Reality TV and Body Image: The Not So Real World

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

How real is the Real World? When it comes to breasts and biceps, not at all. Since 1992, the MTV reality show the Real World along with its “docusoap” progenies like The Hills, Laguna Beach, and the Jersey Shore have shown us a world full of lean bodies, large breasts, and chiseled abs. It’s a world based more in fantasy than fact, yet many heavy users, especially teens, judge these casts to be accurate reflections of the norm—a misperception shown to correlate with a host of problems from low self-esteem to eating disorders.

To find out just how far these shows stray from reality, my colleagues and I analyzed the most popular MTV docusoaps from 2004-2011, including programs like the Real World, The Hills, and Jersey Shore.  In total, we watched more than 90 episodes—some 47 hours of MTV—noting the cast members’ body types and how often they were on display.

We found that the majority cast members fit a unique body ideal for their respective gender. For women, that means that they were mostly slender with 69 percent having low body fat, and close to half had medium to large bust sizes. Male cast members were predominantly lean with 74 percent having low body fat. In addition, men were muscular, with 66 percent having what is called the V-shaped body type.  The V-shape is a combination of leanness and muscularity, commonly seen as a small waist and muscular shoulders and arms. Very few cast members were overweight and no cast member was obese.

With two out of three Americans being overweight or obese, our findings show MTV’s reality is almost the exact opposite of the real world.

With two out of three Americans being overweight or obese, our findings show MTV’s reality is almost the exact opposite of the real world. We also found most cast members put their bodies on display. Nine out of ten women’s bodies were at least minimally exposed, and close to one-third were partially or fully undressed. Almost half of the men appeared on screen either partially or fully nude.

For critical media consumers, these findings may not be entirely surprising. However, many of their viewers share the misperception that these body types are common and normal.

Their audience, comprised of mostly teens and young adults, is one reason that makes reality TV an important subject for research. In fact, MTV, which has aired many of the most notable docusoaps, has been the most popular station (cable or network) with 12-24-year-olds for 18 consecutive years. Jersey Shore alone set multiple viewing records during its run by drawing the largest audiences of 12-34-year-olds of any popular program on TV.

This is potentially concerning because teens are going through the most significant change in identity of any period in the life cycle. Teens are routinely thinking about what defines them and how they compare to others. Teens engage in what researchers call observational learning through social comparison. While real life peers often serve as strong exemplars for comparison, researchers have found that media figures and celebrities are also used by teens to help form their own attitudes, opinions, behaviors, and self-image.

Teens are also arguably the most susceptible group to body image disturbances and eating disorders in the U.S.

One area that has been largely studied is the social comparison of one’s body image. Teens are frequently judging themselves based on the body types of their peers and the body types of those seen in media. Studies have shown that comparison to unrealistic body ideals can lead teens to develop body dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem, and disordered eating behavior.  Teens are also arguably the most susceptible group to body image disturbances and eating disorders in the U.S.

Young men may be particularly vulnerable to the negative effects on their body image. Researchers have suggested that while media have commonly objectified women for decades, the objectification of men has increased substantially in recent years. Due to the sharp increase in objectification of men, long-term exposure to MTV docusoaps may have as much, if not greater, impact on the self-objectification of men as it does on women.

There is a common myth among teens and young adults that reality cast members are similar to them. This misperception leads many teens to believe that the cast members are more similar to their actual peer group than the typical actors/celebrities they view in media. One researcher labeled this myth, the “lottery of celebrity,” suggesting that there is common misperception that casting decisions are made by the luck of the draw. Indeed, many teens tell anecdotes of friends or friends of friends that have sent in audition tapes hoping to be selected for the next season of a popular docusoap. Such stories help to fuel the myth, which ultimately translates to the idea that cast members are just like me—an average teen hoping to get their 15 minutes of fame.

But contrary to the the Real World’s intro that has been in place for 30 seasons, cast members body types are anything but average and certainly not getting real.