What’s the secret to having great body image? That is the million dollar, often unanswerable, question. Is it a one-size-fits-all solution? Who is to blame? Have we progressed in terms of body image standards over the past 10 years? Can we alleviate problems by sheltering our kids and families from the media and the internet?
In a new study undertaken by two researchers published by Sage Journals, new data suggests something that may depress the most progressive and independent women amongst us: that we still care what men think about our appearance.
Andrea Meltzer from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, and James McNulty from Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL, conducted three independent experiments with women. A bit of a disclaimer up front, the study is certainly not exhaustive nor conclusive (because they only surveyed straight, white women) but the fact that an in-depth study is being done into the cause of certain body image perceptions show that society is finally starting to take this seriously.
The entire group of women were shown imaged of fuller-figured ladies then randomly split into the three categories. One group was told that men found these types of women attractive, a second group was told men prefer the idealized images of women commonly depicted in the media and a third group was not given any information about men’s preferences.
“One source of women’s body dissatisfaction appears to be the media’s suggestion that men desire extremely thin women,” says the study. “These findings…demonstrate that women’s beliefs about men’s body preferences are an important moderator of the association between media influence and women’s body satisfaction.”
“Study 3 provided evidence for the theoretical mechanism—internalization of the thin-ideal—and revealed that telling women that other women find larger models attractive does not yield similar benefits.”
Yikes! How do we process these findings? Like we mentioned, it is only one study and not absolutely conclusive. It would be very interesting to see how this study would fare amongst different ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.
Despite all the well-intentioned media where women try to share positive messages and encourage one another, do men’s opinions still override this? Is this also evidence that there is still a strong patriarchal sentiment, albeit in a more subtle way, even amongst traditional “female issues”?
We have seen more recent articles suggesting that body image affects men just as much as women (but perhaps their social conditioning has prevented them from being so open about it like women), and it is interesting to wonder what the results of a study like this would be if men were the subjects.
Body image woes are certainly no respecter of race, or status. It affects everyone. One of the world’s greatest athletes, tennis champ Serena Williams, recently admitted how much her appearance haunted her as a young girl.
“I wasn’t feeling very comfortable with my body at the time, I didn’t know what to do and I was a sports athlete so what do you do?” she told the Herald Sun.
“I think a lot of girls have to face a lot of pressure, especially when it comes to body image. As a teenager I was having some body image issues, I wasn’t comfortable with myself.”
But now that she is one of the world’s most recognizable female faces, she feels the need to stand in the gap for other women suffering as she did.
“When you’re in a position where people look at you, look up to you and see you, you have an opportunity to influence other people and it’s very important for me to embrace that.”
Remember, this is a woman who has won 33 major titles and is being touted as one of the most successful female athletes in history!
In another respect, social conditioning plays a huge part in how body image issues develop or don’t develop. Australian singer and actress Jessica Mauboy, who grew up with her Aboriginal family in rural Darwin before winning Australian Idol and making her way to stardom, says her upbringing helped develop her self-confidence in a way that perhaps city life may not have been able to.
“Growing up in Darwin there wasn’t anything about image or looking so pretty and wearing the best shoes. We walked barefoot, we didn’t care. We played in the dirt. We were dirty kids. We were allowed to play in the waterholes, and not care about appearance. Not even color. That never registered,” she said.
When she was competing on Australian Idol, one of the judges told her she had a “jelly belly” which naturally would’ve mortified most people, but it didn’t seem to faze the then-16 year old.
“From that point I thought: “Wow I’m happy being who I am. I am born this way’.”
And on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Supermodel Cindy Crawford who has literally grown up in an industry that is solely based on physical appearance and attaining the “perfect” body image says it is something that is of concern to her, especially having a teenage daughter now.
In interview with a British paper she says she often tried to counter the “thin image” for her kids that is often dominant in the media, and tries to set a positive example for them.
“My daughter sees me accepting my body the way it is and not denigrating myself because I’m not stick thin, or only eating lettuce with no dressing … She sees I enjoy food, but I also exercise.”
“I’m very conscious that I want [Kaia] to get the right message because what you see in the magazines and on the runways, it is a very thin image.”
So while the study suggests the male opinion holds a lot of weight, it is clear that the media in fact still has a lot of influence over how both men and women’s perceptions of a good body are formed, and our upbringing and cultural climate has a hand in determining what messages are the most dominant.
What each of these celebrities’ comments show (and represent from women all over the world) is that targeting negative body image attitudes cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution, it has to be women and influencers targeting the people in their social circle and communities. Despite women in the study claiming not to accept fuller-figured body shapes when other women touted them as more desirable, we believe in the power of continuing to spread positive messages.
Because if it can affect at least one person’s life, then that is a small victory worth talking about.