Essay Topics About Body Image

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

Overview

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).

Further Insights

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.

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We live in an era where obsessing over our bodies and our looks have become a daily activity. In mainstrem media the most beautiful are rail thin, have long hair and perfect skin. If one is pleasing to the eye, one is acceptable to society. However, the projected image that media places on women is a big controversy today. Media is responsible for creating ideals about beauty and body image. Women are suffering from negative body image which leads to an increase in dissatisfaction with oneself and can cause many negative effects such as individual harm, depression, eating disorders, and body dysmorphic disorder. Low self esteem and body related issues are of the negative psychological effects that media does not take into consideration. Media continues to depict models and celebirites throughout advertising in brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch and Victoria's Secret. They want society to think of what is going on as a "trend." Women watch celebrities and tend to follow their habits because they want to be like them. Women continue to compare themselves to figures in the media. Actresses, singers, and models always seem to be perfect, and when women can't achieve that, they begin to bash their bodies.

It has been found that nearly half of females ages 6-8 have stated that they want to be slimmer. This is really sad in which a child growing up should not be thinking of this. Body image has become a big issue as females go through puberty. Girls in midadolescence frequently report being dissatisfied with their weight. (Hayes) They fear weight gain, and begin to become preoccupied with weight loss. This is the beginning of the many effects media places on society. In the article: "Am I too fat to be a princess? Examining the effects of popular children's media on young girls' body image," the study was to examine the effects of exposure to popular animated children's media on young girls body image and appearance-related behaviors. (Hayes) Those in the experiment were shown a video containing appearance-related clips from 10 animated children's movies. The children also went through an interview where they were asked questions about their appearance satisfaction. They were asked if they like the way they look. The response options (never or almost never, sometimes, and nearly all the time) were used to help the participants answer some questions. The children were also asked questions such as: Could you be a princess? What would you have to change to become a princess? In the findings, it was concluded that all of the young girls indicated they disliked something about their physical appearance. In response to being asked 'If you could change anything about the way you look, what would it be?', "30.6% of girls noted that they would change something about their physical appearance. Of those responders, 59.5% would change their hair, 27% would change something about their body. The majority of the girls believed that they could be a princess regardless of their weight. Only about 8% of the girls endorsed needing to change their hair or skin color to become a princess." Example responses included 'my hair would have to grow long', 'I'd need yellow hair', 'I'd paint myself white', and 'I would change from brown skin to white skin'. It is concluded that animated children's media contains a number of appearance-related messages that may affect body dissatisfaction. At a very young age, girls appear to not be affected by media in ways comparable to females ages 6-8. This may be because, at younger ages, children frequently engage in pretend play and may not be capable of making social comparisons. Children do not worry about their weight or beauty. As children become older and have more an an insight about things, they engage less in pretend play. This results in girls beginning to stop identifying themselves as the characters they idolize. This means that girls are having an increased concern about how they look. Over time, girls are more likely to have had more exposure to media and this is unavoidable to them.

With the many effects of beauty and body image media places on society, it is said that magazines and advertisements are marketed to help women. Magazines and advertisements are suppose to provide information and products that are supposed to make women look and feel better. Most magazine reading is caused by dissatisfaction with one's self. Women who view other women pictured in these magazines show increased levels of depression, stress, guilt, shame, and insecurity. (Tiggemann) In the article, "The Role of Social Comparison in the Effect of Magazine Advertisements on Women's Mood and Body Dissatisfaction," the study supports the effects left on women looking through magazines and ads. In the study, "mood and body dissatisfaction were measured before and after advertisement viewing, while weight anxiety and the amount of appearance comparison engaged in were measured only after the advertisements. The first finding was that viewing thin-ideal female images did lead to increased negative mood and body dissatisfaction." (Tiggemann) This is a disturbing finding in that people have demonstrated negative effects after only very brief exposure (11 images of thin idealized female bodies after 10 minutes). This is far less than what would be contained in a single issue of a fashion magazine. 

