Body image is a person’s perception of the aesthetics or sexual attractiveness of their own body. The phrase body image was first coined by the Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder in his book The Image and Appearance of the Human Body (1935). Human society has at all times placed great value on beauty of the human body, but a person’s perception of their own body may not correspond to society’s standards.
The concept of body image is used in a number of disciplines, including psychology, medicine, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, philosophy and cultural and feminist studies. The term is also often used in the media. Across these disciplines and media there is no consensus definition. A person’s body image is thought to be, in part, a product of their personal experiences, personality, and various social and cultural forces. A person’s sense of their own physical appearance, usually in relation to others or in relation to some cultural “ideal,” can shape their body image. A person’s perception of their appearance can be different from how others actually perceive them.
Research suggests that exposure to mass media depicting the thin-ideal body may be linked to body image disturbance in women. This meta-analysis examined experimental and correlational studies testing the links between media exposure to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and eating behaviors and beliefs with a sample of 77 studies that yielded 141 effect sizes. Effects for some outcome variables were moderated by publication year and study design. The findings support the notion that exposure to media images depicting the thin-ideal body is related to body image concerns for women.
A 2007 report by the American Psychological Association found that a culture-wide sexualization of girls and women was contributing to increased female anxiety associated with body image. Similar findings associated with body image were found by an Australian government Senate Standing Committee report on the sexualization of children in the media. However, other scholars have expressed concern that these claims are not based on solid data.
Body image can have a wide range of psychological effects and physical effects. Throughout history, it has been extremely difficult for people to live up to the standards of society and what they believe the ideal body is. There are many factors that lead to a person’s body image, some of these include: family dynamics, mental illness, biological predispositions and environmental causes for obesity or malnutrition, and cultural expectations (e.g., media and politics). People who are both underweight and overweight can have poor body image. However, because people are constantly told and shown the cosmetic appeal of weight loss and are warned about the risks of obesity, those who are normal or overweight on the BMI scale have higher risks of poor body image. This is something that can lead to a change in a person’s body image. Often, people who have a low body image will try to alter their bodies in some way, such as by dieting or undergoing cosmetic surgery.
On women and in general
Some girls and young women compare themselves to models in ads, in terms of their physical attractiveness. The emphasis in the media and in the fashion industry on thinness and on an ideal female body shape and size can be psychologically detrimental to the well-being of many young women; this includes their self-image, which can also give rise to excessive dieting or exercise. About 81 percent of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat after being exposed to some media. Women are shown in many feminine commercials such as: soap, laundry detergent, toilet paper, and child care commercials. They are displayed as the cleaners, nannies, and cooks. ANAD showed that anywhere from three to five percent of women have suffered from Anorexia Nervosa in their lifetime, and about one percent of female adolescents currently have anorexia
Skinny actresses and models appear everywhere in today’s media. Many advertisements seen in media, especially on television, target young women to buy clothing and accessories by featuring beautiful and thin models in extravagant and appealing circumstances. Television is one of the most popular types of media and is very influential. TV can serve as a source of social comparison in body image processes. Magazines, another type of media, also play a part in comparisons and body image, but unlike television, the content in magazines is much more tailored to reach specific audiences with interest in certain activities, lifestyles, or hobbies. Women’s and Fashion magazines like Vogue or Cosmopolitan are geared toward female audiences with certain characteristics.
The very thin and beautiful models within the media are seen as the most successful and socially desirable people on the planet. The ideal body image of the media, and more importantly our culture, is a body that is extremely thin and preferably white. Mostly in Western societies, thinness is associated with happiness, success, youthfulness, and social acceptability. People who are slightly over-weight are seen having qualities like laziness, lack of willpower, and being out of control. This ideal is portrayed heavily throughout mainstream media, which is a source women turn to for information about how to look. The idea that a person can never be “too thin or too rich” is very prevalent in society, and makes it very difficult for females to attain any sort of happiness about their personal appearance. The process of one comparing themselves to these images in the media can result in healthy behaviors like proper dieting and exercise, but can also result in unhealthy behaviors like obsessive exercising, bulimia, and anorexia nervosa. Women are shown to be practically perfect in every way within these two specific types of media as well as many others. Besides being extremely thin, women are also expected to look young. There are many films and popular television shows that show older actresses who have aged beautifully and are very attractive for their age. The use of these unrealistic images sends implicit messages that a woman must be unhealthy in order to be beautiful.
