A couple of months ago, I heard a remarkable comment: a man didn’t think that famous swimsuit model Kate Upton was attractive. Instead (and brace yourself), he said she was too fat to be pretty.
My immediate thought was: “This is where we’ve come regarding body image and body size? A typical guy is calling a woman who is five-feet, ten-inches tall, who weighs 137 pounds, and whose dress size is eight, fat?”
The comment betrays an assumption that physical perfection is not only possible, but the only standard for judgment about our bodies. It would be like a woman telling an already in-shape man that he’s not muscular enough.
Media has convinced us that physical perfection is attainable if we use this pair of jeans, wear those shoes, shower with this shampoo, and look just so with all of it put together. Because perfection is impossible, though, millions of us suffer from some form of body distortion. And more importantly, we think our body lacks dignity or relevance unless others find us attractive, sexy, or lean — or all three.
College professors (like yours truly), sociologists, and a variety of researchers have identified many of the factors that lead to a poor body image. Although none of the factors are absolute, some are so powerful they’ve challenged men and women who have an otherwise healthy view of their bodies to think twice on the matter.
On an individual basis, it is difficult to determine which factor has the most impact on the way we perceive our bodies. The topic is complex, but a great deal of research has been done and it’s worth looking into what has been learned. Here are some of the contributors to a poor body image:
Despite being created in 1988 as a multi-use graphics editor, Adobe Photoshop has become a household name because it allows us to manipulate photographs in a variety of ways. After a nearly two decades of the use of this software, imagine what a clever and experienced editor could do with Cosmopolitan and fitness magazine models. Although the perfect person does not exist, basic computer software has created the illusion that it’s possible.
Women’s fashion magazine covers and the photos within are notorious for featuring beautiful women with striking eyes, revealing clothing, and perfect teeth and smiles. These images are common and it’s impossible not to be drawn to them.
Magazines designed for male readership use a similar tactic to attract attention. They feature uber-fit males who are youthful, handsome, and have better physical attributes than anyone we know. No matter the reason for this change, males (and certainly boys) have taken notice and the result is that a greater percentage of them feel inadequate about their bodies.
Why magazines matter
I once read that it takes days to perfect lighting, shadows, and angles in order to capture that playful, “impromptu” moment. Magazines are selling us the idea that the woman or man with the sparkling eyes in the image is carefree and whimsical. We become convinced that they are without worry or concern and it becomes difficult not to want to be that person. They are the center of attention, alluring, sexy, and seem to have it all. Regardless of the product being sold, our senses are being invaded and our desire to be like that model is amplified.
To no one’s surprise, research is clear that readers (women being the most impacted) make instant comparisons to the models they see. And those images and comparisons linger for hours after we view these magazines. Just one glance at the cover is enough to trigger feelings of inadequacy. Imagine the impact a weekly or monthly subscription might accrue.
Television and the internet
We all devote a lot of time to television watching and internet use. To simplify things, researchers tend to condense watching television, using the internet, and playing video games into the category of “TV-watching,” which averages four or more hours per day for adolescents.
We can safely assume that the commercials, music videos, soap operas, late-night movies, reality shows, internet images, and YouTube videos play a role in the increase of body-related anxieties among teens and young adults. Many of those shows target a vulnerable, young audience at a time in life when concerns about body image are at their peak.
Why television and the internet matter
The formula for much of the programming we consume is a perfect recipe for developing a poor body image. Reality TV and all its backstabbing, competitive, bikini-clad subjects has a unique role in this matter. The internet, with its R- and X-rated content is so easily accessed and problematic that it could be a book by itself. All this funnels into the same problem: people exposed to these images will eventually compare themselves to those on screen: contestants and actors who have been hand-selected for their youth and attractiveness levels. Unfortunately, it is a contest that cannot be won. The constant comparisons eventually deliver a crushing blow to our body image.
In reality, social media is an extension of television, movies, and magazines, but it literally puts images in the hands of the user and does so at lightning speed. Leaving the addictive component for another conversation, social media should be acknowledged as the quickest rising factor in this discussion.
We rarely realize the harmful impact because we are more apt to see our participation in social media simply as a means of networking or keeping up with “friends.” We view so many images in such fleeting time on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram that it poses a unique and formidable challenge for researchers to capture the true impact.
Still, it has taken no time at all for health professionals to investigate social media’s impact on body image. Not surprisingly, they have shown that a barrage of provocative and appealing photos — mainly from Facebook and Snapchat — damage a healthy body image in the viewer.
Just like fashion magazine editors, some owners of popular accounts carefully select and manipulate photos (sometimes unintentionally), causing viewers to feel inadequate. In fact, the pure volume of images you can view as you visit a few sites is bound to cause some issues. The poses, attire, and effort put into creating the image of a perfect life can challenge anyone.
Why social media matters
The popularity of social media is self-evident. Statistics show that nearly 75 percent of young adults are known to be regular users. The combination of viewing images and reading or hearing comments from others about the attractiveness of those images (sometimes those they consider to be true friends) makes a powerful contribution to the world of negative body image.
In her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, Nancy Jo Sales says, “For many girls, the pressure to be considered ‘hot’ is felt on a nearly continual basis online.” Few things take away a young person’s chances to be virtuous than the extraordinary efforts to be thought of as “hot.” Studying the effects of social media is complicated by the fact that it changes at such a rapid rate, so it’s hard to even study the problem for extended periods. Researchers make it clear that social media use is not good for body image, especially if we are intended to see ourselves as God sees us.
Comparing ourselves to images is inevitable, and to an extent, normal, but two issues rear their ugly heads when we try to “measure up.” First, we are constantly comparing ourselves to an incredibly high standard, a battle that will surely be lost. Models selected to advertise eye-care products have uncommonly stunning eyes, and those who appear in hair product ads have unnaturally thick and silky hair, etc. Second, the fact that these exemplary physical features are further refined with the power of Photoshop means no reader could possibly meet the standard publishers create.
Yet many of us try. While we may want to emulate those images, the reality is that such photos cause more angst than motivation. Worse still, we buy the lie that attaining bodily perfection will lead to true contentment.
Read other posts from Dr. Acquaviva that address body image in our on-going series on this topic.