Body image refers to people's judgments about their own bodies. It is formed as people compare themselves to others. Because people are exposed to countless media images, media images become the basis for some of these comparisons. When people's comparisons tell them that their bodies are substandard, they can become depressed, suffer from low self-esteem, or develop eating disorders. The influence of media on body image is ironic, given that as people in the United States and other countries have become heavier and more out of shape, female models have become thinner and male models have become more muscled. Sociologists and psychologists have developed several theories describing how the media influences body image, including social comparison theory, self-schema theory, third-person effects and self-discrepancy theory. They also have developed interventions to offset the negative impact of unreal media images. Sociologists theorize that the media have an investment in promoting body dissatisfaction because it supports a billion-dollar diet and self-improvement industry.
Keywords: Body Dissatisfaction; Body Image; Body Image Disturbance; Objectified Body Consciousness; Reflected Appraisals; Self-discrepancy Theory; Self-schema Theory; Social Comparison Theory; Therapeutic Ethos; Third Person Effect
The study of body image — how people perceive their bodies and how these opinions develop — was pioneered by Paul Schilder in the 1920's. His working definition of body image was "the picture of our own body which we form in our mind, that is to say, the way in which the body appears to ourselves" (as quoted in Grogan 2008, p. 3). Many contemporary researchers feel that this definition downplays the complexity of the field, since body image can refer to a variety of concepts from judgments about weight, size, appearance and normality, to satisfaction with these areas. The term "body image" includes both how people perceive their bodies cognitively and also how they feel about their bodies. Studies of body image show that it influences many other aspects of life. People live their lives in bodies, and understanding how they experience embodiment is crucial to understanding their quality of life (Pruzinsky & Cash, 2002). Dissatisfaction with one's body image can lead to many problems, ranging from depression to low self-esteem and eating disorders.
People feel increasingly pressured by the media about their bodies. The average person is exposed to thousands of beauty images weekly, and these images reflect an unreal body image that becomes more and more removed from the reality of contemporary people, who on average weigh more and exercise less than people did decades ago. At the same time, bodies depicted by the media have become thinner and fitter. Pressure about body image is not new, and even in the days before the electronic mass media expanded to its current size and speed, messages about body image were carried in magazines, books, newspapers, and — looking back even further — in paintings and drawings. Modern-day media do have a financial investment in promoting body dissatisfaction. Advertising revenues from the body industry contribute a great deal to media profits. This connection means that the link between media and body image is a health issue but also raises questions about the end results of consumer culture.
Changing Body Norms in the Media
The ideal body presented by the media has become thinner since the 1960's, particularly for women. At the same time, Americans have become much heavier. Since the 1980’s, the percentage of overweight and obese children has doubles and that of overweight and obese teenagers has tripled. Adults show similar trends; over thirty percent of adult Americans are obese (Ogden et al., 2012). The trend toward thinner and thinner models has developed slowly since the early 1900’s. In the 1920's through magazines and in the new medium of film, a thinner, almost androgynous female form was promoted, epitomized in the flat-chested flapper. The ideal female form became curvier during the hard times of the Great Depression in the 1930's, although it remained relatively slender through World War II. The postwar revival of domesticity led to the media hyping heavier, ultra-feminine images such as Marilyn Monroe, with larger breasts and hips but small waists. This was only a temporary interruption of the century's trend toward increasingly thin bodies as the ideal. Models shrank more throughout the 1980's and 1990's. In these latter decades, models also became fitter, adding muscles and tone to the preferred image. Images of men have followed the same pattern since the 1980's with male models displaying slightly less fat, much more muscled bodies. A study comparing the changing body-mass index of Miss America contestants, Playboy and Playgirl centerfolds, and average Americans and Canadians since the 1960's found that especially during the 1980's and 1990’s, the female centerfolds became dangerously thin, while male models increased in size, and average people gained weight (Spitzer & Henderson, 1999). Through changing norms of beauty images, women are told to be thin; men are told to have little body fat and sculpted muscles (Grogan, 2008; Hesse-Biber, 2007; Soulliere & Blair, 2006).