A study by Reaves and Hitchon demonstrated that stars and models that appear throughout the media are not only made thinner through computer alterations, but are digitally elongated, with leg length being extended up to 30% to convey a leggy youthfulness. These digital manipulations have contributed to the fact that, over the past few decades, plastic surgeries have increased and common procedures such as breast augmentation and rhinoplasty had increased by more than 700% from 1992 to 2004. Media plays its role in promoting these cosmetic medical treatments through advertisements in magazines and on billboards, typically by using beautiful women in a state of happiness. The media’s impact is even more negatively impacting society because plastic surgery’s demographic is changing as well. More specifically, patients are getting younger. In 2002, almost 225,000 adolescents underwent plastic surgery procedures, both for either cosmetic procedures and for functionality purposes. An article by Mike Featherstone demonstrates that this growth in cosmetic surgery correlated with the airing of the television program Extreme Makeover. The program, beginning in 2002, involved average people undergoing plastic surgery and other cosmetic enhancements to improve their overall appearance. Significantly, the first airing of the show correlated with a 44 percent increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
A study by Garner and Garfinkel demonstrated that those in professions where there is a particular social pressure to be thin (such as models and dancers) were much more likely to develop anorexia during their career, and further research suggests that those with anorexia have much higher contact with cultural sources that promote weight-loss. In 2015, France passed legislative measures to reduce the cases of anorexia within their country due to unrealistic media exposure. The new law requires all photoshopped images to include a disclaimer labeling them as such, every model to obtain certification that they have a healthy BMI of 18.5, and a government crackdown on all websites promoting anorexia or other unhealthy eating behaviors. Any company caught employing models who do not meet the new BMI criteria or encouraging anorexic behaviors amongst their employees will face hefty fines and, under extreme cases, jail time. In 2013 Israel, Italy, and Spain also passed similar legislative measures.
Besides the need to be thin, young, and rich, there is also a weight prejudice within our society that is brought up in media, social settings, with friends, or even by parents. The tendency to link physical attractive qualities with positive personal qualities has been documented since the 1970s. People assign positive personality traits and overall life outcomes to those they perceive as attractive both mentally and physically. These high standards for women to follow and live up to mixed with the practical impossibilities of achieving such standards develops an attitude from women that thinness is extremely desirable. Even the average size of clothing women wear has changed drastically within the past decades, as a size 8 used to be considered small to average and is now nearly plus size. Actress/Comedian Amy Schummer spoke out on the issue of size when she was featured in Glamour Magazine as a “Plus Size Woman.”  Upon the magazines publication, Schummer fired a tweet saying, “I think there’s nothing wrong with being plus size. Beautiful healthy women. Plus size is considered size 16 in America. I go between a size 6 and a 8.”  Women who value this idea of having to be extremely thin and a size 2 or 4 have body dissatisfaction, and take part in cosmetic surgeries or weight loss behaviors (such as dieting) to try to become the standard that they so commonly see. The problem in which people, specifically women, are constantly comparing themselves to the people and images in the media leads to individuals believing they are more overweight then they actually are.
However, other researchers have contested the claims of the media effects paradigm. An article by Christopher Ferguson, Benjamin Winegard, and Bo Winegard, for example, argues that peer effects are much more likely to cause body dissatisfaction than media effects, and that media effects have been overemphasized. It also argues that one must be careful about making the leap from arguing that certain environmental conditions might cause body dissatisfaction to the claim that those conditions can cause diagnosable eating disorders.
