Body image

Body image refers to the perception of one's own body, based chiefly in comparison to socially constructed standards or ideals.

Humans have the unique ability to form abstract conceptions about themselvesand to gaze at themselves as both the seer and the object being seen. This can cause conflict when the seer places unrealistic demands on him- or herself,especially on his or her own body. As the advertising and film industries bombard the industrialized world with images of idealized beauty, more and moreadolescents are forming negative body images and engaging in self-destructive behaviors to fit an unrealistic ideal.

Children begin to recognize themselves in mirrors in meaningful ways at about18 months and begin perceiving themselves as physical beings in toddlerhood.School-age children are aware of how their bodies look, though relatively few focus an inappropriate amount of attention on them. Ideally, children learnthat their physical appearance is in many ways beyond their control and learn to accept their bodies without judgment. However, children living in the industrialized world are immersed in a culture that creates standards of idealized beauty and then connects those standards to personal worth. Consequently,school-age children can become convinced that they are only worthwhile if they live up to an idealized standard of physical appearance.

Even without the pernicious effects of the media, children face prejudices based on their appearances. Children spend much of their early lives in schools, which are highly social and competitive, with notoriously rigid hierarchiesthat are often based on physical appearance. Studies have found that teachers are also drawn to the most attractive children, which can further compounda child's poor body image. In a school-age child, a poor body image usually results in social withdrawal and poor self-esteem.

As puberty nears, children become increasingly focused on the appearance of their bodies. An adolescent may mature too quickly, too slowly, in a way thatis unattractive, or in a way that makes the adolescent stand out in the crowd. Any deviation from the ideal can result in a negative body image, and adolescents may diet or use steroids to counter their own negative self-concept. Distorted body images in adolescence can lead to a number of eating disorderssuch as anorexia nervosa (starving), bulimia (binging and purging), or dysmorphic disorder (a severe, clinically recognized illusory body image). These disorders are accompanied by psychological problems, such as depression or anxiety, as the victim magnifies a slight flaw to such a degree that all other aspects of personality and appearance are ignored.

Body-image disorders such as those mentioned have become prevalent in contemporary society, especially among adolescent girls. In 1982 a study concluded that the incidence of anorexia among adolescent girls had doubled every 10 years since the 1950s. The group Advertising Women of New York conducted a 1999survey of teen girls which showed that 75% of the girls surveyed felt insulted by advertisements that implied that women care only about their looks. In the same survey, 55% of the teenage girls said they see ads "all the time" that make them want to go on a diet, and 64% of the girls felt there was too much sexual imagery in the ads. With a social issue such as body image, it may be difficult to determine whether the media shape personal perceptions or justreflect them. A related 1999 study by the University of Texas found that fashion magazines do not harm the body image of most teenage girls. However, forgirls already dissatisfied with their bodies, a steady exposure to popular magazines such as Seventeen can increase anxiety about body image and dieting. Steady exposure to images of unrealistically slender models may subtly encourage girls who are already troubled to experiment with bingeing and purging.

Teenage boys are also feeling the pressure. During the 1990s, psychologists have identified a "national crisis of boyhood." Boys attempt to balance the traditional masculine values of their fathers (such as physical toughness, reluctance to discuss problems, adherence to traditional gender roles in the household) with conflicting cultural messages. Teenage boys interviewed for academic surveys reported peer pressure, teasing and intimidation related to physical appearance. Some boys seek reassurance by trying to look like male fashion models with sharply defined muscles. About 10 percent of teenagers who aretreated for eating disorders are male.

People with eating disorders typically share common thought patterns. They strive for perfection, often viewing one mistake as evidence of total failure.They engage in all-or-nothing thinking; certain concepts are completely goodor completely bad, which can push ideas about food into extremes such as starving, bingeing and purging. People with eating disorders are sometimes unaware of their own body's internal cues of hunger and satiety. Often such individuals do not have a sense of who they are and they seek external reinforcement. When they conform to society's ideals of appearance, they feel more secure.Other common characteristics are an excessive desire to please, a sense of helplessness and a desire to avoid being alone with their own feelings.

Barbara Wingate, M.D., former director of the University of Pennsylvania Weight and Eating Disorders Program, offers guidelines to help people distinguishwhen they are simply obsessive about weight control and when they have crossed the line to an eating disorder. Some signs have been well publicized, as when a person induces vomiting after eating or when a young woman stops menstruating. A person who quickly heads to the gym after eating to "exercise off"a meal may be on dangerous ground. Another warning sign is constant thinkingand talking about what an individual has already eaten, what she will eat next and other weight-related topics. A person in danger of a food disorder willbe focused on such concerns on a daily basis. Another warning sign would bemissing a significant event such as a job interview or high school reunion out of fear of appearing too fat.

