Editor’s Note: This month, that is July 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Feminism And Body Image, where we invite various articles about the diverse range of experiences (physical health, mental health, law and policy) which we often confront, with respect to our bodies in private or public spaces, or both. If you’d like to share your article, email us at email@example.com.
We often come across these statements—”Oh! I look fat.”, “I think I might have gained weight. Do I look good?” or “There’s a party tonight. Damn! I need to wax my arms and legs.”
We have been guilty of either telling these to ourselves or must have heard an acquaintance or a friend mention it. Nevertheless, these are just a few examples of how body image issues pervade our daily interactions. However, such concerns are not a mental health problem by itself but serve as a risk factor. It is a herculean task to keep our minds off from comparing ourselves to the so-called perfect images that are constantly advertised. They bombard us almost on every media we encounter—social media, e-mails, television, magazines, billboards, shopping malls or even retail stores in our neighbourhood.
How we view our bodies irrespective of the accuracy of the perception, concerns about what others think about our bodies and appearances, and the feelings that arise as a result of other people’s opinions, hold a lot of significance when it comes to developing a body image. And it will be erroneous to believe that body image issues only affect the mental health of women in particular. Men are also victims of this phenomenon. However, little is acknowledged due to the pervasive patriarchal notion that men do not worry about their bodies’ appearances and do not have the motivation to change it.
Body image issues are complex and are not restricted to eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia. Negative perception and dissatisfaction of body image can also lead to other comorbid disorders such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (when a person becomes preoccupied with worries about the flaws in their appearances which are not perceived by others) or substance use such as alcoholism in men, distress, depression, anxiety and a poorer quality of life. Body image issues are not restricted to just one’s body weight but also involves how individuals perceive their skin texture, facial features, hair texture, body shape contours, colour and other appearance-related attributes that are considered to be sexually attractive in one’s culture.
So what is body image?
Body image is the perception that someone has about their physical self and their thoughts, behaviours and feelings that arise about our body from that perception. A positive body image goes along with having high self-esteem, and accepting, appreciating and feeling secure with ourselves. But having a negative body image can lead to mental health issues such as dissatisfaction, distress and dysfunction among individuals where one starts holding unrealistically high standards of desirable bodies portrayed by the media against which they socially compare, judge and criticize themselves for failing to achieve that perfectionism. How we feel about our body also influences how our body feels. Embracing a mind-body holistic approach is essential to recognize the interrelatedness of our bodies and minds.
For a long time, there used to be advertisements depicting how a woman can become successful once she attains several tones lighter skin and gains promotions based just on their appearance. However, a recent decision that was taken by Hindustan Unilever to remove the term “Fair” from their brand Fair and Lovely invited applause from all sections of the society. However, their initiative was undone when news started doing rounds about the firm’s decision to re-brand in the name of “Glow and Lovely”. Indeed, the preoccupation with light shades of skin tone will take a long time to fade away. As Vir Das recently said in one of his stand-ups in Netflix, that fairness creams are just racism in a tube. Hence, it is high time that such propositions are addressed.
A recent study reported that about 77.6% of adolescent girls of the age group of 18-19 years experienced body image dissatisfaction due to their desire for looking better in clothes and improving body appearance. To meet such criteria, these adolescents frequently used extreme measures such as eating small meals, skipping meals or consuming laxatives to induce vomiting. One possible explanation for this is that social media allows for negative comparisons with others based on appearance, which has consistently been linked to body dissatisfaction.
Body image develops through interactions with family and friends and one vicariously adopts the ideals about beauty and appearance that are expressed by them. Peers also practice appearance-based teasing and bullying amongst themselves, especially in adolescence that further drives young people to achieve the unrealistic societal standards and subsequently feel ashamed and guilty for not being able to achieve the ideal. After interacting with such individuals and being exposed to the ideal images of beauty that are advertised by the media, the individual internalises their definitions of ideal beauty, that is, internalisation of a shamed body image because of persistent bullying, criticism, taunts, mockery or teasing that is received from others. The threats of cyber-bullying also exacerbate the situation among young minds.