There are many concerns involving women being exposed to media negatively. "Since the curvaceous ideal embodied by Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s, media models have become progressively thinner, so that the typical model now is often as much as 20% underweight. It becomes clear just how extremely thin this body size is when we consider that 15% underweight is one of the criteria used to diagnose anorexia." (CNN World News, 2006) Media has influenced women for decades. This concern of a unhealthy lifestyle is increasing. 

Seeing the "perfect" female body image be promoted throughout media encourages women to diet and manipulate their size and shape. According to Lisa M. Groesz, Michael P, Levine, and Sarah K. Murnen, "females are socialized to see themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated." (12) Women feel shame and develop dissatisfaction with themselves. Society values the "pefect" body.  Media states that a slim woman is successful, attractive, healthy, happy, and pleasing to the eye in society. Women want to be all of those things and begin to be more like the people they see that are like this in the media. Even if it means losing some weight to obtain the perfect body. This is when eating disorders begin to develop due to the media's influence. "Eating disorders are prevalent in women ages 15-19." (Groesz) Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are huge issues within today's society. This is a problem because women are striving for an unhealthy lifestyle while continuing to think that if they were thinner, then they would be happy. Women begin self-starvation in the fear of being fat or overeat and then crash diets. 

Through means such as advertising and the media, body dysmorphic disorder may be contributed due to image and beauty related social pressures. Also, some type of childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental illness in which you become obsessed with the flaws of your appearance. You begin to produce a certain image of yourself and feel as if you don't have an actual perception of your body. You feel ashamed and have a distorted idea about the way you look. "People with BDD commonly also suffer from the anxiety disorders obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or social anxiety disorder, as well as depression and eating disorders" (Lifespan).  Those with the disorder may resort to cosmetic surgeries and treatment for relief. However, these procedures do not address the root of the problem. From this web source it is concluded that patients are still not completely satisfied with their results and may become obsessed, depressed, or suicidal after. Those exposed to the media in a negative way are at risk of suffering from obsessions about their appearance and feel the need to alter it.  

Though there are many negative effects media places on women, there are also many positive effects. The media's job is to inform, educate, and entertain the public. Positive effects such as celebrities talking about good health through ads and their support of the significance of a healthy lifestyle such as eat healthy, and exercise. Take Jennifer Hudson for instance. She is a strong role model for promoting healthy attitudes about body image. She has publicly addressed her struggle with weight and body image. She now focuses on weight loss as an ongoing lifestyle change. Demi Lovato also discusses the importance of a healthy body image by promoting eating disorders awareness. She promotes the awareness through her positive way of addressing media's exposure that has surrounded her previous struggles with disordered eating. Jennifer Lawrence is another celebrity who wants to be a positive body image role for girls. She claims she never diets for jobs and speaks out about the dangers of girls dieting. It is good for girls to have people like Jennifer Hudson, Demi Lovato, and Jennifer Lawrence to look up to and feel good about themselves. Promoting a healthy lifestyle can help adolescents and young adults embrace their bodies whatever the shape or size.  Overall, the public sees media as a negative influence. Though, if the media was to stop bombarding society with messages about being ideal and perfect, then more people would be able to see the good influences that media is trying to produce. 

Media's depiction of women portrays a standard of beauty that is unattainable. Models in magazines and in other advertisements are shown in all forms of popular media. These women are considered appealing to society. They are shown to be very slim, have long hair and perfect skin. Women are suffering from the many effects media promotes on beauty and body image. Negative effects include dissatisfaction, self-harm, depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and body dysmorphic disorder. This is a huge problem in today's society but can be changed. The media can stop airbrushing, and can feature women of all shapes and sizes in advertisements. The media needs to produce healthy behaviors and lifestyles in order to allow women to feel good about themselves. Women will then be able to stop feeling pressured by the media. 






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