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.
What is the average weight? What is healthy? How do these two things compare to the standards society has on health and beauty today? What do you see when you look in the mirror? And why don’t people see regular people in fashion TV advertisements? I personally think that advertisers should introduce people of all weight sizes into the fashion advertisements. Throughout history, women’s roles have been to make themselves as attractive to others as possible. Although fashion and physical values have changed over time, this drive has remained constant. The recent change of women’s extreme thinness has become a topic of concern in the health department. This issue starts as early as the first day a person was born. Gender differences, the surrounding environment, and the pressure of ideal image are almost impossible to escape due mostly to the everyday occurrences that one encounters. Roberta Seid’s “Too ‘Close to the Bone’: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness” discusses both present ideals and those of previous time periods, as well as the negative effects these standards have had on women. Andy Vu’s “The Struggle for a Healthy Body Image” presents a similar topic, but it’s related specifically to both male and female college students.
S. Almond’s “The Influence of the Media on Eating Disorders” tries to make the point of how everyone was made to be unique. Almond says that products are often advertise to promote the ideal body image. A lecture by Susan Rausch touched on both college students and society as a whole, offering statistical data on eating disorders and societal views on physical appearance.
And In Ann Marie Cussins “The Role of Body Image in Women’s Mental Health” she discusses the issue from a standpoint aspect.
Rausch begins her speculation with a question: Why is it that people treasure variations in the magnificence of nature, but not in the concept of beauty in ourselves? Each expert comments the fact that over the past 40 years, the representations of beauty such as models, actresses, and Miss America, have been getting thinner and thinner. These symbols of perfect beauty are wearing sizes 1, 0 and even smaller (Vu 1), portraying only the thinnest 5 to 10 percent of Americas that fit in this size category (Seid 479). Each agrees that the current average American is now considered “overweight”. However, Seid and Raush support this statement with statistics: 90 to 95 percent of women do not feel they meet the “standard”, leading millions of women to think abnormal of themselves (Seid 479). Rausch mentioned that 47 percent of women with normal weight feel they are overweight (Raush’s speech outline 3).
Seid mentions that women’s self-image successfulness, and survival could be determine mostly by the way the look. As for men, success is based on how they act and what they accomplish (Seid 480). The way a person looks and their personality determines the person they are able to interact with. In society today, women are viewed as beautiful and vulnerable whereas men are classified as strong and powerful. Cussins explains that women are unconsciously dissatisfied with their motherly role toward daughters (Cussins 2). One of Cussins’s patient talk about her unhappiness with the problem of bulimia, and how bulimia effected the relationship with her mother and family. The patient tries to develop a healthy diet to make her mother happy but she throws up everything she eats or she will feel depressed. Not only is it hard for the patient but also for the mother since she feels that her child is communicating less in-depth with her (Cussins 110-111). This only one of few effects that a person has to deal with if he or she tries to achieve the ideal weight. Almond said that “constant media pressures can lead to body dissatisfaction, which may result in distorted eating patterns”. He also says that the media portraits the “ideal figure”, making women think that they are overweight because they don’t look like the person in the advertisement, resulting in body dissatisfaction. He points out that products are advertise displaying the ideal body image in hope that people will purchase the product thinking that they are also going to look like that person in the display. Trying to achieve this can lead to “depression, stress, guilt, shame, insecurity, unhappiness, and lower self-confidence” (Almond 367). The most recent transformation in clothing styles have also played a key role as well; Seid states that the more revealing fashion allows no compensation for the body “underneath”. With men the issue tends to be on a different side of the spectrum: bigger is better. In the attempt to “bulk up” and play the man’s role, many turn to the use of steroids, which are harmful to the body and can produce many serious problems, including cancer (Vu 3).
We must now look at the main problems in order to find a way to solve this problem, it has already become a social disease and people need to realize that trying to achieve the “ideal size” is almost impossible (Vu 3), and even if they do, the damages they do to their bodies can make them feel worse than when the first started to lose weight, it could even lead to death. The question that remains is weather the advertisement individuals and institutions have truly looked into, and understood, the effects of such ideal standards, and when, or if, changes will ever take place. The aftermath that occurs while trying to aim for the so called ‘ideal’ image. And how family and friends affect the way you feel about your body.
In the attempt to become the “perfect” woman, each expert holds that many put themselves trough both psychological and physical pain. Though they each emphasize eating disorders, they do so in different ways. Seid speaks of eating disorders on a whole, relating them to current dieting practices. She states that effects of deprivation can be found in many dieters: tension, irritability, pre-occupation with food, and exhaustion are all present (Seid 478). Vu asserts that a lack of nutrition can lead to the consequence of disorders such as anorexia and bulimia: anorexia can force the body to start feeding on itself, bulimia can cause damage to the teeth and esophagus, and both are life threatening (Vu 3). When the person tries to starve itself to lose weight the body might develop anorexia and bulimia; causing the individual to throw up everything he or she might eat. Men use steroids in to deal with body dissatisfactions. Excess of this drug may lead to “brain cancer, liver damage and heart attacks”, even young healthy men can be effected (Vu 3). The question now lies on whether or not the person pays a high price in trying to achieve the ‘ideal’ image. All of the experts say the price is not worth it. Rausch states in Vu’s article that the advertising industry promotes a body image that is “biologically” impossible to achieve and “live up to” (Vu 3). Seid says that “numerous studies demonstrate that the majority of the “fat” cannot slim down permanently. The problem is not their lack of willpower, but the unreasonable expectation placed on them to weight a certain amount” (Seid 478).