Body dissatisfaction has become a much more prevalent problem in men and young boys. Although exposure to media content is what launches the body image process for women, endorsements featuring the muscular ideal makes men selectively exposed to certain content within the media. Almost 18 percent of boys are very concerned about their own physique and weight. These boys were more likely to be depressed and take part in high-risk behaviors like alcohol and drug use. Another negative effect for boys/men is steroid use. One major difference between boys and girls is that boys feel more pressure to gain weight and get more toned.
The ideal “slenderness” for women is being muscular for men. The media portrays the ideal image of men to be upscale, strong, and muscular. These ideals are seen mainly in advertisements and movies, with an increasingly heavy focus on fitness. An example of this is Men’s Health, which serves male audiences who are interested in fitness and health. This magazine and other media portray to men that the more muscles they have the better off they will be. The male physique is often seen chiseled and shirtless in many movies and television programs. These images of perfect bodies stem a fear appeal in men. This fear is displayed in feelings of “embarrassment and non-masculinity” if the representation of a man’s body is not toned and muscular. The muscled body has recently lost its associations with manual labor and has become a symbol of willpower, energy, and control. The toned body is seen as representing success. With this pressure put on men to be muscular and tone, the media is now an equal opportunity discriminator. Men’s bodies don’t measure up to the standards of society anymore either.
French child psychoanalyst Francoise Dolto developed a theory of the unconscious body image. Negative perceptions by a person regarding their body, such as a perception that they are fat, can in some cases lead to mental disorders, though there can be a variety of different reasons why these disorders can occur. Problems with body image can lead to disorders such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and body dismorphic disorder.
A community cohort study was conducted in Navarra, Spain. A region-wide representative sample of 2862 girls who were 12 to 21 years of age completed the Eating Attitudes Test (40-item version) and other questionnaires in 1997. Ninety new cases of eating disorders (per DSMIV criteria) were identified during the follow-up. The results support the role of mass media influences and parental marital status in the onset of eating disorders.
Body image is often measured by asking the subject to rate their current and ideal body shape using a series of depictions. The difference between these two values is the measure of body dissatisfaction. There are many negative effects that body dissatisfaction can have these include: that some research suggests a link between body dissatisfaction in girls and smoking. Also having this body dissatisfaction can affect a girl’s comfort with her sexuality when she’s older and may lead them to consider cosmetic surgery.
Monteath and McCabe found that 44% of women express negative feelings about both individual body parts and their bodies as a whole. The magazine, Psychology Today found that 56% of the women and about 40% of the men who responded to their survey in 1997 were dissatisfied with their overall appearance. American youth (37.7% of males and 51% of females) express dissatisfaction with their bodies.
In America, the dieting industry earns roughly 40 billion dollars per year. A Harvard study (Fat Talk, Harvard University Press) published in 2000 revealed that 86% of teenage girls are on a diet or believe they should be on one. Dieting has become a very common thing to not only teenage girls but even younger children as well. The National Eating Disorders Association has found out that 51% of 9- and 10-year-old girls actually feel better about themselves when they are on a diet.
There are currently more than 40 “instruments” used to measure body image. All of these instruments can be put into three categories: figure preferences, video projection techniques, and questionnaires. Because there are so many ways to measure body image, it makes it difficult to draw meaningful research generalizations. Many factors have to be taken into account when measuring body image, including gender, ethnicity, culture, and age.
In figure preferences the use of silhouettes is the most commonly used method. There are many issues with this method though; for one, the drawings are not realistic looking and were originally portrayed as adults so it made them unsuitable for children. Silhouettes are used to show to the subject and have them react to the different body types.
Video projection techniques
In one study participants were shown a series of images flashing before them; each image was a picture of them but either increased weight or decreased weight. They were measured in self-report by responding to the pictures. Also they were measured by startle-based measures and testing their eyeblink response. “The startle response is a complex set of physiological changes that occur in response to unexpected and intense stimulus.” These measurements can be useful because “Objective, psychophysiological measures, like the affect modulated startle eyeblink response, are less subject to reporting bias.”
