Women + Body Image Essay, Research Paper
Women And Body Image
Eleven million women in the United States suffer from eating disorders- either self-induced semi-starvation (anorexia nervosa) or a cycle of bingeing and purging with laxatives, self-induced vomiting, or excessive exercise (bulimia nervosa) (Dunn, 1992). Many eating disorder specialists agree that chronic dieting is a direct consequence of the social pressure on American females to achieve a nearly impossible thinness. The media has been denounced for upholding and perhaps even creating the emaciated standard of beauty by which females are taught from childhood to judge the worth of their own bodies (Stephens & Hill, 1994). To explore the broader context of this controversial issue, this paper draws upon several aspects on how the media influences young women’s body image. This paper examines an exploration of the prevalence and the source of body dissatisfaction in American females and considers existing research that presents several important aspects regarding the nature of the connection between advertising and body dissatisfaction. From these distinctions, it will be shown that the media has a large impact on women’s body image and that the cultural ideal of a thin body is detrimental to the American female’s body perception that often results in poor eating pathologies.
Body image can be defined as an individual’s subjective concept of his or her physical appearance. Body image involves both a perceptual and attitudinal element. The self-perceptual component consists of what an individual sees or thinks in body size, shape, and appearance. A disturbance in the perceptual element of body image is generally reflected in a distorted perception of body size, shape, and appearance. The attitudinal component reflects how we feel about those attributes and how the feelings motivate certain behavior (Shaw & Waller, 1995). Disturbances in the attitudinal element usually result in dissatisfaction with body appearance (Monteath & McCabe, 1997). Perceptions about body images are shaped from a variety of experiences and begin to develop in early childhood. It has been shown that children learn to favor thin body shapes by the time they enter school (Cohn & Adler, 1992). Gustafson, Larsen, and Terry (1992) reported that 60.3 percent of fourth grade girls wanted to be thinner, and the desire for less body fat was significantly associated with an increase occurrence of weight-loss related behaviors. Overall body size and image concerns have been reported to be more prevalent among females than males. Gender related differences in acceptable body size are shaped from a variety of societal definitions of appealing shapes for males and females. Patterns of body dissatisfaction formed in childhood and adolescence persist into adulthood and are most prevalent in females. In their study, Fallon and Rozin (1985) reported that college women perceive their figure to be heavier than the figure they identified as the most attractive to themselves (Lavine, Sweeney, & Wagener, 1999). Females experience a large discrepancy with food. On one hand, food is depicted as a reward or indulgence, or as a way of socializing. On the other hand, women are supposed to be fit and thin, which is difficult to accomplish if females indulge in the large repertoire of food (Stuhldreher & William, 1999). The diet-obsessive mind of advertising in many women’s magazines provides a sharp contrast to the hedonistic view toward food. In several magazines, even the food advertisements focus more on dieting than on quality of food. Thus there are clear and quite strict limits on the degree to which American females may attempt to satisfy their hedonistic impulses toward food (Lennon, Lillethun, & Backland, 1999). Societal standards of beauty change dramatically over time. Today the body ideal is to be thin. However, this has not always been the case. In the 19th century large women were thought of as the image of beauty. The body ideal in the 1920’s was similar to that of today, which is thin (Brumberg, 1988). However, this look was achieved through the use of clothing styles and fashion. Then in the 1950’s, more voluptuous figures were the ideal. Since that time the ideal body shape for women has become more and more slender (Borzekowski, Robinson, & Killen, 2000). Unfortunately, for many people the ideal thin body is nearly impossible to achieve. This makes women feel dissatisfied with their appearance. Hence the beginning of a negative body image. Recently, researchers have become concerned with the question of how and to what degree advertising involving thin and attractive women is related with chronic dieting, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders in American females (Stephens & Hill, 1994). The esteemed attention that female thinness culminates began in the United States back in the 1950’s (Garner, Garfinkel, & Thompson, 1980). During the last three decades, pageant contestants, fashion models, and famous actresses have grown steadily thinner (Lake, Sweeney, & Wagner, 1999). Twenty years ago the average fashion model weighed only 8 percent less than the average women. Today the average model weighs 23 percent less than the average woman (Dunn, 