Is Body Image still an issue today? Let’s get to the bottom of it.

Is Body Image still an issue? Has our obsession with our digital identity made an impact? Has there been a change in the way we perceive beauty and health given recent media changes? Have things changed over time since I was a kid growing up? Let’s get to the bottom of it. 

What does Body Image mean?

Body image can be simply defined as 1) how we think we look, 2) how we evaluate our body, and 3) our actions toward our body. It can range from a person’s unhappiness with their body or parts of their body (body dissatisfaction), to obsessively thinking about body weight or shape (body preoccupation), to equating self-worth on weight/shape and the ability to control them (overvaluation of weight/shape). It doesn’t come as a surprise to find out that they are linked to eating disorders, depression/anxiety, unhealthy weight control behavior (fasting, diet pills, diuretic abuse), low self-esteem, alcohol/drug abuse, and interpersonal problems. 

What do the studies show. Is body image still an issue?

  • A recent study by Kearney-Cooke, A, & Tiger showed that in the US about 50% of 13-year-old girls reported being unhappy with their bodies. This number grew to 80% by the time they turned 17. When it comes to adult women, 56% reported dissatisfaction with their appearance. When asked specifically about weight satisfaction, 89% of them reported they wanted to lose weight. This is not just a female issue. It affects males as well. A recent study published in Developmental Psychology showed that around 20% of US male children/adolescents expressed a desire for toned and defined muscles. This percentage increased to 30% as they reached adulthood. 
  • A separate study reported that when adults were asked “How many years of your life would you trade to achieve your weight goals?” 15% of women and 11% of men said they would sacrifice more than 5 years of their lives. 24% of women and 17% of men said they would give up more than 3 years. 
  • When we look at how social media has impacted the body image issue, the results are not that positive. One study on female college students aged 18-27 showed that those asked to spend 5 more minutes online looking at an attractive peer online, felt worse about their appearance afterward. 
  • Recent stats show that about 95% of teens (13-17) have a smartphone or access to one. 45% of them claim they are online on a near-constant basis. What conclusion can we make about how they feel about themselves given that they are exposed to heavily photoshopped, unrealistic images of what “good” looks like?

One Woman’s Story

As I was writing this, I couldn’t help but get emotional. Kids today are going through the same struggles as I did growing up. But now they have the added pressure from social media to further solidify the idea that “they need to look a certain way”.   

I was overweight as a kid and a teenager. I was that girl in school who kids teased about being “fat”. I was that girl reaching for the size 12/ 14 / 16 jeans and secretly hating that I couldn’t fit into the “ideal size” 4 or 6. On TV and in magazines, women were displayed in all their tall and thin glory. I remember looking at them, studying the way their stomachs sunk in and how small their frames were. There was no talking to my mom about this because coming from an immigrant South American family, looking “well-fed” was a sign the family was prosperous and doing well. My mom ran a tight ship at home so there was no way I would get away with skipping meals or being on a diet.

Hurting myself this way was somehow the road to happiness and worthiness.

All this changed when I went to college and lived on my own. Anorexia, bulimia, abusing diuretics, excessive exercise – I did them all, and for quite some time. As I began to lose weight, the compliments came rolling in. My mom of course was beside herself, seeing how I was somehow fitting into size 4 clothing. She kept asking if I was doing what those “crazy American kids” were doing like not eating or throwing up. She warned me about how dangerous it was. It didn’t matter to me. I finally began looking like I always wanted and I was happy – for a while. You see, the thing is, if you abuse your body and mind long enough, the damage starts becoming permanent and it begins to seep into other areas of your life. My health began to suffer and my relationships got affected. It became obvious to those close to me that I wasn’t really eating or that I would mysteriously go to the bathroom after every meal. It makes my soul hurt to think of how I believed hurting myself this way was somehow the road to happiness and worthiness.

You’re not alone

Why am I sharing this with you all? Well, first I want to let you know you’re not alone. I was in deep and it took years to heal and find healthier ways to cope with the negative beliefs about myself. I also want to say that for me, the weight thing and the need to look a certain way was more about something else going on in my life. While I wasn’t happy about the way I looked, I was more unhappy about other things. My weight was something I could control and it gave me a feeling of power. That high I got when I stepped on a scale and saw I had lost X more pounds, momentarily masked the deep sadness I felt about something else. 

I’m here to tell you that looking a certain way won’t change your life or how you feel. It will just change how you look. And while that may sound good enough for now, believe me, it’s not, because the need for more perfection never ends. I’m not stupid. I know that in this now, digital world, looking a certain way seems paramount. What I’m saying is that before totally focusing on your body, you should ask yourself, “Is there anything else that is bothering me?” Recognizing that sometimes your negative body image is triggered by other things in your life may help you see that trying to change your body will not ultimately bring you the happiness and satisfaction you are looking for. 

Shut down that voice on body image

Am I cured? The short answer is yes but I consider myself to be a bit like an addict. Anytime something feels totally out of control, I hear that little voice again, telling me to focus on how wide my back is or how the skin hangs off my stomach when I bend down. I hate that voice. The difference now is that I know that voice is full of crap. I’ve spent most of my adult life figuring out this body image thing. I know what healthier options I can take to shut that voice down. I’ve done the research. I’ve been to therapy. I know what my body needs. As I’ve gotten older, my body’s needs have changed but that’s okay because it was an opportunity to learn new tools for a healthier body and mind at different age points.

I know that when I was a teenager, hearing this from an “old, 40-year-old woman” didn’t help because what does an old woman know about being a teenager today?! The reality is it doesn’t matter how old you are. We all feel sadness, loneliness, the “I’m not enough” feeling. Being older doesn’t protect us from that. 

So I’m living proof that it’s possible to go from a place of negative body image to one of body appreciation and health. If you find yourself in a negative space, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Go see that counselor, go to that group session, sit down and learn about what is good for your body and mind. But through this all, and most importantly, never forget that your appearance does NOT define your worth or value. Don’t waste your precious time ignoring your power and beauty.  

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