Why Body Image Matters
I thought this topic was a bit trivial given all the problems in the world, including the fact that about 700 million people aren’t getting enough to eat. However, when Taryn Brumfitt became Australian of the Year ahead of thousands of other nominees who have all done good work in their community or their field, I thought I should look at it a little more closely.
In 2016 Taryn Brumfitt made a video about her own struggles to achieve an ideal figure. It immedately went viral and attracted such a huge response that it has now become a world -wide movement. All that emphasis on the body and how you look causes a great deal of harm. You can see the full movie “Embrace” here.
In 2016 Dove Soap undertook a global survey of 10,500 women in 13 countries which showed that very few were happy with the way they look. The most body confident in the survey were South African women at 64%, followed by Russians at 45%, Turkey 42% and India with 40%. At the other end of the spectrum were the US with 24%, Canada 22%, Australia and the UK both at 20% with Japan bringing up the rear with a lowly 8%. However, this doesn't just apply to women and girls.
When the Butterfly Foundation in Australia looked at eating disorders in young people aged 11-24 it found an almost even split between young women (35%) and young men (28%) who were unhappy with their bodies. Seventy -three per cent wished they could change the way they looked and 66.6% had been bullied about it.
What’s Body Shaming?
Body shaming refers to the act of criticising or making negative comments about someone's physical appearance, particularly their body size, shape, or weight. It can have harmful effects on a person's self-esteem, body image, and mental health. Here are some key points to consider about body shaming:
1. Body shaming can take many forms, including comments, gestures, or actions that are intended to criticise or shame someone's appearance. This can include teasing, name-calling, or making derogatory remarks about a person's weight, size, shape, or other physical features.
2. Body shaming can occur in many different contexts, including in the media, online, at school or work, in social situations, and even within families. It can affect people of all ages, genders, and body types.
3. Body shaming can have serious consequences for a person's mental and physical health. It can lead to low self-esteem, negative body image, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. It can also lead to social isolation and other negative outcomes.
4. It is important to understand the impact of body shaming and to take steps to prevent it. This can include promoting body positivity, challenging negative stereotypes and biases, and creating safe and inclusive spaces that celebrate diversity and acceptance.
This is an excellent summary of the main points. However it
doesn’t convey the misery which body shaming causes. The following clip is from the UK where 9 out of 10 women have said they are unhappy with their bodies. In Australia it's around one in three.
In the Dove survey 9 out of 10 women and 8 out of 10 girls in the UK said that appearance anxiety has led them to avoid physical and social activities such as joining a sports team or going out with family or friends. Seven out of 10 said that lacking body confidence meant that they didn’t speak or assert themselves as often as they should or wanted to. Nine out of ten respondents said that they controlled their eating in some way and girls as young as 8 were starting to diet.
A negative body image can lead to a range of physical and psychological harm such as depression, self harm and even suicide. Extreme cases can also result in eating disorders such as anorexa nervosa and bulimia which can also be life threatening. See the recent ABC Four Corners Episode “Fading Away” for more on this.
So why do we feel so bad about ourselves?
Ideas about attractiveness are shaped by a variety of cultural, societal, and personal factors. Here are some examples:
1. Cultural and societal standards: The dominant culture or society can have a significant impact on what is considered attractive. For instance, in some cultures, larger body sizes are valued as a sign of wealth and health, while in other cultures, slimmer body types are preferred. Similarly, beauty standards can vary depending on factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and age.
2. Media representation: The media, including advertising, television, movies, and social media, can influence our perceptions of attractiveness. Advertisements often feature models with stereotypically "perfect" body types, which can create unrealistic expectations for how people should look. Moreover, celebrities who conform to societal beauty standards can serve as role models for what is deemed attractive.
3. Personal experiences and relationships: Our own experiences and relationships can influence our perceptions of attractiveness. For example, if we have positive experiences with people who do not conform to traditional beauty standards, we may be more likely to find those characteristics attractive. Similarly, if we receive negative comments about our appearance, we may internalize those negative beliefs.
4. Evolutionary psychology: Evolutionary psychologists suggest that our ideas about attractiveness are rooted in our biological drive to reproduce. For instance, certain physical characteristics such as clear skin, symmetrical features, and an hourglass figure may be considered attractive because they signal reproductive fitness and health.
On the subject of health, we are so accustomed to seeing beautiful people in our lives that anyone not living up to the standard is harshly criticised and deemed lazy and without self -control. I was really shocked while viewing “Embrace” at some of the vile comments directed at Taryn and others in the video. Even if someone does have a weight problem or it would be better for their health to lose a few kilos -self included, the most effective way to go about it is not to criticise which could lead to more depression and anxiety, but to say, get them to join you in outdoor activities or in helping to prepare healthier food together. This is especially important for children as it establishes better eating habits for life.
