live in a high-crime neighborhood, then images of crime portrayed on the television will resonate with them and cause them to expect instances of crime more than would light viewers living in the same neighborhood. As Gerbner concludes, "the correlates of heavy viewing are most apparent among those for whom the topic holds considerable personal relevance" (1980).
Overall, the Cultivation Theory emphasizes the influence that television can have on individuals' attitudes. The more television one watches, the more likely his or her attitude is created by the images on the television, especially if the images are relevant.
Application of Theory to Case
A highly prevalent problem in our society today is the misconstrued perception many women and adolescent girls have about their bodies. The media portrays waif-thin bodies as being beautiful and desirable, yet most of the women on television and in advertisements can be considered to be dangerously underweight when looking at them from a medical perspective. As Gerbner states, "television is the central and most pervasive mass medium in American culture," so there is no doubt that girls and women in our society are constantly bombarded by these images of inappropriate thinness through the television on a day to day basis (1980). In fact, "young women of around 15 years of age reported to watching...around 20 to 25 hours or more [of television]," which is full of images of starving bodies being seen as normal and desirable (Tiggemann & Pickering, 1996). This continuous flood of thinness being the ideal has led to a rise in body dissatisfaction and an increase in eating disorders among women. The figures that women are told to strive for are putting many of them in serious danger.
Gerbner's Cultivation Theory can be applied to this tragic situation. One of the theory's ideas, that small immediate effects of cultivation can eventually manifest into long term effects that impact attitudes, pertains to a study that was done to find out more about this issue. The study was conducted to test how girls responded two years after being shown 20 commercials with thin females versus a group of girls who viewed 20 commercials without these images. It was found that the girls who had watched the commercials with the undernourished females would have immediate episodes of insecurity and distress about weight, and later had greater body dissatisfaction than the girls who had not viewed those commercials. The researchers conclude that a feasible "link between individual reactive 'episodes' of dissatisfaction in response to specific media images and the development of body image is that enduring attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about bodies and appearance accumulate over time through repeated exposure to ideals of attractiveness in the media" (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003). If women are frequently faced with images of thin females on the television, then they will eventually begin to believe that their bodies are inferior and must exert effort in order to reach an unattainable beauty that the media has forced upon them.
The concept of mainstreaming that Gerbner discusses can be linked to this problem regarding females and poor body image. According to the Cultivation Theory, heavy viewers of television will experience the effects of mainstreaming, where their attitudes and opinions are essentially created by information and portrayals they receive from the television. In the media where women's beauty and body perfection are defined by emaciated figures, it is only natural that heavy-viewing females begin to have their attitudes shaped by this ideal. They begin to be affected by the reality constructed on the television more than the reality of the world around them. It has been discovered that heavy-viewing young women glamorize weight loss and dieting due to what they see on the television (Harrison & Hefner, 2006). In fact, the study found that "television viewing [is] linked to subsequent increases in eating pathology" (Harrison & Hefner, 2006). Another example of this idea is a study that was conducted in which the impact of television being introduced to young women in a rural community in Fiji was investigated. The young women's opinions about their bodies in terms of weight had been drastically influenced by the television and had urges to reshape their bodies in order to fit in with the ideals that were presented to them through the television. The researchers found that "television appeared to redefine local aesthetic ideals for bodily appearance and presentation," especially among the heavy-viewers (Becker, 2004).
Resonance, coming from the Cultivation Theory, is the idea that if a person encounters something on the television that is already a part of her or his belief system, then that specific belief will be enhanced and the individual will experience an even greater cultivating effect. Females have levels of acceptance regarding their bodies. If they have positive body image, or they are satisfied with the way their body looks, then it is possible that they will not be affected by the media as greatly as women with negative body image would be. One study found that "women who reported higher levels of thin-ideal internalization experienced more body anxiety following exposure to thin-ideal media than women with loser levels of internalization" (Harrison & Hefner, 2006). The women who already feel a need to be thin are receiving a "double dose" of this belief when they see it justified by the television's depictions of glorified undernourished women. These messages resonate deeply with these women. The Cultivation Theory is clearly very applicable to the case of female body image.