Questionnaires are another very commonly used method of measurement. One example of a questionnaire is BASS; it is a 9-item subscale of the Multidimensional Body-Self Relations Questionnaire. It uses a rating scale from −2 to +2 and assesses eight body areas and attributes and overall appearance (face, hair, lower torso, mid-torso, upper torso, muscle tone, height, and weight). Questionnaires can have confounding variable though. For instance, “Acquiescent response style (ARS), or the tendency to agree with items on a survey, is more common among individuals from Asian and African cultures.”
Gender differences related to body image are increasingly prevalent between men and women. Throughout all stages of life, women have more body dissatisfaction than men. Although dissatisfaction is more common in women, men are becoming more negatively affected than women. In a longitudinal study that assessed body image across time and age between men and women, men placed greater significance on their physical appearance than women, even though women report body image dissatisfaction more often. Adolescence is where this difference is most notable. One reason for this is because males are being targeted in the media more heavily today. Historically, and for a much longer period of time, the media has immoderately targeted females, which may explain why they are becoming less sensitized to the effects. This information suggests that appearance pressure and concerns are continuing to affect both men and women in western culture.
Men’s body image is a topic of increasing interest in both academic articles and in the popular press. Current research indicates many men wish to become more muscular than they currently perceive themselves to be, often desiring up to 26 pounds of additional muscle mass. According to the study, western men desire muscle mass over that of Asian men by as much as 30 pounds. The desire for additional muscle has been linked to many men’s concepts about masculinity. A variety of research has indicated a relationship between men’s endorsement of traditionally masculine ideas and characteristics, and their desire for additional muscle. Some research has suggested this relationship between muscle and masculinity may begin early in life, as boys’ action figures are often depicted as super-muscular, often beyond the actual limits of human physiology. The connection between masculinity and muscle is however a cultural trend traced as far back as the Classical antiquity and linked to the war performance and its peaceful substitutes, the athletic events. In addition, men with lower, more feminine, Waist–hip ratio (WHR) feel less comfortable and self-report lower body esteem and self-efficacy than men with higher, more masculine, WHRs.
In general, research shows that body image in regards to appearance becomes less of a stress for women as they age. Studies show a decline in dissatisfaction of body image in college-aged women as they progress from the first semester of college to subsequent semesters. Their appearance rating of themselves tends to increase, while males’ do not significantly change and often become worse. This suggests that the early years of college serve as a period for body image development, which can later affect the mental and physical well being of an individual. Studies have found that females tend to think more about their body shape and endorse thinner figures than men even into old age. When female undergraduates were exposed to depictions of thin women their body satisfaction decreased, but rose when exposed to larger models. In addition, many women engage in fat talk (speaking negatively about the weight-related size/shape of one’s body), a behavior that has been associated with weight dissatisfaction, body surveillance, and body shame. In addition, women who overhear others using fat talk may also experience an increase in body dissatisfaction and guilt. As a result, women may experience concerns related to body image in a number of different ways and from a variety of sources.
Physical appearance remains important later in life, but the functional aspects of the body take precedence over contentment with appearance. Women are reported to benefit from the ageing process, becoming more satisfied with their images, while men begin to develop more insecurities and issues. Women reach a certain stage where they are no longer subject to the social pressures that heavily emphasize the importance of appearance. Men from the same studies are reported as becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their physical appearance as they age. Men are also less likely to implement appearance-enhancing activities into their daily lives.
The older women become the more satisfied with their body image they are likely to become because of the relief of stress from societal pressures. The older men become, the more dissatisfied they are likely to become due to increased physical and perceived incompetency. Since there are significant differences between men and women across all ages, gender serves as a better predictor of body dissatisfaction and sociocultural perceived influences than age.
