Negative body image of women is a very hot topic these days! The female body image and what a person should or could look like in marketing and advertising in particular is a controversial issue. It is noticeable that the body size of women as portrayed in mass media has been steadily getting smaller(1). Marketers will often do anything that they can to sell a product and make a profit, and almost anything can be sold if it appeals to our sense of beauty or is considered attractive.
There are certainly some very direct messages associated with body weight in the media; celebrities, fashion models and show hosts are often seen as role models, especially by teenagers. They appear to demonstrate what it is to be successful and popular. Their body weight, appearance and beauty are often associated with their popularity and wealth. This is particularly obvious in what is referred to as thin-ideal media, a concept which has been looked at with interest by researchers in the field of social psychology(2). The term “thin-ideal media” refers to media images, shows and films that contain very thin female leads. This is something that comes up a lot in fashion magazines, clothing catalogs and pop culture television shows. Thin-ideal media highlights the idea that thinness is a good and desirable thing to be, even if it is to a level that is potentially damaging to a persons health.
Beauty sells, and this is somewhat of a problem when the media produce unattainable images for women. Eating disorders are often, though not always and not directly, related to negative body image.
While a negative body image may incite a woman to diet in order to lose weight it is not actually negative body image that causes an eating disorder; the sufferer has to be biologically predisposed to developing one. If negative body image alone caused anorexia then every person on the planet would develop anorexia as I am sure we have all at some point felt self-conscious about the way that we look. The fact that not everyone has an eating disorder means that there is something more to it than body image issues alone; that something else is most probably genetic factors.
Regardless, negative body image of women and men is not pleasant and it seems unethical that marketing firms should constantly place an unrealistic ideal in the faces of young people.
Causes of Negative Body Image of Women
There are many factors that may contribute to a poor female body image. We live in a culture where thinness and beauty are highly valued for women and wealth and success are often considered to go hand in hand with a slim figure.
Media images of ridiculously thin women are everywhere – television shows, movies, popular magazines. The media often glamorizes a very thin body for women. These are also the pictures that are being shown to teenagers in a time of their lives that they are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and looking good.
Due to this influence, poor body image can begin to develop at a very young age. Over fifty percent of 9 and 10 year-old girls feel better about themselves if they are on a diet(3), even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 18 percent of adolescents are really overweight. About 80 percent of girls in this age group say that they have dieted in an attempt to lose weight. Likewise some boys as young as grades nine and ten are being found to use anabolic steroids in an attempt to gain more muscle mass. It is more commonly thought that negative body image affects only girls and women, but this is not the case. Men and boys suffer negative body image too, but they are simply less likely to admit to being affected than girls are because it is less socially acceptable for men to admit to caring what they look like.
The Effects of Poor Body Image
The effects of a poor body image of women can be profound. The weight loss industry is very profitable and marketing firms know exactly how to sell products to people with the promise that their lives will be better if they lose weight or buy a certain brand of clothing. “Low Fat” and “Fat Free” are two of the most successful marketing terms that a food product can use in order to sell better. Clothing firms use size zero models in their advertisements that are often photoshopped to alien-like dimensions that would be unachievable and unhealthy in any human being
For someone genetically predisposed to an eating disorder, dieting caused by a negative body image could trigger one. However for the majority of the population, what happens is a preoccupation with diet, low self-esteem, low self-confidence and never feeling that one’s body is adequate.
In addition to leading to the development of eating disorders, a poor body image can contribute to depression, anxiety, problems in relationships, the development of substance abuse problems, and consequently various health problems.
Poor self-esteem often contributes to problems in relationships, the workplace, and any area in life that requires confidence. Ultimately a negative body image can lead to unhappiness and depression both of which are also symptoms of low self-confidence. The saddest thing of all is that all of these negative feelings might be being brought about just so some company somewhere can sell more products.
Addressing The Problem of Negative Body Image
Changing the way the media portrays women is a long-term goal for many advocacy groups. There are currently national and international efforts to make marketers take responsibility for displaying pictures of men and women that are unrealistic. The #truthinads campaign is an example of this and some clothing producers have reacted to public pressure by promising never to use photoshopped models in their catalogs.
On the individual level, there are some simple things you can do to improve self-esteem, like focusing on your accomplishments and good qualities, repeating affirmations and working with self-esteem workbooks available in any bookstore. For those with serious anxiety, depression or eating disorders related to poor body image, however, psychotherapy or other mental health treatment is recommended. There is no reason that you should feel embarrassed about low self-esteem as we have all had it at some point. If it is affecting your ability to be happy you should certainly ask for help.
Selah House offers Christian eating disorder treatment for women and teen girls. They utilize evidence-based approaches and focus on dealing with the underlying issues to support long-term recovery. To find out more about Selah House and see how they can help, just follow the link to their website.
For more information on the media and body image, follow these links to body image in the media, the perfect body image, and Barbie and body image. To find out how you can help and to learn about healthy body images and body dysmorphic disorder, just follow the links. Learn more about how weight stigma and eating disorders are related.
Here is a list of celebrities that promote a healthy body image. Be sure to choose your role models carefully.
See also these tips from the National Eating Disorder Association: 10 Steps to Positive Body Image
Written by Tabitha Farrar – 2014
1. Park, S. (2005). The influence of presumed media influence on women’s desire to be thin.Communication Research, 32(5), 594-614.
2. Hargreaves, D. A., &Tiggemann, M. (2004). Idealized media images and adolescent body image: “comparing” boys and girls. Body Image, 1(4), 351-361.
3. LM, Irwin CE & Scully S: Disordered eating characteristics in girls: A survey of middle class children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 1992