When one cannot reach those ideals, feelings of shame, guilt, distress, anxiety, depression or sense of worthlessness are bound to develop due to the ‘supposed failure’. One comes to define self-worth based on body size or purported attractiveness, which is not true. Humans are much more than attractive physical bodies. Shame is an emotion that can help in the redressal of misunderstandings and difficulties in interpersonal relationships for restoring the functionality of the relationship. However, when shame makes someone feel isolated and detached from others because of an underlying sense of inadequacy and worthlessness, then that is an unhealthy sign of deteriorating mental health.
Body image issues in adulthood affect relationships and sexual well-being. Research suggests that greater body satisfaction is linked to positive sexual experiences, particularly for women by an increase in self-consciousness, which can hurt sexual responses and experiences. Adulthood also brings a transition into parenthood, especially for women where they have to cope with drastic changes in their bodies during and after pregnancy. Many women can shift their focus from weight and appearance towards functionality and ability.
However, mental health problems ensue when women face social pressures to reach their pre-pregnancy body after childbirth. There is a stigma that is attached to being overweight or obese and derogatory comments or teasing is often hurled at the people for not meeting societal standards. Due to this discrimination, people on the receiving end of such abuse, experience emotional distress, social isolation and avoid situations which can invite such discrimination. Additionally, the LGBTQIA+ individuals experience distress about their bodies either due to the existing heteronormative culture or the incongruity between their gender identities and biological bodies. The stigma, prejudice, discrimination, harassment and victimisation that LGBTQIA+ people can face, often elevate their levels of stress and also internalise their feelings of shame which may be a contributing factor to the body image and mental health problems reported within the LGBTQIA+ community.
Body image in people in later life is formed by a lifetime of accumulated experiences throughout childhood, young adulthood and middle age. While many may feel that they are not old yet, others refer to them as “old”. This is especially prevalent in women when they feel disconnected from their bodies because their external appearances do not match their perceptions about themselves. Bodily changes after menopause in women affect their body image issues and experiences of ageism have been associated with poorer body image and psychological well being among older women.
Also read: Acknowledging Intersectionality In Our Mental Health Conversations
How to Promote Positive Body Image
- Holding positive affirmations about ourselves where we engage in positive self-talk and acceptance rather than invalidating and berating self-talks can keep us from the persistent urge to compare ourselves with others.
- It is important to remind ourselves that the images that are advertised in print and electronic media are unrealistic and even unattainable unless someone hires a multitude of people to doll them up as well as the use of software to make them look flawless. It is imperative to be mindful to unfollow people or uninstall apps which makes us feel inadequate and negative about our bodies.
- Precedence should be given to health focused goals rather than weight focused goals because staying physically and mentally healthy is essential.
- Language is very important for communication and how we speak about our appearance or bodies can induce a sense of how we feel about our bodies. Jokes around one’s appearance can seem harmless at the moment but can make a person feel worse in the long run.
- Parents at home can model body-positive behaviours by refraining from commenting, praising or criticizing a child based on their appearance and inculcating the overvalued notions about one’s appearance. Children should be encouraged to talk about what they perceive, think and feel about their bodies.
- Campaigns on obesity, nutrition and weight management should also ensure that their messages are not discriminatory and do not propagate stigma against obese or overweight individuals in society.
Also read: Normalizing Postpartum Depression: Mental Health For New Mothers
These are just a few suggestions about how sensitivity can be inculcated in society and help us understand that beauty of the physical body can only do so much for lifting the self-worth of a person, especially when they are unrealistic. Comments like, ‘You look okay but if you lose a little bit of weight you will look amazing‘ or ‘Wow! I admire your confidence to flaunt that dress,’ undoes attempts to make body-positive comments. Self-love and self-acceptance can go a long way to promote body positivity.
Turfa Ahmed has a graduate and a Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Calcutta, Kolkata. Presently she is an M.Phil. trainee in Clinical Psychology at the University of Calcutta. She is passionate about the cause of youth mental health within the socio-cultural context, with a personal interest in understanding interpersonal dynamics underlying mental well-being. You can find her on Instagram and LinkedIn.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India