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The influence of body image on mental health

17 May 2019 | by Guest

Professor Carolyn Mair PhD, is a Chartered Fellow of the British Psychological Society and holder of the 2017 Distinguished Contributions to Psychology Education Award. In this guest blog, published as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, she discusses the influence and impact of various factors on our body image, and how this can affect our mental health.

Body image is a complex and multifaceted construct in which attention is given to how the body looks in terms of shape and weight. Because body shape and weight are considered to be under the control of the individual, they are generally seen as her or his responsibility (McKinley & Hyde, 1996; Tiggemann & Rothblum, 1997).

And while many studies have found the majority of the population are unhappy about their body image at some time, recently the focus has moved from a general and temporary dissatisfaction with how we look to the more serious aspects of how our body image can influence our ongoing mental health.

Although body image concerns are not a mental health condition in themselves, they can be a risk factor for mental health problems such as poorer quality of life, psychological distress, and unhealthy behaviours including eating disorders.

Modern media and social media constantly bombard us with images of idealised bodies. For women, the emphasis is on slimness (veering on thinness), youthfulness (characterised by firm flesh) and flawlessness (albeit cosmetically and/or digitally enhanced). For men, the ideal is characterised by a muscular, v-shaped body, flat stomach, and narrow hips (Leit, Pope, & Gray, 2001). And these idealised standards of beauty have become the norm to which many of us compare ourselves, yet remain unattainable for the vast majority.

And although much, if not most, of fashion and other media imagery is digitally altered and legislation requires acknowledgement of this, it still influences us. Even when we know that an image has been ‘doctored’, we still feel worse about our own body after viewing it, even for a short time.

In addition to the impact of exposure to images of idealised bodies through the media, many socio-cultural factors influence how we feel about our bodies. For example, our relationships with friends, families and how these significant others speak about their bodies and appearance, influence our perception of our own body and appearance.

Early research in this area (Social Comparison Theory - Festinger, 1954) described how we compare ourselves to others, and argued that the effect can be positive or negative depending on whether we consider it an upward or downward comparison.

More recently, research from the Mental Health Foundation with more than 4000 participants, cited in The Guardian, found that ‘idealised’ media images are not only undermining our self-confidence, they are also contributing to our poor mental health.

The Mental Health Foundation study found that 50 percent of 18-24 year olds and 20 percent of all respondents said they worried about their body image after seeing images on social media. And, shockingly, one in eight British adults aged 18 and over stated that they had been so distressed about their body image they had experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings.

What’s more, the findings suggest we don’t learn to feel better about our bodies as we age and, inevitably, move further from the ideal (women, in particular, have been targeted by advertising to fight the fear of ageing with all their might).

Sadly, this research demonstrates quite clearly that

“…people can be adversely affected regardless of gender or age, with many of the same drivers, such as social media and advertising, at play”.

In a notable demographic shift, men are also now becoming a lucrative market for the cosmetics industry. A 2018 Mintel survey stated more than two thirds of the 1000 sample used skin care products; and for those in the 18-44 age group, the figure was 84 percent.

As a result, many of us (both men and women) spend an inordinate amount of time and money on cosmetics and dieting supplements to achieve what is typically unachievable (women especially tend to be judged more on their appearance, resulting in a double whammy of sexism and ageism).

In response to the thinspiration promoted via social media many campaigners have emphasised the need to be confident about our bodies, claiming that all bodies are beautiful. These activists have used social media to promote the idea of body positivity which has enabled those with a range of body shapes and skin tones to speak out on body image concerns including ageism, sizeism, and issues relating to gender identity and race.

It is, however, disappointing to note that these protests have been slow to be reflected in fashion imagery and in the industry in general.

The causes of poor mental health are often complex and not easy to untangle, yet the evidence for the negative effects of body dissatisfaction are clear.

Fortunately, many psychologists, medics and other professionals are working to support people with poor body image, but until the causes are eliminated or at least reduced, the problem remains and is becoming increasingly urgent.


For more information about Carolyn please visit https://psychology.fashion/


References

  • Festinger L (1954). "A theory of social comparison processes". Human Relations. 7 (2): 117–140. 

  • Leit, R. A., Pope Jr, H. G., & Gray, J. J. (2001). Cultural expectations of muscularity in men: The evolution of Playgirl centerfolds. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 29(1), 90-93.

  • McKinley, N. M., & Hyde, J. S. (1996). The objectified body consciousness scale: Development and validation. Psychology of women quarterly, 20(2), 181-215.

  • Tiggemann, M., & Rothblum, E. D. (1997). Gender differences in internal beliefs about weight and negative attitudes towards self and others. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21(4), 581-593.

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