According to the ABC program mentioned above the number of younger people being seen with eating disorders in Australia has increased by 80 -100% in the last 3 years and children as young as 11 are affected.
How do we improve our body image and especially that of our children?
1. Appreciate. In the first instance, we should learn to love and enjoy the body we have. We should focus on our uniqueness and individuality and stop comparing ourselves to others. Taryn’s video is a great inspiration in that regard as are the many stories and activities. The Body Positive organisation in the USA provides similar inspiration, especially for young people. If you can get together with, or form a local community, so much the better. Nothing is more attractive than people who simply are, who radiate positivity, rather than people who are always trying to impress someone or be someone else. Think of poor Michael Jackson who is reputed to have had more than 100 cosmetic surgeries and most likely still wasn’t happy before his untimely death. Spend less time on Social media. Don’t buy glossy magazines full of diets, ultra -thin models and celebrities
If you need help with that, here's a wonderful quote from Roald Dahl:
Complain. Write to advertisers or
report media channels if you see advertising or material which overtly pushes super thin or underage models. Sweden bans
advertising to children under twelve, but I’m not sure how effective that is
when films, game show hosts or breakfast programs and even computer games continue
to promote the skinny ideal. [If countries were serious about preventing obesity, perhaps they should ban the sale and marketing of junk food, especially to minors].
However, advertisers are starting to listen. Dove began using a range of different models with different shapes and skin tones in its “RealBeauty” Campaign in 2004. Underwear manufacturer Aerie Real (USA) began using plus size models and vowed to stop airbrushing their models. In 2019, Facebook began withholding ads for cosmetic surgery and weight loss products from the feed of underage viewers because some researchers have found a strong correlation with rising body image concerns and social media use. This finding also makes it tempting to restrict the amount of time young people spend on such platforms.
Fashion brands and movies have also begun to include larger people, which is quite refreshing as they seem more authentic and in them we recognise ourselves. I admit to being a fangirl of Shane Jacobson, who appears in the IGA ads here. He's also a very successful actor, producer, presenter and entertainer. While not exactly George Clooney, he looks genuine and radiates warmth and character. He smiles with his eyes.
The recent removal of references to “fatness” and “ugliness” from some
of Roald Dahl’s Children’s books must also be seen in this light, though I’m normally
against censorship of any kind and against altering a writer’s work. [Perhaps a disclaimer would do]. It does highlight the importance of talking about conflicting information and
knowing what your children are actually seeing and reading. As feminists have shown us, the words we use matter.
Criticisms of the Body Image Movement
Some medical professionals have criticised the body image movement for glorifying being overweight when obesity can lead to life threatening conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or breathing difficulties. They also fear that if people are carrying more weight than they should, but feel good about themselves, they might not go to see a doctor, when they may in fact have an underlying condition.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that starting from a position of acceptance is more productive than shaming and negative comments. Many people who are in fact of normal weight still obsess about their bodies and their food intake, especially when preteens are doing it too.
Even if people are seriously overweight, body shaming is not an effective way to address the issue. In fact, research has shown that body shaming can actually make things worse, leading to increased weight gain and other negative health outcomes. Many factors contribute to weight gain including underlying conditions, genetics, and poverty. Stigmatising and shaming people who are struggling with their weight only serves to further marginalise and isolate.
A far more productive approach is to focus on health and well-being, rather than weight or appearance. This can include promoting healthy habits such as regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and stress management, as well as providing access to resources and support for people who are struggling. If you really want to help a family member or a friend, support them emotionally. Children especially need to be assured that they are loved for who they are and as they are.
At the very least, the Body Image Movement builds self -esteem, has already changed some practices and moves the conversation away from external appearances. It also promotes values such as kindness to both one’s self and others. Lastly, it is also about simply enjoying life, not counting calories and worrying constantly about what others think of us. It doesn't mean we shouldn't try to look good and be healthy, but as Taryn says,
Don't waste a single day of your life
being at war with your body."
Additional resources .
- The Body Image Movement (International - has UK, US Affiliates)
- Body Positive: (USA Non - profit, mainly about teaching teens and young adults people to feel positive about their bodies)
- The Butterfly Foundation (AU) helps people with eating disorders
- Obesity Action Coalition (USA) Helps with eating disorders
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases:
- Harvard Health Publishing:
- American Psychological Association: about stigma and obesity
Here are some additional resources on body shaming: