The Problem with Body Image

by Taylor Waresh

Popular magazine covers featuring rail-thin models with airbrushed faces and perfect, glistening smiles. Visually loud and imposing advertisements, billboards, and posters displaying scantily dressed celebrities with painstakingly lean bodies and sultry faces, technologically tweaked to unrealistic perfection and clinging to faceless men whose glossy arms alone resemble those of the Incredible Hulk’s.

These examples are just a few of the current media’s contributions to the inescapable pressure targeting young boys and girls today: pressure to be unrelentingly perfect. This goal is unattainable and unrealistic, and yet all over the world adolescents between the ages and nineteen are struggling to reach this goal every day.

Photo of 5”10, 120 lb Ralph Lauren model, Philippa Hamilton, who, last April, was fired for being ‘overweight.’ This photograph is digitally altered.

In society, an image of perfection is consistently, if not purposely, instilled within us from the start of our lives. Minds that have yet to be molded are exposed to advertisements and TV commercials of products to make faces smoother, skin firmer, eyes bigger, teeth whiter, hair straighter, and they take it upon themselves to start a new self-improvement regime to be unremittingly perfect.

I was home sick from school one day,  lazily flipping through TV channels on my plush couch, when I came across a clip of a woman named Eve Ensler sitting nonchalantly on a plush-looking couch, one of her legs folded up against her chest and the other resting casually on the wooden floor. She was animatedly talking about how hard media can be on an impressionable young woman. She paused for a moment before curling her legs up underneath her, adjusting herself to sit up straighter. Her eyes glinted almost maliciously in the bright, early morning lighting, and I remember being impressed and surprised by how passionate she seemed.

Here was a woman who had devoted all of her time writing and performing plays in order to bring women equality and fairness, and to make them feel comfortable with who they were. Her message sparked my interest, and I became intrigued by the ideals that formulate our self image, something which plays such a surprisingly important role in our overall happiness.

However, despite the efforts of Ensler and many others, children and young adults everywhere have an incredibly screwed and negative sense of body image.  Teenage girls seem to be most heavily effected.

“Young girls today are expected to excel academically, be athletic and look like models. That is putting a growing number of teenage girls at risk for aggression, eating disorders, depression and even suicide,” says Doctor Stephen Hinshaw, psychologist and author of the book Triple Bind. He elaborates more on this mounting pressure: “First, girls are still raised to be our caregivers and nurturers….Second, we’ve got to raise them now to be ultra competitive, because they are the top of their class, getting athletic scholarships, as well as unprecedented academic success. So that’s the double bind. And the triple bind comes in with the pressure to be inexorably perfect.”

Wanting to explore this prominent, yet discreet, problem myself, I interviewed Donna Gallagher, a nutrition therapist at the ‘Begin Within’ Center. When asked about  the high expectations that young girls face, Gallagher’s opinion was clear: “When girls see images of skinny and photoshopped women on the covers of magazines or on TV shows, these girls perceive these images as normal. Because of that, they then look at themselves as abnormal: overweight, unbeautiful, grotesque.”

She also mentioned the unrealistic pressure that is consequently placed on these girls, pressure about things like buying clothes or buying food, to diet or lose weight, to make themselves look prettier or thinner. Studies have shown that images of such “elitist” women put pressure on girls as young as six to look good all the time.

Psychologist Dr. Stephen Hinshaw discovered in one of his surveys that “one in four girls under the age of nineteen will have developed a major form of depression, attempted suicide, engaged in cutting or self-mutilation, or participate in binge eating or other eating disorders.” When asked about these figures, Gallagher nodded in unfortunate agreement. She admits that those numbers may be even less than the truth, that the amount of girls affected by this mounting issue could be even higher.

Whether or not that is true is hard to say, but with numbers as elevated as one in four, just take a look around the room at your female classmates and do the math. If nothing is done about this unattainable, perfect body image that is set for us, the consequences can be devastating, not only physically, but mentally as well.

(Dr. Stephen Hinshaw also claims that “national surveys of 3rd grade girls—8 year-old girls—in the United States, found that 60% are worried about their weight, and over a third are dieting.” He goes on to state that plastic surgery among teens has tripled between 1997 and 2007.)

While reading this article, you have to remember that a negative self image is not a growing pain that some female adolescents experience, nor is it a side effect of puberty, or a misguided cry for attention. When a person is strongly affected by this mounting issue, his or her physical problems and distorted self-views do not just fade away.  Rarely does this sentiment leave its victims comfortable with the skin they are in; it stays to haunt you, lingering like a ghost, possibly even worsening with age.

Gallagher mentioned that several of her patients have  lived a lifetime of low self-esteem and negative self images, even at fifty or sixty years of age. She believes that we must take action as a society, for the consequences continue to mount. If nothing is done to stop this perpetual and increasingly unrealistic expectation, the actions of young girls time and time again will become more dysfunctional. They will continue trying only to fail, because perfection, although an attractive and desirable prospect, is impossible.

We must try to change these images and the expectations they sell, not only for our children or ourselves, but also for the generations ahead.

(The Dove Campaign For Real Beauty is a beneficial organization that explores the inner problems with themselves that girls, all over the world, experience due to negative self images.  The commericals in this article can both be found at their website.)

A final thought:

“Focus on what her brain does, what her mind does and what her spirit does,” Joe Kelly, president of Dads and Daughters, a non-profit organization, says, “What her body does and not on how it looks, because that’s not why we have our bodies. We don’t have our bodies for their appearance – we have our bodies for what they can do and what it helps us bring to the world.”

2 Responses to “The Problem with Body Image”

  1. teeth whitening Says:

    I never thought I will agree with this opinion, but you know I agree partially now

  2. mike hocket Says:

    Such an informative site thanks for this information.

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