1992). Surprisingly, as the body standard has continued to thin, the average weight of American women has actually risen. In 1950, mannequins closely resembled the average measurements of a woman. The average hip measurement of mannequins and women was 34 inches. By 1990, the average hip measurement was 37 inches for an average woman, while the average mannequin hip measured only 31 inches (Lake, Sweeney, & Wagner, 1999). Between the cultural norm and biological reality, suppliers of diet advertisements and products have increased: the average amount of money spent annually on diets and related services in 1990 were 33 billion. The clientele are about 85 percent women, most of who regain the weight lost within two years (Lennon, Lillethun, & Buckland, 1999). A person’s perception of body image may also be influenced by locus of control. Females with an external locus of control tend to overestimate their body sizes to a greater degree than those who have an internal locus of control (Dejong & Kleck, 1986). A relationship also exists between the attitudinal component of body image and locus of control. For instance, women exhibiting external locus of control experience greater dissatisfaction with the appearance of their bodies than women with internal locus of control. This finding indicates that women possessing an external locus of control feel powerless to alter the appearance of their bodies. Thus, they experience a distorted perception of their body and generally develop negative feelings. Whereas, woman with an internal locus of control generally believe that the appearance of their bodies is within their control. These feelings of control result in a more positive view of their body (Garner, Garfinkel, & Thompson, 1980 Sweeney, & Wagner, 1999). Prolonged semi-starvation produces many symptoms including- irritability, fatigue, and obsession with food. Many males report being unhappy with some aspect of their body. Still, concern about body weight appears to be a far more common and more important aspect of body dissatisfaction experienced by females than males (Brumberg, 1988). Survey data indicates that about one-half to three-quarters of females who are normal in weight consider themselves to be too heavy, whereas only about one-quarter of males consider themselves to be overweight. In their survey, Cash, Winstead, and Janda (1986) found that 40 percent of underweight women consider themselves to be normal. Furthermore, 44 percent of the female participants chose an ideal body shape that was 20 percent underweight (Stuhldreher & Ryan, 1999).
The American female’s obsessive quest for the perfect body is both reflected and promoted by advertisements. Promises of body changes bordering the impossible are everywhere in magazines and on television. For example, the advertisements for diet pills promoting the loss of 20 pounds in two weeks. Such advertisements and advice to young women nourish an obsession that carries with it an array of psychological and behavioral problems (Stephens & Hill, 1994). Whether or not they are too heavy, females who see themselves as overweight show decreased satisfaction with their bodies. Body dissatisfaction in females appears to encourage disturbed eating behaviors. In a survey by Mintz and Betz (1988), 33,000 females aged 15-35 were questioned regarding their attitudes toward their body and their methods of weight control. Only 25 percent of the females were overweight, yet 75 percent believed that they were fat. Of the females surveyed, 18 percent controlled their weight through the use of laxatives or diuretics and 15 percent used forced vomiting. They also found that the degree of disturbed eating depended strongly on the level of dissatisfaction. One-third of their respondents reported using laxatives or self-induced vomiting at least once a month for weight-control purposes (Lake, Staiger, & Glowinski, 1999). American culture’s intense preoccupation with weight is undoubtedly encouraged by its stereotype of overweight individuals. In the United States, an extremely negative stereotype of overweight people exists. Larkin and Pines (1979) provided evidence for this stereotype by asking their participants to read and evaluate written descriptions of individuals who differed only in terms of sex and weight. The subjects rated overweight more negatively than when they rated individuals of average weight. These findings support that there is a negative stereotype of overweight individuals (Murray, Touyz, & Beumont, 1996). Overweight individuals are also stereotypically thought of as less intelligent, outgoing, or popular than those who are slimmer. Overweight people are often labeled as lonely and dependent. Stereotypes are influential, especially when they are the only information that an observer has about a particular person. The American culture often views excessive weight as evidence of a character flaw associated with self-indulgence and laziness. Many individuals view fat as self-induced and controllable (Dejong & Kleck, 1986). Although the overweight stereotype seems to apply equally to both females and males, females are more fearful of being considered fat. This may be attributed to the differences in how males and females view their body.
