Body Image and Media Pressure
All of us feel insecure at times. And if you’re a teenager, witnessing your body changing seemingly overnight makes things even more difficult. You’re constantly bombarded by various media telling you what you should and shouldn’t look like, and making it seem as though attaining what they consider the ideal body is both easy and the most important thing you could do in your life.
By the end of this article, I hope to show you none of that is true.
What Is an Ideal Body, Anyway?
If you’re on Instagram, chances are you’ve come across InstaModels. They all have the same formula for success: an impossibly thin waist, a noticeable thigh gap, and a flat belly. When it comes to guys, they’re both thin and muscular – achieving even one of those is difficult, let alone both. And even if you aren’t on Instagram, you can see this type of vaunted body whenever you turn on TV. But that’s all for show – what happens behind the curtain?
First of all, most of the women you see in such media are more than 20% underweight, and the diagnostic criteria for anorexia is 15%.  You might have heard stories of models fasting for days before their shows, passing out, and some even dying. But despite all that, when asked about the perfect body, young girls tend to describe it as 5ft 7in., 100lbs.  Such a girl would be dangerously undernourished with serious risks to her health. So, why does it happen? Why does society teach us that we need to be unhealthy in order to be pretty?
It’s All about Money, Really
If you open up any women’s magazine, chances are this is what you’ll find:
- A picture of a thin model/famous actress caught on the beach in her bikini
- 10 ways to lose weight easily
- 5 recipes for the best chocolate cake – in the whole universe!
Can you notice there’s something strange going on here?
The idea is, of course, to have everyone profit, everyone but women and young girls. Ideally, you’ll make this recipe, or at least get hungry looking at the photos; next, you’ll crave sweets and a few pounds will, naturally, follow; then, you’ll see images of underweight models and start feeling inadequate; finally, you’ll go on a diet, pay a gym membership, and/or start buying products aimed at helping you lose your perfectly normal weight in a matter of days.
This might sound like some anti-capitalist/feminist mumbo-jumbo, if it weren’t for the numbers. And the numbers say that models used to weigh 8% less than the average woman. And why not? They were putting a lot of thought into their looks, so that makes sense. But nowadays, models weigh 23% less than the average woman – most of them fulfilling the diagnostic criteria we cited for anorexia. 
But let’s not forget boys. There might not be as many magazines aimed at making them lose weight, but there are still publications like Men’s Health. Even though they talk about health, the stars on their covers almost always seem to have a perfect six pack, promoting equally unrealistic expectations. The message for readers here is that unless you’re all muscle, you’re not really healthy. That’s why boys who don’t match that unrealistic image might start feeling inadequate. 
So, if we’re aware of all that, why do we still let this happen?
Peers, Expectations, and the SuperPeer
Have you ever talked about appearance with your friends before? It doesn’t have to be weight – it could be makeup, clothes, or muscles. Have you ever bought a fashion or fitness magazine, or read an article online? If so, it likely made it that much easier for you to internalize the societal norms and expectations of what you should look like.   By continuously talking about it, looking at Instagram models and watching TV shows that depict only the fittest of characters, it’s easier to make ourselves believe that that is truly what we should look like, that it is the only way to feel and be perceived as beautiful!
Media, collectively, is the main culprit of all this, and that’s why we often refer to it as SuperPeer – it acts as a friend while feeding you these beliefs you start believing are your own.  For decades, it has made us compare ourselves with photoshopped images and makeup, believing it’s all natural. Unfortunately, we still do that today, and it’s getting more and more serious, especially for younger people. Take Fijian girls for example. Prior to the introduction of American television, only 3% of them reported being dissatisfied with their bodies. Only two years after watching shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, 15% of them reported vomiting to control weight – clearly, a worrying outcome. 
Is anything being done to counter these negative media effects?
Fortunately, things are already happening to raise awareness about these issues. For one, Dove is already renowned for its Real Beauty campaign, and there are many others that depict average bodies and present them as a source of confidence and uniqueness, rather than something to be ashamed of. Spain, France, Israel, and Italy all started banning models with a BMI under 18.5 from fashion shows, and require doctor’s certificates confirming their health. 
There’s a reason countries have begun to ban models with a BMI under 18.5, as medical experts agree that the BMI of a healthy body should be between 18.5 and 24.9.  If you would like to calculate yours, here’s how you do it.
Additionally, France recently introduced a new law forbidding digitally altered images to be presented as a natural look. This means that we’ll no longer be seeing perfectly photoshopped faces with no pores and acne in French magazines, and we’ll be getting used to seeing more bags under the eyes of their models.  And, if we’re into comparing our bodies to those in media images, we’ll see average, healthy bodies (Dove) and unretouched faces with nothing but makeup on them (French publications). How amazing is that?
How Can We Be Part of the Change?
It’s clear that Dove and also several countries are aware of these issues and are taking action to improve things. Given that media relies on its consumers (us), there is something each one of us can do to help change existing expectations. You probably have at least one social media account, so why not encourage and show support to your peers? Leave a nice comment on the photo of someone you think might be having issues with their body image and make their day! You get bonus points if you notice their photo is more about natural beauty and a healthy body, rather than filters and angles. We can change the world around us only if we act.
So instead of looking up to those who make us feel bad in our own skin, we should look for new role models who exhibit the character strengths and realistic and healthy body shapes that we most relate to. One of my personal favorites is the Netflix TV Show Drop Dead Diva. It stars the wonderful Brooke Elliott in the role of Jane, a plus-size lawyer, housing the soul of a deceased model. Long story short, one of the angels messed up, and now a previously weight-obsessed diva is resurrected in a body she used to see as ugly. But as her newly acquired time on Earth progresses, she (and her very thin friend) start to see things differently. Jane is eventually not ashamed anymore of eating doughnuts in front of people or wearing lovely dresses. In some episodes, she even fights in court for women’s right to feel beautiful in their own bodies.
Surely there are more examples out there which provide more realistic role models. Is there a TV show or a movie you’d like to share with us? If so, we would appreciate it very much, as would anyone fighting their own insecurities!
We hope this has inspired you to talk about health, instead of looks, and to strive for being healthy and living a full life! And if you feel like you could use a talk about these kinds of issues, don’t hesitate to book a free consultation with one of our Coaches.
- Clay, D., Vignoles, V., & Dittmar, H. (2005). Body Image and Self-Esteem Among Adolescent Girls: Testing the Influence of Sociocultural Factors. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 15(4), 451-477
- Hogan, M., & Strasburger, V. (2008). Body Image, Eating Disorders, and the Media. Adolescent Medicine, 19.
- Jones, D., Vigfusdottir, F., & Lee, Y. (2004). Body Image and the Appearance Culture Among Adolescent Girls and Boys: An Examination of Friend Conversations, Peer Criticism, Appearance Magazines, and the Internalization of Appearance Ideals. Journal of Adolescent Research, 19, 323-339
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