The desire to lose weight is highly correlated with poor body image, with more women than men wanting to lose weight. Kashubeck-West et al. reported that when considering only men and women who desire to lose weight, sex differences in body image disappear.
In her book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf reported that “thirty-three thousand women told American researchers they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal.” Through repeated images of excessively thin women in media, advertisement, and modeling, thinness has become associated with not only beauty, but happiness and success. As Charisse Goodman put it in her article, “One Picture is Worth a Thousand Diets,” advertisements have changed society’s ideas of beauty and ugliness: “Indeed to judge by the phrasing of the ads, ‘slender’ and ‘attractive’ are one word, not two in the same fashion as ‘fat’ and ‘ugly.'” This idea of beauty has become drastically more narrow and unachievable, putting increased pressure on people looking to satisfy society’s standards.
Research by Martin and Xavier (2010) shows that people feel more pressure from society to be thin after viewing ads featuring a slim model. Ads featuring a larger sized model resulted in less pressure to be thin. People also felt their actual body size was larger after viewing a slim model as compared to a larger model.
Many, like journalist Marisa Meltzer, have argued this contemporary standard of beauty to be described as anorexic thinness, an unhealthy idea that is not representative of a natural human body: “Never before has the ‘perfect’ body been at such odds with our true size.”
However, these figures do not distinguish between people at a low or healthy weight who are in fact overweight, between those whose self-perception as being overweight is incorrect and those whose perception of being overweight is correct. Recent developments, such as the Body Volume Index have addressed this problem in part by measuring weight distribution, but although 3D images of ourselves help to improve body perception, an objective appraisal of our own body image remains a difficult task for us to undertake.
Post-1997 studies indicate that around 64% of American adults are overweight, such that if the 56%/40% female/male dissatisfaction rates in the Psychology Today study have held steady since its release, those dissatisfaction rates are if anything disproportionately low: although some individuals continue to believe themselves to be overweight when they are not, those persons are now outnumbered by persons who might be expected to be dissatisfied with their body but are not.
In turn, although social pressure to lose weight has adverse effects on some individuals who do not need to lose weight, those adverse effects are arguably outweighed by that social pressure’s positive effect on the overall population, without which the recent increases in obesity and associated health and social problems (described in both popular and academic parlance as an “obesity epidemic“) would be even more severe than they already are.[dubious ]
Miss Representation is a documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, exploring and displaying the role that mainstream media plays in society today with regards to women and the under-representation of women in influential positions. Prominent women in today’s society were featured in discussing how the media has impacted their life along with their views on how the media is impacting the lives of people from an early age. These media messages have a severe impact on how individuals carry themselves along with what aspects bog them down like insecurities with body image. This film encourages viewers to start to see beyond the message and not compare themselves to these picture perfect computer-generated images.
The 2007 documentary America the Beautiful explores how the fashion and beauty industries are contributing to the problems that individuals feel regarding body image due to their beauty obsession. The film discusses a wide range of topics like plastic surgery, dieting, eating disorders, the modeling industry along with the fashion industry and much more. Young middle-school aged girls were portrayed in the beginning of the film and asked if they found themselves beautiful. The girls who are around the ages of 13 had decided that they were not beautiful. In today’s society, people are starting to see themselves as ugly at an earlier age than ever before. As individuals who identify as ugly increase, the number of body image issues also increase.
In a study performed by Leslie J. Heinberg of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and J. Kevin Thompson of the University of South Florida, results showed that women exposed to appearance based advertisements experienced a significant growth in depression, anxiety, anger, and body dissatisfaction.
