Women’s National Health Week, an annual awareness event dedicated to all issues related to women’s health, was May 13-19 this year.
In honor of this year’s message, “It’s your time,” I want to draw attention to the link between how we see ourselves and how we treat our bodies.
Currently, 80 percent of women in the U.S. are dissatisfied with their appearance. And more than 10 million are suffering from eating disorders.
So the question I have to ask, Why all the self-hatred?
Body Image and the Media
Historically, the ideal female body was strong and full-figured, as seen in icons such as Marilyn Monroe. Yet even as early as the 1800s, when painful, health-impairing corsets were used to accentuate the breasts, hips and buttocks, women were expected to strive for a specific ideal of beauty.
In the 1900s, the American public became more consumed with the thin, boyish physique, viewing full-figured women as indulgent and lacking in self-control – a trend that grew exponentially by the end of the century.
In modern times, we’ve witnessed a “thin at all costs” movement that now defines Western culture. The U.S. has the highest rates of obesity and eating disorders in the world. As a melting pot of people from all backgrounds, there is no genetic reason that explains this increased vulnerability to weight, body and food issues. Instead, we have to look at the messages our society sends about how we value our citizens. From a young age, women aspire to Barbie-like measurements that are physiologically impossible without surgery and/or starvation:
- According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 42 percent of first- to third-grade girls want to lose weight, and 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.
- According to a study in Pediatrics, about two-thirds of girls in the 5th to 12th grades said that magazine images influence their vision of an ideal body, and about half of the girls said the images made them want to lose weight.
- By adolescence, studies show that young people are receiving an estimated 5,260 “attractiveness messages” per year from network television commercials alone.
- According to Teen magazine, 35 percent of girls ages 6 to 12 have been on at least one diet, and 50 to 70 percent of normal-weight girls think they are overweight.
Over time, models have gone from thin to emaciated, which has been mirrored by a growing problem of eating disorders and body image dissatisfaction. In 1975 most models weighed 8 percent less than the average woman; today they weigh 23 percent less. Compared to the Playboy centerfolds and Miss America winners from the 1950s, at least one-quarter of present-day icons meet the weight criteria for anorexia. Meanwhile, the average woman’s weight has increased.
Today, the media is a far more powerful influence than ever before, sometimes taking precedence over friends, family or other real women. Whereas women used to look at role models who were average-sized, women are now comparing themselves with images (some of which are merely computerized conglomerations of body parts) that are unrealistically thin. In the old days, a young girl grew up wanting to look like her mother or best friend. Now she wants to look like Angelina Jolie.
Herein lies the real damage. The more an individual is exposed to the media, the more he or she believes it is reflective of the real world. What most people still don’t realize is that the majority of the pictures they see in magazines are altered in some way and that looking like their role models is physically impossible. It is a setup for self-hatred.
Genetics and Thin-Heritance
As a result of both genetic and environmental factors, body image issues and eating disorder behaviors may be passed down from generation to generation. This concept, recently labeled “thin-heritance,” explores how a mother’s views about food, dieting practices, and negative attitudes and comments about her own body or her child’s appearance increase her children’s risk for poor body image and eating disorders.
Body image also stems from cultural messages. For example, in Polynesian culture, bigger once meant being healthier and stronger. In a landmark 1998 study of girls in Fiji, Harvard researchers demonstrated how the introduction of television contributed to dramatic increases in eating disorders over a three-year period. In a culture that once valued a healthy, robust physique, girls began viewing themselves as fat, going on diets and feeling depressed about the way they looked, all in an effort to look more like the Western women they saw on shows like the original “Beverly Hills 90210.”
After three years, 74 percent of Fijian teenage girls described themselves as too fat. Those who watched TV three or more nights a week were 30 percent more likely to go on a diet than their peers who watched less TV. Being called “skinny” went from a cultural insult to a worthy life goal.
Similarly, African-American culture is beginning to see a shift. While there used to be greater acceptance of women who were full-figured, now the younger generations are buying into the thin ideal, and we’re seeing famous African-American singers and actresses advertising dramatic weight losses.
In all relationships, whether a boyfriend, spouse, peer, coworker, sibling or parent, people look for acceptance and validation. When they receive criticism, rejection or judgment instead, they are at increased risk of a number of mental health issues, including poor body image and eating disorders. Troubling behaviors range from a dirty look when taking a second helping of food at the dinner table to persistent weight-related bullying by one’s peers. All of these exchanges, no matter how subtle, can have a lasting impact.
A Glimmer of Hope
Amidst all of the negative media messages, there have been a few glimmers of hope in the past decade:
- In an effort to become ambassadors for the message of healthy body image, Voguerecently announced that it would no longer feature models under age 16 or those who appear to have an eating disorder.
- Fashion organizations in Spain and Italy have specified a minimum healthy body mass index for models.
- Israel’s government recently passed a law that requires a healthy body mass index for models as well as full disclosure if fashion media and advertising use Photoshop to change a model’s figure.
- Dove has been leading “real beauty” empowerment campaigns and taking a stand against Photoshopping for almost a decade.
- In 2002, actress Jamie Lee Curtis posed for a magazine both “glammed up” and in “real life” fashion to bring awareness to the way media images are digitally altered.
- Social media websites such as Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest are increasingly banning pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia messages. At the same time, there are a growing number of websites dedicated to healthy portrayals of real women, including the I Am That Girl blog.
In spite of these trailblazing changes, a lot of progress has yet to be made. The majority of magazines and other media have not replaced unrealistic images with normal, average-sized people. Although awareness is growing, parents and other authority figures can do more to model healthy self-image and diet, limit exposure to media, openly talk about media messages and share daily family meals. What we need is a broad-scale cultural shift that will only come about when we start demanding it.