Looks,appearance,clothes,size and all these peripheral things hold immense importance in this day and age and affect each one of us,knowingly or unknowingly.From birth we see beauty ideals on TV and in our toys and thus start considering it ‘normal’.[
For example,Barbies. Many young girls believe that every normal girl looks like the doll,that the Barbie figure and skin are imperative.These perceptions form unknowingly.
How many of us have complained about our size, looked at the mirror and seen an ugly person stare back? At least I have.I was reading about ‘ugliest woman on earth’.She is anorexic. When she was 12,somebody called her ‘too fat to exist’,and that changed her. One small comment spoiled this woman’s entire life. She can never be okay,never truly live. It’s saddening to see young people ‘striving for the perfect body’. Wasn’t childhood the period of innocence when all we cared about was what to play and eat?
Media plays a major role in setting up this mindset. Ads have only airbrushed photoshopped thin women and muscular men,and when we look at them and compare, we realize we look different,not “desirable”,perhaps. We have constructed some unwritten norms about the way a person should look,what is ‘attractive’ and what is ‘ugly’.
So what is body image? ‘Body image is the picture we have of our bodies at rest or in motion at any moment. It is from internal sensations,postural changes,contact with outside objects and people,and our emotional experiences and fantasies’ (Freedman 1998, Salkin 1973). According to Hutchinson (1985), body image includes feelings,attitudes,and beliefs about our bodies. Basically,it is what we think of ourselves and what image of self we have in our minds.
Symmetrical features,voluminous hair,long neck,busty and voluptuous or totally skinny girls are what media projects as beautiful.All the airbrushed models give complexes to women, young and old alike.One in four adolescent girls have admitted that they follow a diet.For young men; tall,dusky,handsome and strong,groomed the ideal. However,these pressures are mostly linked to depression in case of women because of the constant ‘need to look sexy’.
While the media portrays this image of perfection,we feel the need to conform to it and every time we see ourselves in the mirror, all we see is our imperfections staring back. We are too fat,too thin,too dark,too short or too anything that is not perfect.
But who gets to decide what a “good” body is? The very flesh and blood you occupy is a social construction. Does body image issue depend on our gender? Yes.
We become aware of our looks and compare ourselves to others from a very young age.
By the age of two,a child has a clear sense of ‘me’.They start recognizing themselves in pictures and in the mirror while developing a sense of pride and shame. By four,they are able to compare themselves to others.By eight, the child can compare the self to all the peer members and they start evaluating themselves in four categories: Academic,Social,Athletic and Appearance.
In the age group of four to six,the child starts thinking about their weight and shape.They also understand the social rejection to ‘fat’, are concerned about their clothes and hair.The kids in this age group want to ‘grow up’ and their sense of grown up life is seen from their TV shows and toys.Girls desire to be thin and have long hair like their barbies.The boys aspire to be muscular like their action figures.Recent studies reveal that roughly 50% of children in the age group of six to twelve are dissatisfied with their bodies.
Children are influenced by parental comments,toys,peers too. There is a concurrent relationship between these factors and body image.Take media, for example,We see in films how thin women are always attractive and muscular men are desirable.Generally the unattractive characters are fat or underweight and unintelligent and antisocial.The peer in this age generally have a negative effect on the child’s self-esteem.The parents also tend to unintentionally affect a child’s perception towards food by controlling the eating habits and making the child believe that fat is bad.
Obese kids are more dissatisfied with their bodies and have established anti fat biases because of the society.Children as young as 4,refuse to choose a chubby friend.This being particularly dangerous because young children may grow up feeling constantly excluded. The only way to protect young children is teaching them autonomy,to reject the thin ideal and learn that the images projected are not always real.
Adolescence is the period when hormonal and physical changes occur.Around 70% of the girls want to be thinner as they think it will make their life better.Larger girls are more dissatisfied. This is when most of the girls start fasting,dieting and using laxatives. Many girls even take the drastic step of getting surgeries.Such dissatisfaction harms them both physically and mentally. The most common disorders in such a condition are Anorexia and Bulimia.
Physical changes include acne,increased hair growth,breast growth,widening of hips and menstruation. Due to manifold physical changes,there are many emotions that a girl struggles with. Joy,fear and shame;all occur simultaneously.There is also a consistent need to ‘fit’ in and there is a fear of having no control over their body. Peer acceptance is very important too.The body image stabilizes over time and they feel comfortable in their own skin.
Most of the boys prefer being ‘lean and muscular’,influenced by the media.Boys suffer from ‘reverse anorexia’.They might end up using protein supplements or exercising excessively. The pubertal development is generally positive for them as they move closer to the societal ideal of ‘perfection’. However,some boys might hit pubery later than their peer members and this may create a problem. Thinking that they’re ‘weaker’ than their friends makes them feel insufficient. Such dissatisfaction may lead to alcoholism,using steroids, and aggression.
In many surveys it has been found that most of the boys have a positive body image or are neutral. The stigma against fat and underweight people persists. Girls are more dissatisfied than boys.
Adulthood (19 onwards)
It is only recently that researchers started focusing on adulthood. The general pattern of growth shows that in adulthood,we gain weight,have saggy skin.
There is a social pressure to maintain youth,especially on women,the reason cosmetic industry survives. Wykes and Gunter claimed that young and white women were attractive and old women were asexual and depressed,according to the media.
While all old women are shown in a bad light,old men(fifties) are still ‘sexy’ and have young women swooning over them (eg: George Clooney). But even the men suffer ridicule at seventy,they are incompetent and pathetic.
Contrary to what media shows,in reality, women are more satisfied with their body image when they are sixty(and more).Research shows that women in the age group of sixteen to sixty three are mostly dissatisfied with their bodies.In eighties,women are more satisfied because old age makes them more realistic. As women grow older,they realize that looks don’t matter. It was also found that their role models are age appropriate. As women are older instead of believing that they don’t look good enough,they think that they ‘look good for their age’. Such realism is positive for their body and self-image.They also don’t have appearance anxiety and the only reason they want to lose weight is for health reasons.Surprisingly,women in old age are more satisfied than the men.
Men in fifties want to be slimmer and look younger.But this dissatisfaction is lost once they reach their sixties. After their sixtieth birthday,men are satisfied with their bodies and believe that they are good looking.
From the age of four we see our body ideals in front of us and want to conform.Changing the societal ideals is not very easy but it is never too late to take a first step.
We need media literacy to let our children know that whatever media shows is not always true. Advertisements generally Photoshop/airbrush the images and nobody is perfect.
We need to encourage body positivity movements and make people realize that everybody is beautiful and size doesn’t matter.
Media needs to break the stereotypes and take the first step towards a big movement that shuns societal ideals.
Remember,we should not want to be the same as others and we should not want others to be the same as us.We should glow and shine in all of our differences,flaunt them fabulously for all to see.We need not conform.
Don’t be ideal,be you.