Why should we care about body image, and what can we do to change attitudes? Dr Jasmine Fardouly from the Centre for Emotional Health talks through the key influences on our perceptions of body image and some strategies we can implement to promote positive perceptions in ourselves and others.
A person’s ‘body image’ refers to the thoughts and feelings they have about the way they look. In Mission Australia’s national survey of over 14,000 teenagers, body image is consistently rated as one of their top three concerns. Not only are teenagers and adults concerned with their bodies, but girls as young as five years old report a desire to change their appearance and are afraid of becoming fat.
This is concerning because negative body image has been linked to many harmful outcomes. Being more dissatisfied with your appearance, for example, is linked to poorer academic performance, as well as an increased interest in cosmetic surgery, poor self-esteem, depression and eating disorders.
Some people suggest that it may be helpful for larger-framed people to be unhappy with their appearance in order to motivate them to lose weight. But we know that body dissatisfaction is not helpful for anyone, regardless of a person’s size. In fact, making people with larger bodies feel unhappy and ashamed of their appearance often leads them to exercise less and eat less healthily.
Influences on body image
There is a variety of physical, psychological, and sociocultural factors that influence a person’s body image. Sociocultural factors, such as pressures from peers, family, and the media, are arguably the most modifiable and have been the focus of much of the research on body image.
Family, peers, and the media can influence body image in a number of ways. Negative thoughts and behaviours can be learnt from family and friends. Peers and family can also make critical comments about one’s appearance or engage in appearance-based teasing, which can influence negative body image. The media often portrays a narrow ideal of attractiveness that is unattainable for most. That ideal is also often promoted on social media, such as Instagram. Accepting the societal beauty ideal and comparing your own appearance to people who match that ideal, whether it be in a magazine or on social media, can also prove detrimental to positive body image.
Improving young people’s body image is critically important. We can do this by promoting acceptance of bodies of difference shapes and sizes, by reducing the opportunity people have to compare their appearance to unrealistic images and ideals, and by discouraging negative appearance-related conversations among peers and families. Of course, more research is also needed to identify influences and the scale of their effects to reduce focus on appearance and increase positive body image among young people.
If you or someone you know is struggling with negative body image, seek help by contacting the Butterfly Foundation or Headspace. You can also contact the Campus Wellbeing team for a range of support services including counselling.