Modern people live media-saturated lives. Studies suggest that over 80% of women and girls read fashion magazines, most people watch 3 or 4 hours of television a day, and people are exposed to countless images while walking down the street, glancing through the newspaper, and browsing online. This constant exposure affects viewers. Studies suggest that the effect is felt in several areas. People compare themselves to images, internalize these idealized images as the norm, and absorb the message that they should judge themselves based on their appearance. This process of comparison, internalization, and acceptance leads to other effects: distortion of accurate body perception (for example, girls who are normal weight may think they are overweight), negative emotional effects, a tendency to overemphasize messages about appearance, and changes in eating and exercise habits (Tiggemann, 2002).
Psychological Theories on How Media Affects Body Image
The effect of media on body image is complex; it is not simply the equation that exposure makes people feel worse about their own bodies. For one thing, people are not affected equally by exposure to media images. Some react quickly and strongly to beauty images and others are resistant. Some of the difference in reactions to media images has to do with people's individual traits. People who are more self-conscious, who place more importance on appearance, who are heavier, and who have symptoms of eating disorders are more swayed by these images (Tiggemann, 2002).
Three psychological theories are particularly useful in understanding how media images affect people differently:
- Social comparison theory was developed by Leon Festinger in the 1950's. Festinger theorized that to evaluate themselves, people compare themselves to others. Psychologists have expanded this theory and suggested that people compare themselves not only to others in face-to-face interactions, but also to media images.
- Self-schema theory says that people develop a sense of self by considering what makes them unique and valuable and arranging these into schemas, which are used to process social encounters. Some people prioritize appearance in their self-schemas; these people are more likely to place more importance on media images and messages about body image.
- Self-discrepancy theory says that people carry an idealized image of the person they want to be; discrepancies between this ideal and their perceptions of themselves can cause them unhappiness and stress. Media images can contribute to the formation of the idealized image (Grogan, 2008).
Studies have shown that women identify the media as the major source of the perceived social pressure to maintain a thin body image. Thin models are a major source of this pressure; in one study women who viewed images of heavier models were less likely to judge their own bodies negatively (Posavac, Posavac & Weigel, 2001).
Cusumano and Thompson (2001) developed the Multidimensional Media Influence Scale (MMIS) to measure media effects on body image in children. Their research indicated that media effects occur in three distinct areas: awareness, internalization, and pressure. These areas capture the extent to which children are aware that the media promote thinness as an ideal, the extent to which they internalize this ideal as applying to themselves, and the extent to which they feel pressured by the media to conform to the idealized image. Interestingly enough, Cusumano and Thompson found that these three items vary independently; that is, it is possible to be aware of media images without internalizing them. Children who internalized media images were most likely to feel dissatisfied with their own bodies.
Many men and women are concerned about their body image.
Body image is not just what we see in the mirror. It involves memories, assumptions, and generalizations, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA).
Throughout history, humans have given importance to the beauty of the human body. Society, media, and popular culture often shape how a person sees their own body, but popular standards are not always helpful.
Constant bombardment by media images can cause people to feel uncomfortable about their body, and this can lead to distress, illness and unhealthy behavior. It can affect how we interact with others, and how we feel about many aspects of our life.
What does body image mean?
A person with a positive body feels comfortable and happy in their body.
Body image refers to a person's emotional attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of their own body.
It has been defined as "the multifaceted psychological experience of embodiment."
Body image relates to:
- what a person believes about their appearance
- how they feel about their body
- how they sense and control their body as they move
- how they feel about their body, including their height, weight, and shape
It can be positive or negative.
A negative body image is frequently linked to disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), body integrity identity disorder, and eating disorders.
What is a positive body image?
Studies suggest that our attitude to our body image remains stable through most of the lifespan.
A person with a positive body image has a true and clear perception of their body shape and appearance that other people would agree with.
The person is happy about the way they look, and they accept and feel good about their body and their appearance, even if it does not match what the media, family, or friends suggest is desirable.
They are aware that how they look is not their personality. They are proud of the way they look and feel confident in their body.
A healthy lifestyle, with a balanced diet and exercise, can contribute to a positive body image.
Part of having a positive body image is the ability to separate how we value ourselves from how we look. People who realize that self-worth is not linked to appearance tend to feel good about how they look.
What is a negative body image?
A negative body image can arise when a person feels that their looks do not measure up to what society, family, friends, and the media expect.
