Gina Luff still remembers the message she got from teen magazines as a girl: be thin and get a man. "Looking back, I wasn't sure if that was the most appropriate material for a 12-year-old," she says.
Her memories, coupled with the fact that most eating disorders and body image issues manifest themselves during adolescence, led the then-master's student to take a closer look at thinness messages in teen-oriented magazines over a specified time period.
Luff conducted her research at the Library of Congress, where she examined issues of Seventeen and YM dating back to 1956. She analyzed changes in both the frequency of content related to diet, exercise, or a combination of the two, and the body size of cover models.
Her results indicate the possibility of a growing discrepancy between what these magazines show and what they say to their young, and impressionable, audience. While models' body size increased or stayed the same over the study's 50-year scope, the messaging about dieting and exercise increased during that time.
The increase in thinness content in women's magazines has been well documented, but Luff's study was the first with respect to teen magazines. Her findings were published in Body Image (spring 2009), an international, peer-reviewed journal devoted to scientific research on the psychology of appearance. James Gray, psychology professor and Luff's advisor on the project, was cowriter.