By definition, eating disorders flow directly from a distorted body image. Bulimia affects up to 5% of women and many more young women suffer subthreshold(predisposing) symptoms. The American Counseling Association reported in 1999 that 15% to 18% of high school students show some symptoms of bulimia, withsubthreshold bulimia found in 17% to 27% of college women. Anorexia affects1% to 4% of American women. People with eating disorders are often treated with group therapy to help address their sense of isolation and shame. Group therapy also offers an opportunity for people with eating disorders to experience the support of peers and do a reality check on skewed ideas of food, appearance and weight.

In a study reported by the University of Chicago in 1999, anthropologists looked at body image in different cultures to see what can be learned about distorted female body images in industrialized countries. In every culture studied, the body was seen as a means of enabling women to carry out social and economic roles in addition to conjugal and reproductive roles. Women in non-Western countries saw the ideal female body as being slender. However, in their conception of the body size that would appeal to men, non-Western women were far more accurate and than their Western counterparts, who seemed to be heavily influenced by images of "ultraslim" women in the media. However, as part ofthe study, the anthropologists also compared women's perception of the bodypreferences of men in Auckland, where there is a lot of media exposure, withtheir counterparts in Samoa, where the influence of the media is limited. There was no difference in the accuracy of women's body perceptions in the two cultures, leading the anthropologists to conclude that media influence does not entirely explain distorted body image.

Confusing messages about body image are reaching younger children. The American Dietetics Association reported in 1999 that up to 30% of 9-year-old girlsare concerned about being overweight and 55% of 7- to 12-year-old girls say they would like to be thinner. To address these perceptions, the University ofMinnesota developed a community education program in conjunction with the Girl Scouts. The program, Taste of Food, Fun and Fitness, targeted preteen girls ages 10, 11 and 12 and focused on three messages: "Enjoy a variety of foods," "Physical activity is fun," and "Be proud of yourself-everyone is different." Parent tip sheets were sent home to encourage family discussions of eating, exercise and media pressures. The girls enjoyed the program, but the researchers concluded that the six-week program was much too short to have a lasting impact. The organizers are planning ongoing programs through the Girl Scouts that will teach girls to look critically at popular teen magazines and television advertisements.

Psychologists in the United States have noted an increased intensity in the ideal body images directed at young men. Just as the stereotype for female perfection is embodied in the Barbie doll, the evolution of male stereotypes canbe traced in the designs of action figures such as G.I. Joe, Superman and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The 1978 G.I. Joe, projected onto a lifesize human figure, had a 32-inch waist, a 44-inch chest and 12-inch Biceps. The projection of the 1999 Batman action figure had a 30-inch waist, a 57-inch chest and 27-inch biceps. Psychologists look at trends in toys and styles as markersof underlying social pressures.

Less is known about pressure on teenage boys because they are much less likely than girls to discuss it. Adolescent boys are more likely to relieve pressures for perfection by teasing and hazing each other over physical differences. Girls can measure puberty with a definite landmark, menstruation. Boys reach puberty later than girls, so there is the added confusion of being developmentally out of sync compared to female classmates. The amount of testosteronein the male bloodstream will increase one hundred-fold over adolescence, butthere is no uniformity and boys develop at very different rates.

In previous generations, the adolescent male goal was to appear strong and masculine. At the end of the twentieth century, the bar has been raised and many young men seek the "cut" look of defined muscles. Social critics trace thepopularity of the "bulked up" look to changes in visual advertising images, especially the prevalence of the bare, muscular male chest. When carried to extremes, these trends can lead people into elective surgery and the misuse andabuse of performance-enhancing drugs. Between 1996 and 1998, the number of men undergoing cosmetic surgery increased 34%, with liposuction the most popular procedure. Young men who desire an athletic appearance may be tempted to experiment with nutritional supplements and steroids. A study at Oregon HealthSciences University showed that 78% of high school athletes use supplementssuch as creatine, ginseng, ma-huang and androstenedione. Additional studies carried out by the same institution showed that the use of supplements placedboys at greater risk for moving on to steroid use. Pitcher Mark McGuire renounced the use of androstenedione.

Another extreme manifestation of distorted body image is body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a psychiatric illness that is more common in young men than previously believed. The average age of onset is 15. People with this condition become obsessed with "flaws" in their appearance which are not visible to others. In a study at Brown University School of Medicine, researchers noted thatpatients with BDD constantly checked the mirror and tried to disguise imaginary deformities, with emphasis on the hair, nose and skin. People with BDD frequently refuse to leave the house, leading to the description of body dysmorphic disorder as agoraphobia imposed by body image.

The emerging field of "body theory" looks at the way the body has taken on apolitical role. Different social ideas and ideals show themselves in the waythe body is depicted. As part of this political and social process, media advertising uses the body to sell objects. Sometimes the model's head is not even shown, and this contributes to the idea that the image of the body is commodified-that is, the body is just another marketing gimmick. While it is impossible to ignore media suggestions that attaining the ideal body will guarantee a perfect life, analyzing the messages deprives them of some of their power.

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