Body Image – Where do we begin?

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Media and body image are words these days that seem synonymous with each other – so much so that its almost an accepted norm that the media has a negative impact on body image, especially upon the young and therefore easily impressionable. But how does it really  impact them and are you really ok with it?

The term body image applies to one’s own perceptions, feelings and behaviours towards one’s own body. These attitudes are shaped by the culture and society around us as well as the families and communities we are raised in. Whilst it is true to say that the media in all it’s many forms is a strong influence on our own body image as well as beauty standards in society in general, we cannot blame media alone entirely.

Research suggests that body image is formed from many factors such as familial environment, peers, social interactions and expectations, cultural influences and also factors specific to the individual. A person’s general self esteem and weight status can effect their view of themselves as well as their relationships. Peers, of course, exert contextual and potentially competitive impacts. But it’s parents, who can produce some of the largest pressures felt by children and teens on their own self worth and body image. Girls whose parents express more concern over their own weight and appearance, or that of their child’s, are more likely to judge themselves as being less physically and cognitively able and express a higher level of body dissatisfaction, especially amongst younger girls.

Interestingly studies done in the U.S. have shown that eating disorders are most prevalent within communities of white middle class girls. That’s not to say that people of colour or differing ethnicities aren’t effected by this problem, Asian and South-East Asian girls are also reported to have high-rates of body dissatisfaction but girls from Afro-Caribbean communities tested lowest on this scale seemingly to not have internalised this unrealistically thin ideal to such a drastic extent. Arguably because they are often raised in a culture and familial surrounding that negates this influence and equally because they don’t actually see themselves represented in TV, film and media as much in the first place, in turn giving way to a whole other set of negative messages.

The large scale consumption of mainstream media combined with other risk factors puts teens and young people in serious danger of developing body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviours. Social media is often cited as a huge new pressure on an ever increasingly young demographic of people. Whilst it can offer them self-expression and new relationships it also offers them instant judgement and comparison on an unprecedented scale.

The Girls Scout Research Institute conducted a study that revealed almost half of the girls wished they were “model skinny” and that fashion magazines gave them “body motivations” to lose weight.

A survey conducted on the U.S. Today Show in 2014 showed 80% of teen girls there compare themselves to celebrities and that half of the girls within that said the images made them unhappy with their own body image. And this is just the girls, what about the boys?

There is by contrast very little research into the media’s effect on male body image and behaviours, and for that matter within LGBT youth as well. Whilst the pressures of social media, film, TV and fashion extend their reach to both sexes – it’s important to acknowledge that there must be an equally damaging effect on young men and boys just as there is on women and girls. The pressure to have 6 pack abs and be a Beckham carbon copy starts young these days (hello child’s superhero costumes with built in muscle padding). So too are boys excluded from anything vaguely ‘feminine’ or ‘domestic’ through the pinkification and gender stereotyping of our childrens toys. The long term psychological impact of telling growing boys that they must be tough, muscly and hyper masculine at all times can only be a negative one. Hospitalisations for eating disorders among children of both sexes both below the age of 5 and above have steadily increased, with anorexia having one of the highest suicide rates of any psychiatric condition.

Social media, quickly taking over as the main cultural media influence on it’s consumers, can arguably constitute all the prevailing factors for influence over body image and body dissatisfaction. People evaluating themselves through comparison as well as learning behaviours and values through modelling what they see. There is a repeated exposure to differing perspectives which can lead to internalising them for themselves, both the good and the bad, making media act like a powerful peer influence that makes certain behaviours or aesthetics an accepted norm.

There are of course some positive aspects to social media that shouldn’t be forgotten. Exposure to your own social media profile being shown to boost your self-image, as you construct an image of yourself that you feel is positive. But even this has its shortcomings with 74% of girls in the Girls Scout Research Study admit they are trying to portray themselves as cooler than they feel they really are. Downplaying any of their personal characteristics not considered acceptable by popular culture.  We need to help young people and children, particularly in this case girls, understand how the media they interact with can limit them and try to avoid them learning to view themselves as only objects for someone else’s consumption. Teaching them that their self worth lies in the value of their substance and not their appearance is easier said than done of course.

Altering yourself to fit into notions of what you should look like and who you should be have become a social norm alarmingly quickly. Selfie-Improvement apps, for example, have made changing your natural appearance a daily occurrence. When analysed by the Kaiser Family Foundation the top 4 selling teen magazines and their content were found to focus primarily on sex and dating (44%), appearance (37%) and have a measly 12% focused on schooling and careers. A 2010 study of characters on Disney and Nickelodeon shows revealed not only a great lack of racial diversity but also that 87% of characters between the ages of 10 and 17 were considered under weight. In turn those characters who are seen to conform to pre-conceived standards are awarded positive traits and stories, where as those who don’t are met with negativity and judgement.

Helping each other to decode the messages and stereotypes being fed to us is integral to becoming informed and aware media consumers. The more awareness we have as adults the more we can pass this onto our children and begin to help them in turn deconstruct the negative and hold onto the positive. The Minefield has collected together some of the best and hopefully helpful tips and starting points to aid in the process. But we are also, of course, very interested in how you feel and what you are doing, if anything, to tackle these ideas at home too.

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