They may frequently compare themselves with others, and they may feel inadequate when doing so. They may feel ashamed, embarrassed, and lacking in confidence. They often feel uncomfortable and awkward in their body.
The individual often has an unrealistic view of themselves. They may look in the mirror and see parts of their body in a distorted, unreal way. A woman with a normal body mass index (BMI) for example, may persistently see herself as fat.
Some people develop a disorder known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). A person with BDD sees their body, or part of their body, in a negative way. They may ask for cosmetic surgery to "correct" their nose size, for example, when to everyone else, it appears normal.
This can be dangerous if it leads to mental health problems, such as depression. The person may pursue unnecessary surgery, unsafe weight-loss habits, such as a crash diet. A man might engage in an inappropriate use of hormones to build muscles.
Researchers from the University of Illinois, Chicago, found that young women with normal or low weight who believed they were too heavy were more likely to pursue unsafe weight-loss behaviors than those who were able to assess their weight status accurately.
Where does a negative body image come from?
A body image does not develop in isolation. Culture, family, and friends convey positive and negative messages about our bodies.
A person with a negative body image may worry that they do not match up to images promoted by the media.
The media, peers, and family members can all influence a person's body image. They may encourage men and women, and even young boys and girls, to believe that there is an ideal body. The image is often an unnatural one.
Advertisements may suggest that all men should be tall with large muscles, and all women should be slender. This is not always realistic, because everyone is made differently.
As viewers compare themselves to clinically underweight professional models and reality TV stars who have undergone radical cosmetic surgery, some feel pressure to set themselves unrealistic and unnatural targets.
The fashion industry sets an unhealthy example by employing underweight models to display their products. Their influence can affect both mental and physical wellbeing in a susceptible individual.
As the body changes with age, this can affect a person's body image. Illness and accidents, too, can have an impact. A mastectomy for breast cancer or a limb amputation can cause people to rethink how they appear to themselves and others.
Many people with obesity have a negative body image. Studies suggest that in people with obesity, successful weight loss interventions may improve body image.
Emotional insecurity can make someone more susceptible to developing a negative body image.
Studies have shown that girls and women with greater resilience, linked to family support, gender role satisfaction, copying strategies, fitness and wellbeing are more likely to have a positive body image.
Negative thoughts and feelings can be perpetuated through interactions with others.
"Fat talk" happens when people, most often women, get together and comment on how "fat" they look or feel.
It can be a way of bonding and making oneself and other people feel better by showing that they are not alone in "feeling fat." It can also lead to further negative feelings, low mood, and negative eating patterns.
Are women are more dissatisfied with their bodies than men?
Men, too, are concerned with their body image.
It is commonly believed that women are likely than men to be dissatisfied with their bodies.
However, studies that men are also concerned about their appearance. According to one report, 95 percent of male college students are unhappy about some aspect of their bodies.
Studies suggest that there are many similarities between a negative body image in men and in women, and that they share many of the same factors. However, men tend to be "quieter" about their discomfort.
A 2004 study found that women's attitude to their body image tends to remain stable throughout their lifespan, although the importance of shape, weight, and appearance decrease with age.
Tips for improving body image
Here are some tips for improving how you feel about yourself:
- Celebrate what your body can do: run, swim, dance, sing, and so on
- List 10 things you like about yourself and pin it up where you can see it
- Remember that beauty is not just about appearances
- See yourself in the mirror as a whole person, not as a nose or a thigh
- Think positive: Overpower negative messages with positive ones
- Wear comfortable clothes that look good on you
- Avoid or be actively critical of media messages and images that make you feel as if you should be something different
- Use the time you would spend fretting on volunteering, exercise, or a hobby
- Avoid "fat talk," and encourage your friends to do the same
- Do something nice for your body, for example, a massage or a haircut
Body image and physical exercise
Exercise can help a person to be more confident in their strength and agility, and it can contribute to maintaining a healthy weight and body size. It can also reduce anxiety and depression. However, people exercise for different reasons.
In 2015, researchers found that people who exercise for functional reasons, in order to be fit, tend to have a more positive body image. Those who exercise to improve their appearance feel less positive about their bodies.
The authors suggest emphasizing the functional benefits of exercise and de-emphasizing the motives that related to outside appearances, to help people foster a more positive body image.