Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Buying into Feelings of Insecurity

By Stephen Luntz

Women who are vulnerable to media-generated insecurity about their bodies buy more shoes and handbags.

Women who are vulnerable to media-generated insecurity about their bodies buy more shoes and handbags than those with higher self-esteem, but the same does not apply to trousers according to Jessica Boyce, a PhD student at the University of Canterbury’s Department of Psychology. Perhaps more surprisingly, women who are more insecure in general are less likely to buy accessories.

In a study of more than 1200 Canadian and New Zealand university students, Boyce looked at the relationship between their body image and the number of items they owned. The patterns she found were consistent across weight ranges, but she admits that the study was not controlled for age or socio-economic status.

The findings were a part of Boyce’s thesis on the effect of media images on women’s satisfaction with their bodies.

Boyce conducted two studies investigating what female students do to make themselves feel better. One component compared women who felt insecure about their bodies without prompting with those who were happier. In the second study, women were shown images conforming to the media’s idealised female body shape and divided on the basis of the extent to which these images affected them.

“What the research suggests is that shoes and handbags are more appealing to insecure women because they increase physical attractiveness without drawing attention to one’s figure,” Boyce says. “Trousers, on the other hand, tend to draw attention, and that is why they are shunned by this group of women.

“Those who are insecure irrespective of media body ideals tend not to accessorise, perhaps because this would draw attention to themselves – something they do not want. We suspect that they want to dress anonymously, whereas those who are insecure because of the media like buying shoes to affirm their attractiveness.”

Boyce is planning further studies, both expanding the items to be considered and controlling for additional factors. She admits that the research may prove a boon to advertisers seeking to target the most vulnerable consumers, but says that so far she has had no calls testing her ethical boundaries.

She also hopes that the work will be useful to education programs teaching students to be critical media consumers.