Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?
The answer depends on whom you are asking.
Studies have shown that female dissatisfaction with physical appearance, which is known as poor body image, begins at an early age, sometimes as young as 5-years-old. Brown University defines body image as how we perceive our bodies visually; how we feel about our physical appearance; how we think and talk to ourselves about our bodies; our sense of how other people view our bodies; our sense of our bodies in physical space (which is called kinesthetic perception); and our level of connectedness to our bodies.
Let’s use a Your Sexy Librarian blog reader, Savannah, in a real world explanation of the above definitions. Savannah told me that she never felt like a small person physically because she feels like she takes up quite a bit of space in a room when she enters it. Savannah is of average height, with amazing curves, a perfectly proportional body and better-than-average breasts. Savannah said she feels her body size is not the definition of “small.” Savannah told me she has never liked having her photograph taken, which is why very few photos of her exist.
Recently, someone took a photograph of Savannah surrounded by a group of people. When Savannah saw that photograph, she said she was absolutely shocked at how small she looked when compared to those in the photo with her. Savannah told me that she has started to pay more attention to her body size compared to others around her and quickly accepted that she is indeed a small person physically when compared to the average person in America. Savannah said that the knowledge that she is physically small as a person does not alleviate her need to count calories to maintain a healthy weight nor does it make her feel small as she still thinks of herself as taking up more space than she actually occupies physically.
Body image, whether positive or negative, is shaped by a variety of factors. Brown University defines these factors as comments from friends, family and others about our, their, and other people’s bodies and whether those comments are positive or negative; ideals that we as individuals develop about physical appearance; the frequency in which we compare ourselves to others; exposure to images of idealized versus normal bodies; the experience of physical activity; the experience of sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse; the experience of prejudice and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity; and sensory experiences, including pleasure, pain and illness.
Some of the above factors are controllable while others are not. We cannot control what advertisers portray in the media as the ideal beauty nor can we control what other people say out loud or on the internet about us or our bodies. We can however change our own behaviors and thoughts to have a more positive body image of ourselves and others.
A positive body image as defined by Brown University is when “we have a realistic perception of our bodies AND we enjoy them just as they are.” Positive body image involves the understanding that healthy, attractive bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that physical appearance says very little about our character or value as a person. A person with a healthy body image will keep his or her self-esteem separate from the assessment of his or her body, will feel comfortable and confident in his or her body, and will not spend an unreasonable amount of time worrying about food, weight and calories.
A negative body image as defined by Brown University “can involve a distorted perception of size or shape as well as more global feelings of shame, awkwardness and anxiety about the body.” A person with a negative body image tends to feel his or her size or shape is a sign of personal failure, feels uncomfortable and/or awkward in his or her body and feels ashamed, self-conscious and/or anxious about his or her body. According to Brown University, “poor body image has been linked to diminished mental performance, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, dieting and eating disorders.”
According to the National Institute on Media and the Family, “at age 13, 53% of American girls are ‘unhappy with their bodies.’” Research by the National Eating Disorders Association reveals that between 40% and 60% of children aged 6-to-12 years are worried about their body weight and that 70% of those children want to be slimmer. Studies conducted by Stanford University and the University of Massachusetts have found that “70% of college women say they feel worse about their own looks after reading women’s magazines.”
Men are affected by the media as well, as shown by a 2006 study published in the journal of Psychology of Men and Masculinity that revealed “watching prime-time television and music videos appear to make men more uncomfortable with themselves” and that this “discomfort led to sexual problems and risky behaviors.”
Let’s start the New Year out with a better understanding of positive and negative body images and the effect the media has on our own body images. Let’s remember to judge beauty by what qualities a person has as opposed to what their outside package looks like. Let’s resolve to embrace the idea that beauty can be found in every body shape and size and that this idea does indeed go beyond what the media tells us is the ideal beauty.