Body image

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The discovery of the world and of others is acquired in infancy. (Bronze Children and discovery, by Joanika Ring, Overlangel, 1995)
The mouth and taste are the first means of exploration of the body by a baby

Body image refers to a person's feelings of the aesthetics and 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 numerous 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.

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.[1] Similar findings associated with body image were found by an Australian government Senate Standing Committee report on the sexualization of children in the media.[2] However, other scholars have expressed concern that these claims are not based on solid data.[3]

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, biological predispositions (e.g., depression and anxiety), and cultural expectations (e.g., media and politics). People are constantly told and shown the cosmetic appeal of weight loss and are warned about the risks of obesity; this is something that can lead to a change in a person’s body image.[4]

Body image can have a wide range of psychological effects and physical effects. According to Dr. Aric Sigman, a British biologist, some women who see underweight women will have an immediate change in brain chemistry which diminishes self-esteem and can increase self-loathing.[5] Commentators note that people who have a low body image will try to alter their bodies in some way, such as by dieting or undergoing cosmetic surgery.


French child psychoanalyst Francoise Dolto developed a theory of the unconscious body image.[6] Negative perceptions by a person regarding their body, such as a perception that they are fat, can in some cases lead to mental disorders such as depression or eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa, though there can be a variety of different reasons why these disorders can occur.

There has recently been a debate within the media industry focusing on the potentially negative impact size zero models can have on young people's body image. It has been suggested that size zero models be banned from cat walks, with many celebrities being targeted by the media due to their often drastic weight loss and slender frames; for example, Nicole Richie and British Super Model Kate Moss.

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9][specify]

Studies have found that females tend to think more about their body shape and endorse thinner figures than men even into old age.[10] When female undergraduates were exposed to depictions of thin women their body satisfaction decreased, but rose when exposed to larger models.[11][12] 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.[13] In addition, women who overhear others using fat talk may also experience an increase in body dissatisfaction and guilt.[14] 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 comparison processes appear to play a critical role in the link between fashion media exposure and body image dissatisfaction. And it appears that upwards physical appearance comparisons against idealised images leads to greater dissatisfaction, but downward comparisons, for example against obese people, are associated with better body image satisfaction.[15]


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.[16]

Monteath and McCabe found that 44% of women express negative feelings about both individual body parts and their bodies as a whole.[17] 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.[18] American youth (37.7% of males and 51% of females) express dissatisfaction with their bodies.[19]

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.[20]

“Currently over 40 instruments for the measurement of body image exist (Thompson, Altabe, Johnson, & Stormer, 1994)”. 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. There are many factors you have to take into account when measuring body image, these can include: gender, ethnicity, culture, and age.[21]

Figure preferences[edit]

In figure preferences the use of silhouettes is the most common 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.[21] Silhouettes are used to show to the subject and have them react to the different body types.

Video projection techniques[edit]

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 (Grillon & Baas, 2003).” These measurements can be useful because “Objective, psychophysiological measures, like the affect modulated startle eyeblink response, are less subject to reporting bias (Grillon & Baas, 2003).” [22]


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) (Giovannelli, Cash, Henson, & Engel, 2012). 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 (Chen, Lee, & Stevenson, 1995; Dolnicar & Grun, 2007; Hamamura, Heine, & Paulhus, 2008)”.[23]

Sex differences[edit]

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.[24] 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.[25] This information suggests that appearance pressure and concerns are continuing to affect both men and women in western culture.

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.[26]

As men and women reach older age, body image takes on a different meaning. Research studies show that the importance attached to physical appearance decreases with age.[26][27] Physical appearance remains important later in life, but the functional aspects of the body take precedence over contentment with appearance.[25] 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.[28] 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.[27]

Body image and weight[edit]

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.[29]

In her article "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[30]

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."[31]

These figures do not, however, distinguish between people at a low or healthy weight and those who are in fact overweight: between those whose self-perception as overweight is incorrect and those whose perception of overweight is correct. Post-1997 studies[32] 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 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")[33][34] would be even more severe than they already are.[35]

Media impact on body image[edit]

Some girls and young women compare themselves to models in ads, in terms of their physical attractiveness.[36] Many commentators regard the emphasis in the media and in the fashion industry on thinness and on an ideal female body shape and size as being psychologically detrimental to the well-being of many young women, and on their self-image which also gives rise to excessive dieting and/or exercise, and to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa.

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,[37] and further research suggests that those with anorexia have much higher contact with cultural sources that promote weight-loss.[38] The Israeli Parliament recently passed a law prohibiting clinically underweight female or male models from appearing in advertisements and in fashion shows. Under the new legislation, models of either gender must have a body mass index (BMI) of at least 18.5 kg/m2 to be able to work in the industry, and they also need proof that a physician certifies that they are not underweight. In a further step, any artificial enhancements of images to make a person look thinner must be clearly stated right on the image.[39]

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.[3] 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, especially severe eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.

See also[edit]


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