Body image refers to a person’s self-perception of his or her body type and body size. This image is sometimes in keeping with the reality of a person’s body size but often quite disparate from that actuality. When a disconnect exists between perceived and actual body size, harmful eating and dieting behaviors can ensue. Understanding body image provides insight into the underlying cause of severe eating disorders and unhealthy obsession with weight control. These problems are often very severe, especially for girls and women.
Standards of attractiveness have changed in U.S. culture. In the 1940s and 1950s, predominantly full-bodied women and tall, dark-haired men were seen as the most attractive. In the 1960s, a shift to much thinner body types became the norm in the fashion and entertainment industries. Since this shift, popular culture images consistently show thin, or often extremely thin, women as the standard of beauty. For men, muscle strength remains the predominant physical feature of attractiveness. The prevalence of attractive models and characters influences consumers to compare themselves to these images, and this increased focus on ultra-thin women affects the body image of young girls and women.
Gender differences in body image are the focus of much social science research, which consistently shows that compared with men and boys, women and girls are more susceptible to poor body images and the problems associated with a poor self-image. Women are far more likely to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. These are harmful, often life-threatening, diseases leading women to cause serious damage to their digestive and central nervous systems by extreme dieting and eating behaviors. Although men and boys are also diagnosed with eating disorders, the statistics show women and girls are at much greater risk.
Some of the risk-taking behaviors associated with eating disorders are self-induced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives and appetite suppressants, and self-starvation. Some unhealthy eating and dieting practices are also associated with weight gain. Overeating (or bingeing) and steroid use cause the individual to bulk up. Overeating leads to obesity, a major cause of disease in North America. Steroid use is associated with myriad health problems and is far too common among athletic males who desire to bulk up their muscle mass. Social science research must consider the different techniques used to control weight, including the consumption of food, the use of drugs, and exercise habits.
Media representations of beautiful people continue to show men and women differently. For women and girls specifically, we see a demand for thin women with big breasts and little tolerance for overweight women. For men, on the other hand, popular culture images of overweight men meet with much less resistance. Studies show that women in the entertainment industry must achieve and maintain thin waistlines, large breasts, toned skin and muscles, perfectly coiffed hair, and well-defined facial features. This ideal is largely consistent across all media of popular culture. Women who do not meet these criteria are hidden from public display. Men, however, may be overweight and short, yet featured prominently on television and in film. Although product advertisements still rely heavily on male models who are tall, thin, and muscular, more roles in television and film exist for men who do not fit into those images than for women not fitting the attractiveness standards. This leads to an overabundance of popular images of thin women.
The media images of thin women, combined with the increased attention to health concerns regarding weight, result in an increase in women engaging in extreme measures to become or stay thin. Women may also overexercise in an effort to obtain the ideal body size. A woman suffering from anorexia nervosa can achieve an overly thin body size by excessively exercising and undereating. While self-starvation has historically been the major symptom of anorexia, counselors and doctors now also pay attention to extreme exercising habits.
Health professionals and organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, highlight the problem of overweight Americans because of their concern about obesity and related diseases. For children, especially, problems associated with obesity are increasing in number. Critics call the United States a “culture of excess,” with large meals and food portions, easy access to fast foods and sweets, and little time for physical activity. In an effort to combat obesity, specifically among children, experts advocate physical fitness and exercise. Gym memberships, exercise programs, and diet plans are big business. For women with poor body image, extreme efforts to be thin hide behind the guise of healthy lifestyle. For others, of course, this health-conscious approach to life is a welcome change and a needed benefit for health improvement. Society should give more attention to the contradictory messages regarding weight and appearance, particularly the unrealistic images of thin women as portrayed in popular culture. Combined with a societal “push” to be active and physically fit, these unrealistic images contribute to a nation of women engaging in unhealthy eating and dieting behaviors. Whether overweight and overeating, or super thin, starving, and overexercising, women and girls struggle with their body image.
In other parts of the world, similar beauty standards exist. While some variation occurs between cultures of how women and men display beauty, thin bodies prevail in both Western and non-Western cultures as the female ideal. Skin tone, facial features, hair texture, and overall figure also determine beauty according to cultural standards. Given the global diversity of men and women, standardizing these individual features becomes problematic. The Western model woman is typically tall and thin, with straight hair and smooth skin tone. Facial features are proportionate with a small thin nose, with full lips and white straight teeth. Eye color is usually a light blue or green. For men, specific facial features receive less attention. Tall men with dark hair, white teeth, and muscular yet thin bodies remain as the standard of attractiveness. In essence, the Westernized image of attractive is now a global one.
One standard of attractiveness—based on a white ideal of beauty—results in problems for women and men of different racial/ethnic identities. Early research concluded that African American women value a larger female body type than do white Americans. The explanation purported that the black culture prefers full-figured, overweight, black women; therefore, black women were less susceptible to eating disorders. Several problems exist with this conclusion. First, even if we accept the assumption that there is a fundamental difference in the African American culture regarding attractiveness, black women may still be at risk for unhealthy eating and dieting. Obesity is statistically higher among the black American population, putting black men, women, and children at much greater health risk. Additionally, the “cultural differences” conclusion precludes continued discussion of racial/ethnic differences in body image.
Social science research must continue to address the racial/ethnic differences in body image and efforts to modify or maintain appearance. More research, for example, needs to be done on Asian Americans, Latinos/as, and other groups to uncover the influence of the popular image of attractiveness on body image. Finally, the earlier conclusions about black America dismiss the increased pressure on African American women, and all women, to obtain the thin, white ideal body size and type. Hair straightening, teeth whitening, skin toners, and plastic surgeries all exist in a society that overvalues appearance and undervalues achievement.
Body image is a complex issue. The personal trouble of an unhealthy or unrealistic self-image can lead to serious mental and physical health concerns. The larger concern, however, is the social problem of competing pressures and ideals that result in a culture of poor self-worth and body image dysfunction. Social science must focus research on an improved understanding of the gender and racial differences in body image and efforts to achieve the cultural standard of beauty. With this improved understanding should come improved efforts to address the problems of negative body image and unhealthy eating and dieting behavior.
- McCabe, Marita P. and Lina A. Ricciardelli. 2003. “Sociocultural Influences on Body Image and Body Changes among Adolescent Boys and Girls.” The Journal of Social Psychology 143:5-26.
- Poran, Maya A. 2006. “The Politics of Protection: Body Image, Social Pressures, and the Misrepresentation of Young Black Women.” Sex Roles 55:739-55.
- Thompson, Becky W. 1996. A Hunger So Wide and So Deep: A Multiracial View of Women’s Eating Problems. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Wolf, Naomi. 2002. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women. New York: William Morrow.