With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

I’ve thought a lot of things while watching Friends:

 “Who the hell has an apartment like that in NYC?”

 “Maybe I should start talking more *like* Chandler Bing.”

“I want a pet duck!”

“’Smelly Cat’ is lyrical genius.”

This is one of the best TV kisses ever.”

“Rachel is a lucky SOB for looking like that AND getting to go home to someone who looks like this every night.”

According to new research, though, a number of other, far more dangerous thoughts may be coursing through my brain after any given Friends episode. Check it out: A new study out of Ryerson University in Toronto shows that women who watched Friends reported "the segment had a significantly adverse effect on the participants' satisfaction with their own appearance" and weight. It seems that the gorgeous bods of Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Monica Geller (Courtney Cox Arquette) and Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow) make us real women feel about as chubby as Monica’s fat suit.

Dr. Stephen Want, an Assistant Professor in Ryerson’s Department of Psychology, set out to measure exactly how TV shows (versus fashion mags, commercials, or billboards) made university-aged women feel about their overall appearance. Seventy-six undergraduate women were assigned to one of four groups, each group viewing a 10-minute clip of Friends in which thin and physically-attractive characters played a prominent role, but their physical appearance was not especially emphasized… (For more study details, click here.)

“Our study showed two things,” said Dr. Want. “First, people have the tendency to make rapid comparisons of themselves to images on television programs even when they don’t think they are being affected. Second, when we are reminded that ‘real life’ doesn’t resemble what is seen on TV, and we can look at things with a critical eye, the comparisons become less relevant.”

It’s not hard to see how a show like Friends could leave us feeling “less than.” After all, thousands of women ran out and got “The Rachel” haircut in an effort to look more like J. An. I know I’ve definitely watched the comedy and thought things like, “How does Rachel get her stomach so flat?” or “Monica has a great rack!” or “Phoebe’s hair is so thick and shiny. Mine will never look like that.” Mind you, I don’t think I dwelled on these things, or that they were even necessarily conscious thoughts. But if I’m honest, I HAVE thought these things. Same goes for watching shows like The Bachelor (hundreds of cellulite-free girls in bikinis), or even something as seemingly non-body image-relevant as Law and Order: SVU (girl crush on Mariska Hargitay). And those old school MTV Spring Break bikini contests? Please. Those drove me straight to the Elliptical for years.

TV shows absolutely have an undeniable impact on how we, as viewers, feel about our bodies, and this study opened my eyes to how even a treasured comedy like Friends may have given some of us a little body guilt. That said, I still want a purple front door with a picture frame around the peephole. I still want a naked neighbor who makes my eyes go blind. And I still love me a rousing rendition of “Smelly Cat.”

“The Influence of Television Programs on Appearance Satisfaction: Making and Mitigating Social Comparisons to Friends” appeared in the May 2009 edition of the journal Sex Roles.

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