Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Chick Lit May Be Hazardous to Your Self-Esteem

• January 16, 2013 • 12:38 PM

New research suggests novels in which characters agonize about their bodies lead female readers to worry about their own weight.

We have been warned of the impact of violent video games and sexually aggressive song lyrics. But little attention has been paid to another media phenomenon that may influence its fans to think and act in unwanted ways.

Psychological danger may lurk between the covers of that beach book.

Reading “chick lit” may lead women to think of themselves as less attractive and express more concern about their weight. That’s the conclusion of new research from Virginia Tech, published in the journal Body Image.

As co-authors Melissa Kaminski and Robert Magee note, previous research has found a strong link between images of thin women in magazines and movies and low body esteem on the part of female readers and viewers. This is a problem because dissatisfaction with one’s shape can lead to eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.

The researchers decided to explore whether the depiction of female characters in popular novels would have the same impact. So they turned to the world of “chick lit,” that popular genre that emerged in the 1990s and typically focuses on female characters and their “struggles with weight, dating and successful careers.” Bridget Jones’ Diary is one popular example.

Kaminski and Magee took 3,200-word excerpts from two such novels and manipulated them in terms of the central character’s weight, and her feelings about her body. The author’s voice was retained, but references to the heroine’s height and clothes sizes were changed, as were the comments she makes to herself and others reflecting her bodily self-esteem.

One-hundred-and-fifty-nine female participants (median age just under 20) read one of these altered texts and then answered questions about their own weight and sexual attractiveness. The results suggest a “nuanced pattern of effects for chick lit,” the authors write.

Women who read a narrative featuring an underweight protagonist were not more likely to regard themselves as overweight. However, compared to those who read about an average-weight or overweight woman, they were less likely to view themselves as sexually attractive.

On the other hand, those who read a version of a story in which the central character expressed negative thoughts about her body “were significantly more concerned about their weight than participants in the control condition,” the researchers report.

In other words, readers had a stronger, more personal reaction to the character’s internal dialogue than to the novelist’s description of her body.

The researchers have a pretty good idea of why this is. Compared to the immediate impact of a visual image, “perhaps it was more difficult for (fiction readers) to imagine the protagonist’s weight,” they write. “On the other hand, textual representations of body esteem seemed to have a strong effect on weight concern, possibly because novels allow for participants to enter the minds of the protagonists and read their innermost thoughts.”

So, negative thoughts about one’s body—especially as expressed by a compelling, relatable fictional character—appear to be contagious. Bridget Jones is a hoot, but spending quality time with her may come at a cost.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


November 19 • 12:08 PM

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it’s not in the rainbow and sing-along way you’d hope for. We just don’t trust outsiders’ judgments.


November 19 • 12:00 PM

As the Russian Hercules, Vladimir Putin Tames the Cretan Bull

We can better understand Russia’s president, including his foreign policy in Crimea, by looking at how he uses art, opera, and holiday pageantry to assert his connection to the Tsars.


November 19 • 10:00 AM

A Murder Remembered

In her new book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe takes a humanistic look at a forgotten 1892 crime.


November 19 • 8:00 AM

The End to Race-Based Lockdowns in California Prisons

The legacy of “tough on crime” legislation has historically allowed correctional authorities to conceal and pursue politics that would be illegal anywhere else. Could that finally be changing?



November 19 • 6:00 AM

Like a Broken Record

From beer milers to long-distance crawlers, the unending appeal of being No. 1.


November 19 • 4:00 AM

High School Music Groups Grapple With Gender Gap

New research finds consistently higher numbers of girls compared to boys in high school bands, orchestras, and choirs.


November 18 • 4:00 PM

I Nearly Lost My Freedom Because I Couldn’t Pee in a Cup

After 21 years in federal prison for a first-time, non-violent drug offense, I’m now living in a halfway house. I can go out to work and visit my wife, but I’m sometimes reminded how vulnerable my new life is.


November 18 • 2:00 PM

Chesapeake Energy Faces Subpoena on Royalty Payment Practices

The Justice Department’s inquiry comes after an investigation and years of complaints from landowners who say they have been underpaid for leasing land to the energy giant for drilling.


November 18 • 12:02 PM

Is McDonald’s Really Becoming More Transparent?

In an increasingly ratings-based and knowledge-rich economy, the company could suffer if consumers don’t believe its new campaign is built on honesty.



November 18 • 11:00 AM

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.


Follow us


Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

To Find Suspicious Travelers, Try Talking to Them

Brief, directed conversations are more effective at identifying liars than fancy behavioral analysis, experiment suggests.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.