Body Image is the way we perceive and judge our physical body. Our body image may be different from how our physical body would be judged by a doctor. We may see a body that is too tall or too fat with breasts that are too small and a face with a big nose and pointy chin. A doctor who is concerned with health may say our body is well proportioned and healthy.
Our body image will be influenced by a number of factors. Influences include culture, the time in history, fashion, family, peer group, our relationships, media and current medical information. Our own beliefs, self esteem and confidence will also affect how we see our physical body.
In some cultures, for example the Pacific Island nations, a large body is often associated with wealth and power so a larger body shape is highly regarded. I did some reading about body image of different ethnic groups and found this to be complex. For example research suggests there are differences between people from different Asian countries so generalising is misleading. Some research suggests Asian people living in their native country have a poorer body image than Asian people living in American, Britain or Australia. A factor which could be relevant to the body image of Asians is that Asian norms place high value on modesty and humility so they may be less likely to say they are happy with their body because it sounds like boasting.
The time in history is relevant to body image. In Renaissance times the idealised shape for a woman’s body was more ‘voluptuous’ than at any other period in history. Paintings of the time feature women who would be considered fat or obese today. Rubens, a Flemish painter (1577-1640) is well known for his paintings of women who were full figured and they were considered sexy.
We are strongly influenced by the images we see in magazines, newspapers and on television, internet and movies. People who are slim and good looking are often portrayed as successful in all realms of life. We are encouraged to aspire to be thin. Of course companies which make money from marketing slimming powders, foods, pre-packaged meals or slimming programs jump on the band wagon and push the idea that slim or skinny is best. Images in magazines are often photo shopped or air brushed.
Models are often unhealthily thin. Some celebrities have had plastic surgery to alter parts of their bodies they are not happy with. However, it has been found women who have had plastic surgery often do not have a better body image than women who have not.
Models and celebrities considered beautiful by others are often still critical of their own looks. Women in western society (and many other societies too) are generally not encouraged to be happy with how they look. If women in a group are talking about their appearance they will usually be criticising themselves. They may fear that if they were to say they think they look okay (or pretty darn good) one of the group would tell them they are too fat or criticise them in some other way. At least if you say you are fat, someone might say you aren’t or they might say you have nice legs or compliment you in some other way.
There is a lot of emphasis on looks rather than personality or traits such as kindness, empathy, creativity, imagination or patience. As women age they tend to worry about wrinkles, sagging bits, grey hair and a general loss of youthful appearance. What a pity they aren’t thinking of how much they have learnt over the years and how they can use this knowledge to benefit others and themselves.
What can one do to get a better body image? Here are a few ideas for a start.
Write down what features you like about yourself, in regard to both your physical appearance and your personality. Add to this list when you think of additional points.
Work on increasing your self confidence.
Practice positive self talk in all areas of your life.
Find your own style and dress in clothes and accessories that you like, not what’s the latest fashion. Avoid uncomfortable items. Express your personality through what you wear.
Dress to suit your body shape and wear colours that make you look and feel good.
Look after your body and your health so you feel energetic.
Put effort into hobbies, interests and learning new skills rather than obsessing about your looks.
Don’t get caught up in criticising other people’s looks or your own. Cultivate friendships with positive people.
Avoid media that will make you feel bad about yourself in any way.
Avoid media that is centred on how people look and other superficial subjects.
Poor body image can lead to eating disorders, depression and low self esteem. Life is too short to waste time obsessing about what we think of our physical appearance. Caroline Knapp (American writer and columnist) says, ’ What is this drive to be thinner, prettier, better dressed, other? Who exactly is this other and what does she look like beyond the jacket she's wearing or the food she's not eating? What might we be doing, thinking, feeling about if we didn't think about body image, ever?’