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Through two experiments (N = 497), we documented how distinct portrayals of women in stories can impact readers’ engagement in social comparisons and influence important aspects of their self-concepts. Specifically, this research investigated the effects of character body size (thin vs. large), body esteem (low vs. high), and story ending valence (sad vs. happy) with two distinct storylines. Results indicated that high (vs. low) body esteem characters are not only rated more aspirational, but also led readers with greater self-discrepancy to report lower state body image, suggesting upward social comparison processes are at play. Further, results indicated that reading about characters with large (vs. thin) bodies can positively affect readers’ body image; however, this positive effect may be explained by downward social comparison. Findings highlight the complexities of body appearance and confidence. Strategies for effectively promoting body positivity via text-based interventions are discussed.


NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Body Image. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Body Image, volume 42, in 2022.

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