Body Image Psychology

“A woman’s self-image is the very foundation of her personality, and hence, she acts like the sort of person she thinks and believes she is.”

How meaningful are these words for many women today?  Women of this century have developed a much stronger and healthier image than women of previous generations.  However, society still has a powerful draw on the psyche of many young girls and women.  The psychology of body image impacts everything from the entertainment industry to fields of professionalism and trade.  A woman’s occupation, family, and very life are influenced by her self perception.  It isn’t easy to have conflicting messages pervading every aspect of life.  Today, a currently popular image, ” is that of the voluptuous sex goddess, such as some of the more popular female movie and television actresses. Large breasts are admired with this particular idealized image. Pornographic magazines and films play to this idealized image. And lastly, the top fashion model image, boyish and skinny. (Sanford, Donovan, 1984) No woman can strive for or live up to all three images at one time.”

Our society promotes contradictory norms for female sexuality as well as body image, and consequently, many women torture themselves by trying to become too thin or disengaging and becoming too fat. These women alternately starve or eat until their bodies and minds become too damaged to be sexually active at all.

“Every society has a way of torturing its women, whether by binding their feet or sticking them into whalebone corsets that are too tight. What contemporary American culture has come up with are tubular designer jeans.” (Yager, 1983)

We live in a culture that says women must be beautiful to be worthy, and then sets up impossible standards for female beauty that promote obesity or destructive thinness.  We are constantly bombarded with images of thinness and equal with beauty, happiness, prosperity, and even love.  According to fashion, large size, maturity, voluptuousness, massiveness, strength and power are not womanly traits, and therefore, are undesireable for all women to obtain. Girls in primitive societies used to stuff themselves because the fattest girl was the most beautiful and had the most wealth (obviously, if she had enough to eat, she was wealthy). Today’s world in contrast, revolves around gaining and maintaining control over one’s life.  It might be safe to say that American’s are obsessed with control and the need to control even one’s natural body shape can be dangerous. 

Television and advertising are at us constantly with the message to conform. “They provide visual reinforcement of our role in society and play on our psychological side for a need for approval, acceptance and a sense of belonging.”  Unfortunately, the images of ideal female roles are shown to us in excessive amounts and we are told that we should strive to meet these ideals, even if, for some of us, we were naturally born with opposing traits. 

The media advertisers teaches us to analyze ourselves in parts.  Body parts are advertised right alongside “miracle cures” that will improve said body part.  There are creams to remove cellulite, body hair and to make you younger, browner or lighter.  There are products to change your hair color or texture and those to keep you the same.  These advertisements reinforse a psychological tendency to analyze, accept or reject individual parts of our bodies. They also make it that much harder to be “perfect”.  “Within western society at the current time, the image of the beautiful female is one who is thin (Goldblatt, Moore and Stuckard, 1974) and perfect in every part.

The Tyra Banks Show recently ran a segment on body image and how women from different cultures percieved themselves and other body types.  When shown a thin profile of a woman, the African-American participant thought that she was anorexic and possibly poor or suffering from starvation.  The Asian participant, in contrast, saw her profile as elegant and feminine.  In contrast, when shown the profile of a full-figured woman, the African-American participant saw her as healthy and well-fed, perhaps wealthy as well.  The Asian participant saw her as lazy and obese.  There were also Latin-American and Caucasian participants.  For more information about the show, visit the Tyra Banks Show official site.

Quoted excerpts on this page are taken from “The Psychology of Ideal Body Image” by Barbara A. Cohen Ph.D unless otherwise noted.

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