Do images of skinny female celebs boost confidence?

How do you feel when you look at a picture of Gwyneth Paltrow, trim, toned, and beautifully tanned as she strikes a pose on yet another red carpet? Do you feel envy, kinship or paralyzing self-hatred for the fact that you haven’t shown your upper arms since high school gym class—and even then under duress.

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Getty Images, Dominique Charriau

How do you feel when you look at a picture of Gwyneth Paltrow, trim, toned, and beautifully tanned as she strikes a pose on yet another red carpet? Do you feel envy, kinship or paralyzing self-hatred for the fact that you haven’t shown your upper arms since high school gym class—and even then under duress. 

A new study (via The Vancouver Sun) says your response may depend on how ‘close’ you feel to Ms. Paltrow. 

While there are studies that suggest photos of stick-thin, impeccably turned-out starlets and models may negatively affect both women and young girls’ self-esteem, in some cases, these images may not be as bad for women’s mental health as previously thought. 

In a survey of 150 college women, University of Buffalo researchers discovered a peculiar hitch in the relationship between women and images of celebrities. That hitch: when women identified somehow with a skinny celebrity they actually experienced a boost in self-esteem when looking at their photo. 

“We assimilate the traits of our favourite celebrities the way we do a real close other, such as a friend,” said the study’s lead author, Ariana Young, a PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo. “So, having a parasocial bond with favourite celebrities is actually protective, and may even be beneficial for women’s body image.” 

And if you thought having a ‘parasocial’ relationship (i.e. no relationship) with Reese Witherspoon sounds weird, wait till you hear this: some people want to encourage this identification/delusion. 

“Ironically, it may be that we don’t need to reject thin celebrities, but rather make women feel closer to them in order to allow these protective benefits,” said Young. 

How does one feel closer to a celeb? It may be a little tricky—if not downright eccentric— to get the chemistry right. For example, the study found that women who were led to believe they shared a birthday with a boldface name reported feeling closer to that celebrity and as a result experienced a boost in confidence when looking at them.