Body image is a complicated concept that can have a significant impact on personal wellness. Simply put, we understand body image to be the way we think and feel about our own body. Our interpretation of our body image is informed by how we subjectively picture ourselves, and also by the overt and covert messages we receive from our peers and the world around us. Take a moment to close your eyes and picture yourself — this is your body image.
Media has an unparalleled influence on how we think and feel about our bodies. To understand how a sense of dissatisfaction with one’s self can develop, consider the constant streaming of images of perfect skin, hair, teeth and body shape in magazines and online. Some studies estimate that roughly 91 per cent of women are dissatisfied with their personal appearance while in reality, only about five per cent of women naturally possess the “hourglass” shape portrayed in pop culture.
Women are not alone. More and more guys are becoming affected by poorer body image. One-fifth of men surveyed agree that they would consider undergoing cosmetic surgery due to dissatisfaction with their appearance. Media increasingly depicts males as being muscular, tall and hairless, with flawless skin and teeth. The truth is, few men actually have what is known as the “action figure” body type.
The largest myth surrounding body image is that the media portrays real men and women. Fashion model Cameron Russell states, “I wish I looked like that girl in the magazine, but that simply is not me. Through photoshopping, makeup, hair and wardrobe that is not what I look like in real life.” Media needs to be challenged to portray more realistic images of people. Incessant exposure to photoshopped and airbrushed images can lead to negative body image and influence a wide variety of unsafe lifestyle practices, including extreme measures to achieve a certain body shape that in reality is unattainable. Research has found that individuals with negative body image and subsequent low self-esteem are more likely to engage in risky behaviors like substance abuse (including illicit steroid use), unprotected sex, disordered eating and excessive exercise — all with significant potential for poor health outcomes.
On the flip-side, having a more positive body image can have a positive impact on personal wellness. People who basically like themselves for who they are tend to experience fewer emotional struggles, enjoy healthier relationships, and are happier with life in general. Positive body image can also influence healthier lifestyle choices. Recognizing that some things are easier said than done, we do need to somehow accept that each one of us has a different body structure and metabolism that contributes to our ideal weight and shape. While we can make healthy choices to eat well and be physically active, we need to embrace diversity and learn to love who we are because genetics are predetermined and cannot be radically changed without risks to overall health and well-being. By promoting a wide variety of different body types, we can develop strategies to help individuals work through body image struggles. The first thing that is important to understand is that the images we are constantly fed by the media are simply not realistic.
Fostering a trend toward healthier body imaging involves becoming a role model for those around us, especially our youth. Many behaviors are learned, so if your roommate sees you fad dieting, they may be influenced to start dieting too. By being less critical of ourselves and discontinuing the use of the word “ugly” to describe body parts, positive body image can return in as little as two weeks. By placing greater emphasis on personal achievements and strengths, we can increase the importance of our inner “selfie.”
Instead of being our own toughest critics, let’s all take time right now to consider one positive thing about ourselves. As I was getting ready for work the other morning, my two year old daughter caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and smiled. Being her typical adorable little self, she started dancing and singing, “I love myself!” There is a valuable lesson that can be taken from the innocence of a child — we all need to learn to love our own body.
For help and support, contact the UNB Student Health Centre or Counselling Services.