Evaluation of Theory
Gerbner's Cultivation Theory is useful when it comes to assessing the impact television has on our culture. It can be applied across age, race, profession, income, and many other seemingly unrelated factors to show that our shared beliefs stem from the television and create a mainstreaming effect. This theory can link many perceptions our society has about the world, such as violence, racial stereotypes, and gender differences, among others, to the central cause of the images displayed by the television. It is interesting to see how the attitudes, beliefs, and opinions that are prevalent in our society are perpetuated by the television.
Although this theory provides us with a unique way of looking at television as a highly influential part of our culture, it leaves out some aspects that also seem to have an impact on the belief systems that make up our society. The Cultivation Theory ignores the influence of other forms of media, such as commercials, magazines, newspapers, music, advertisements, and many others. Relating back to the issue of women's obsession with thinness, it has been discovered that "both print and electronic media exposure are associated with an increased drive for thinness" (Harrison & Hefner, 2006). Commercials, magazines, and printed advertisements are heavily lined with figures that maintain the negative body image that many women have. Even though these contributions to women's views of their bodies may not be as profound as the contributions made by the television, they should not be completely disregarded. While these aspects of the media are most likely cultivating similar attitudes that are produced by the television, it is possible that they have some sort of other effect on women's perceptions of themselves. The attitudes that have been constructed for people by the media cannot be based solely on television.
Another forgotten feature that can lead to a creation of attitudes is the actual content of the programs. A person might be a heavy-viewer, but only watch the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, or some other channel with programming that does not fit in with mainstream society. These programs focus on issues that rarely deal with violence, gender roles, and other stereotypes. If an individual watched only these shows, then it is likely that his or her perceptions about the world would not be based in the reality constructed by the television and these perceptions would not align with those of a highly mainstreamed individual. Females that view television shows that focus on real-world issues as opposed to the importance of maintaining that ideal emaciated body, or programs that include many thin women, will most likely feel less of a cultivating effect on their outlook about their own bodies. Evidence of this can be seen in a study where they discovered that it is "what the girls watched that mattered, not just that they watched television," and "programs likely to show women in stereotyped roles was positively correlated with body dissatisfaction" (Tiggemann & Pickering, 1996). The content of the programs that are observed by an individual has a great impact on her or his attitude and this must be considered.
Certain factors outside of the media also play a role in the formation of people's belief systems. Gerbner never addresses how individuals without televisions or cable are able to construct their attitudes. Basic human interaction obviously leads to the construction of one's ideas and opinions, and television does not always play a role. Even though it is likely that a person without access to a television is interacting with another individual that has already been affected by the media, the aspect of real-world interactions cannot be left out of the creation of belief systems. In terms of the body image issue, "social factors like maternal and peer pressure to conform to an ideal standard predicted body dissatisfaction more strongly than did magazine exposure" (Harrison & Hefner, 2006). The Cultivation Theory implies that television is the single contributing factor to the creation of outlooks, but that is not the case.
By looking at the case of poor body image for women in the context of the Cultivation Theory, something can be done to impede the dangerous effects that the television is having on women. Because television does play an important role in the cultivation of beliefs, the images that are portrayed on it can be controlled. Fewer images of emaciated bodies and less approval of them could have a large effect on females. By casting the average body in a more positive light, viewers may begin to perceive that body type as beautiful and desirable. Certain campaigns, such as Dove, are incorporating this idea into their advertisements. As long as the forgotten aspects of influence on attitudes are included in the Cultivation Theory, the effects television has on individuals can be viewed in a way that interacts with these other aspects. By knowing these various ways that individuals' perceptions of the world around them are constructed to form a more inclusive Cultivation Theory, action can be taken to create healthier body ideals that will become a part of our mainstream culture.
Becker, A. (2004). Television, disordered eating, and young women in Fiji: Negotiating body image and identity during rapid social change. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 28, 533-559.
Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The mainstreaming of America: Violence profile no. 11. Journal of Communication, 10-25.
Hargreaves, D., & Tiggemann, M. (2003). Longer-term implications of responsiveness to 'thin-ideal' television: Support for a cumulative hypothesis of body image disturbance. European Eating Disorders Review, 11, 465-477.
Harrison, K., & Hefner, V. (2006). Media exposure, current and future body ideals, and disordered eating among preadolescent girls: A longitudinal panel study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35, 153-163.
Tiggemann, M., & Pickering, A. (1996). Role of television in adolescent women's body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 20, 199-203.