In a study done at Old Dominion University, Thomas F. Cash, Julie R. Ancis and Melissa D. Strachan studied college women and their attitudes toward gender, feminist identity and body image. “Relative to men, women are considerably more psychologically invested in their appearance. Moreover, women’s poor evaluations of and stronger investments in their looks potentiate greater body-image dysphoria in women’s daily lives.” A contributing factor in this scenario that leads women to greater objectification of their bodies are the images that are seen throughout media. Women who are portrayed in the media often possess unattainable beauty. “Furthermore, the social construct of femininity is partially tied to perceived beauty, as evinced by the ‘what is beautiful sex-typed’ stereotype.” These internalized ideals along with the pursuit for this unattainable beauty of one’s body image can lead to body dysmorphic disorder, body objectification, eating disorders, anxiety, depression and other related psychological difficulties.
In the same study from Arizona State University, it was said that the idea of beauty is generated from these media messages. “Cultural messages about beauty (i.e what it is, how it should be cultivated, and how it will be rewarded) are often implicitly conveyed through media representations of women.”
In the study from Old Dominion University, the authors state the importance of research in this area. “Given the centrality of body image in clinical and subclinical eating disturbances that are so prevalent among women, research on gender and body image has substantial importance.”  Even though there is research being done, there is still much more work to be done to help individuals who struggle with their body image.
To combat unhealthy body image issues among women, in 2015, France passed a law requiring models to be declared healthy by a doctor to participate in fashion shows. It also requires re-touched images to be marked as such in magazines.
Perceptions of races have drastically changed over the years dating all the way back to the medieval era referencing light and dark, good and evil. Hundreds of years later perceptions would be changed again with the Atlantic slave trade which left ideas of idealism for Caucasians and a negative idea of any other race. Caucasian nationalists also believed that all races originated from the ‘white’ race, “Goldsmith maintained that all humans sprung from one common parent and attributed the variations in the human family to the influence of climate, culture, and custom”. With this extreme racism of the time the black body was studied, displayed and scrutinized for any minor difference. “The ideas about beauty we contend with in the twenty- first century draw in part on very old ways of thinking about human bodies and African difference.” In the 1960s the Black is Beautiful movement and Black Power movement took form and shook the world in a display of racial pride. Today’s perceptions of different races has come a long way in bringing a positive mentality to racial body image but there are still some core issues in today’s society.
The fashion industry is known for not being inclusive of more races in their runways and ad campaigns, and several studies that have been conducted prove that the lack of racial diversity can contribute to body image issues amongst non-white minorities. In one such experiment, conducted in 2003, 3 photographs of attractive white, black and Asian women were shown to a group of white, black and Asian students. The study concluded that Asian women thought that the photograph of the white woman was the most attractive, and reported high levels of body dissatisfaction. Such dissatisfaction may even cause these individuals to suffer psychologically due to the pressure to embody these ideals, and may result in them going through several means to change their physical appearance in order to match the Eurocentric idea of beauty.
Weight loss is one such method. For instance, Mexican American women who have been attuned to mainstream US culture reported greater body dissatisfaction and have described their ideal body types to be similar to the white norm. In spite of the fact that certain ethnicities naturally have different body types, this ideal has led to disordered eating amongst Latinas.
Plastic surgery is another method, and is especially popular in Asia for “Westernizing” facial features. Two of the most popular treatments are rhinoplasty (nose lifts), and blepharoplasty (eyelid lifts), which are done to make these features look more Caucasian.
Skin lightening products are also prevalent in countries where non-white ethnicities are the majority, and the industry makes billions of dollars every year. In India alone, whitening products make up 45% of the skin care market. Plenty of these whitening cosmetics are known to have dangerous side effects due to the ingredients in them; hydroquinone, for instance, is known to cause irritation and leukemia, while mercury is known to cause rashes and pigmentation.
In spite of these effects, industries like the fashion industry have not significantly featured women of color (and when they have, the women may have either been significantly “whitewashed” – with digitally lightened skin and hair – or may already have features that are considered “white”).
The fashion industry believes that by advertising unattainable standards of beauty, they fuel a customer demand by “creating a craving that can’t be satisfied”. However, a study by Elle Canada has proven the exact opposite: products featured by models that accurately represent the consumer’s race – as well as weight and age – will increase the consumer’s willingness to purchase a product.
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