The psychology of body image is highly impacted by culture and society. It is also impacted by time. The idea of what is beautiful in different cultures can vary widely. Some African cultures see beauty in exaggerated lips or extended necks. Others use extensive body piercing or body painting on men and women. Chinese women used to have their feet bound to make them tiny.
In terms of time, the ideal body image has changed over long time periods and even from one generation to another. In the early 1900s, women would squeeze their bodies into corsets that narrowed their waist to the point of causing physiological damage or causing them to faint from lack of air.
But if you look at the paintings of women by the renaissance masters, you will see that most of these women would be described today as overweight or even fat. The same could be said of women in our own “wild west.” Robust women were much more appreciated in those times.
The Sources of Our Discontent
In our American culture at the beginning of the 21st century, there are many psychological sources for proper body image. It should be said that in our culture, it is women who are most bombarded with images of how they should look and women who seem to be most concerned about their physical appearance.
It is difficult to pinpoint when the idea that being thin was attractive began. Perhaps it is related to movies and then TV. The old saying is that TV puts 10 pounds on you. Did actors lose weight for TV and the movies? Before that, photography must have had some influence on body image. Most people prior to photography never looked at themselves. Mirrors were more rare and not very good at accurate reflections.
Changes in clothing were influential, as women went from clothing that covered up just about everything to shorter skirts and dresses and deeper necklines. Showing an ankle used to be a bit scandalous but that changed in the ‘40s and even in the ‘20s.
During World War II and after, there were a lot of artists who did pinups. Some of these were for advertising and some for calendars. WWII aircraft often had pinups painted on their sides. Our servicemen carried pictures of their wives and sweethearts but also pictures of movie stars and pinups.
Today, we have ultra-thin models, singers, and movie stars. We have Barbie dolls with obscenely thin arms and legs (but big boobs). We have little girls just past the toddler phase getting dolled up for beauty pageants. And of course we have a huge plastic surgery industry trying to help everyone have the body image they desire.
As result of our current obsession with body image, we have a number of different problems. We have girls dieting in grammar school. We have teens wanting to have plastic surgery. We have anorexia and bulimia. Girls and young women are being severely psychologically damaged, physically damaged, and in some times killed by our culture’s unrealistic body image expectations.
These expectations confront females all day every day, from TV, movies, magazines, and advertising from all sources. It is ironic that women’s magazines, that will contain at least one or two diets and/or exercise regimes for your thinning pleasure, will also be filled with ads for food and delicious recipes to put the pounds back on.
Although eating and self-image disorders can have significant negative consequences, including death, the psychological impact of such idealized images is much more widespread and sometimes includes suicide.
Is There a Solution?
Because the entire culture seems to have gone mad with its emphasis on being thin and/or muscular (if you are male), it is a difficult problem to overcome. It begins with the parents and the need for parents to make sure they tell their children they are loved regardless of their appearance. Children need to be told they are beautiful every day.
The same goes for teachers and others who interact with young children. There needs to be more vigilance in school to stop bullying and name-calling against children who do not fit some norm, whether it be racial, religious, or physical image.
Parents need to stop buying dolls that represent an impossible and dangerous image of what a beautiful woman looks like. Clothing designers need to stop using sickly-looking models to show of their new line. Advertisers need to stop glorifying unhealthy-looking women to sell their products. (Thank you, Dove.)
In general, we need to recognize the true worth of every human being and affirm qualities that truly make a person a good person, qualities that have nothing to do with their appearance. And that means that we need to start valuing ourselves just the way we are.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to lose some weight for health reasons or just to feel better. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to dress nice occasionally. But if we become obsessed with our appearance, regardless of our age or sex, we are getting off track in relation to what is important in life.
It is far better to be beautiful inside than outside. Let’s spend more time on the inside and we will feel a lot better about ourselves. Love the body that you have.