I personally think that the effects of trying to achieve the “ideal” image is not worth paying the price for. The person is damaging the body instead of trying to help it. Some people lose weight only to gain it back later, so what is the point of doing it. I think that each person has a different body type and metabolism, some people can’t lose weight even if they try to, leaving them depressed and anxious in the “journey” towards the perfect body. Bulimia and anorexia are horrible diseases to deal with because of the things they do to the body. I’m not suggesting that if your fat, you can’t exercise or live a healthy life, I think this can be achieved. Just look at the line men playing football, summon wrestlers, they are “big” but at the same time they are healthy. People cannot just look at the body from the outside, but from the inside. Skinny people are not always healthy, sometimes they are malnourish, or have diseases such as the ones pointed out by Vu, anorexia and bulimia.
Media has greatly influence people into falling into the trap of what is in style and what is not. Teenage girls are affected by compulsion to receive a degree of thinness that they see in models (Cussins 2). Women who look at fashion magazines wanted to weight less and are more worry about getting fatter than the women who read news magazines (Rausch 3). “There has been a shift in the media portrayal of the ‘ideal’ body size for women, from the voluptuous curved figure of Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s to a thinner ‘waif-like’ look of Kate Moss in the 1980s” (Almond 367). Over the years the media advertising models have been getting thinner and thinner; making women more dissatisfied because they want to look like that “girl” in the advertisement. The media have developed the ideal body shape in the hope that it will create more sales of the product that they are trying to sell. But it seems like the advertisement and media industries are not caring about how a person feels in trying to achieve the ideal body. By promoting the ideal body the media contribute to eating disorders (Almond 367).
I believe that the media is the most contributing factor to this problem. They have develop the ideal image of what a person should look like but most of it is false advertisement.
I never see a “fat” person on TV advertising about a beauty product or a new fashion design. When you flip the pages of most magazines all you see is thin women advertising the new Victoria’s Secret new collection. Why doesn’t the media use people of all sizes in their advertisements to fill up the needs of all people. I’m not saying I don’t like the present people in the advertisements, to be honest, as a man I like to see “hot” women in advertisements but we have to look at the reality: that the people need to see more variety of “sizes” to satisfy the kinds of people who are looking for something like them, and not making them feel bad because they are looking at something that is “impossible” to achieve.
Now the question that remains is how can we start solving this problem of the ‘ideal’ imagine. Short says that “Once society starts to realize that society’s stereotypes are just stereotypes, and actually not ideal situations, then people will start to find a cure” (Vu 3).
Seid suggest that “we recultivate our tastes and find a saner middle ground where our bodies can round out with more life, flesh, and health; where we can relish the fruits of our prosperity without self-punishment” (Seid 483). Seid also says that people must get rid or the thought of the ‘ideal’ image, “because it is misguided and destructive”, she says (Seid 484). Cussins suggest that psychotherapist need a new approach in treating eating disorders. Cussins says that many doctors threat the eating disorder as a second symptom to the eating disorder, making the patient have to come to many visits in a lengthy recuperation. The problem is that the lengthy treatment has a high drop out rate. “A specialized service where a woman feels that her initial contact gives her hope through feeling that someone is immediately making sense of her problems would avoid the high drop-out rate of those who take a tentative first step”, Cussin suggest (Cussing 113-114).
I agree with all the suggestions that have been made by all of the experts, a therapy that understands the patient’s psychological problem with weight needs to be an option for the patient, not just one therapy that looks at the problem from the “outside”. Having the support of family and friends should also help the person accept who they are. This is very important because sometimes even family members put the person down, and the family is the most important thing in a person’s life. If the person does not have the support of the family than it is going to be even harder for he or she to deal with the problem of the ‘ideal’ obsession.
And finally, I think the media contribute the most damage to the ‘not ideal’ people. When I’m watching TV all I see in the fashion advertisements is thin models, not only on television but also in most fashion magazines. I am not “fat”, but I can not even imagine how an “ever size” person feels when they see mostly thin people advertising something that is: not fitting for them, too small, or just not their “taste”. I think that the media should advertise products, and fashion for all types of people: thin, oversized, pretty, ugly. This way of advertising would please all stereotypes, and I honestly think that it would help reduce the problem that itself has created: the “ideal image”.
The obsession over thinness has been in the past, is here in the present, and will be in the future. Based on the sources synthesized, if people don’t do something soon to change this “ideology”, it will take many centuries to get over something that has evolved for hundreds of years. Fashion, media, family members, and peer pressure will continue to be major factors in the obsession with slenderness. As a result, as long as these issues are still here, the dangerous aftermath will continue to plague Americans for centuries to come: “We stand poised between a past for which we have lost respect and a future we must now struggle to envision” (Seid 485).
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