Researchers have observed that while a boy learns to view his body as a means for achieving power and control in the world, a girl learns that a main function of her body is to attract others (Koff, Rierdan, & Stubbs, 1990). Many children’s advertisements reflect this idea. For instance, Saturday morning cartoon programming include commercials focusing on appearance enhancement, nine out of ten of which are directed at females (Ogletree, Williams, Raffield, Mason, & Fricke, 1990). Many advertisements leave a girl to believe that she must be found thin to be attractive. Puberty related body changes might be a major blow to a girl’s self esteem. Thus Freedman (1984) observes that puberty transforms a girl into a woman without her consent: it betrays her by making her both more and less feminine at the same time. The hormones that inflate her breasts, also layer her thighs with “unsightly” fat, and cover her legs with “superfluous” hair. The size, contours smells, and texture of an adult woman contradict the soft, sweet, childish aspects of feminine beauty standards emphasized by the media (Norton, Olds, Olive, & Dank, 1996). In a study of body image, Girgus (1989) illustrates some of the consequences of this intense preoccupation with physical appearance. As young girls grow older and their body changes, they become increasingly dissatisfied with their bodies and consistently desire to be thinner. Boys, on the other hand, welcome the process of puberty, they look at it as though it is a step n the direction of manhood (Borzekowski, Robinson, & Killen, 2000). Women who are very dissatisfied with their bodies may be particularly vulnerable to advertising that portrays female models that exemplify thinness as a necessity for feminine beauty. Research on the persuasion process has shown that individuals who receive a persuasive message are more often to accept it if they find the communicator of the message to be physically attractive.
Advertising researchers have found that an attractive model or product endorser may possibly influence the recipient’s attitude toward the brand of the product and the purchase intentions (Cabellero & Pride, 1984). Research supports that physically attractive individuals tend to be more persuasive in part because others credit them with desirable traits such as sociability, poise, and popularity. Thus, attractive communicators appear to be better at persuading others because they are attributed with socially desirable traits (Chaiken, 1979). Another important aspect to consider is the societal emphasis placed on a woman to look good not with just body shape, but also with the use of the latest trends in clothing and make-up. Compared with a man, a woman’s physical attractiveness is more likely to affect her social opportunities. In the United States culture, an appearance has important social consequences. In many cases, attractive people are selected more often as work partners, more often for hiring, and more often for dating partners (Lennon, Lillethun, & Backland, 1999). According to traditional gender type roles, not only is a woman’s value judged by her attractiveness, an active quest for beauty is also expected of women. Hence, women are socialized to be interested in maintaining an attractive physical appearance, a major attribute of which is a thin body (Lavine, Sweeney, & Wagner, 1999). In this type of environment, it is reasonable to expect women to be concerned with their appearances and to compare themselves to other women on that basis. Advertising, retailing, and entertainment industries produce images of beauty that pressure women to conform to the current ideal body type. Research shows that thinness in women is emphasized in media presentations. Media images, particularly those of high profile fashion models, only reinforce a cultural ideal for women. Media images are everywhere in daily life and because models in advertisements are highly attractive, comparison with such standards generally result in lowered self-esteem, dissatisfaction with appearance, eating disorders, and or a negative body image (Lennon, Lillethun, & Backland, 1999). The social comparison theory developed by Festinger (1954) explains some of the reasons that females feel compelled to be thin. The social comparison theory explains how and why people evaluate themselves in comparison of others. Festinger hypothesized that people have a need to objectively compare themselves. However, if the objective standards are unavailable, people will engage in social comparison. This is when they evaluate themselves in comparison with others. Morse and Gergen (1970) conducted a study on body image in relationship to the social comparison theory. They found that when comparing oneself with someone inferior in appearance was associated with higher self-esteem, whereas comparing oneself with someone superior in appearance was associated with lower self-esteem (Monteath & McCabe, 1997). A traditional gender role perspective portrays the importance for women to be evaluated positively in terms of attractiveness, of which thinness is a major part, than to be evaluated in terms of intelligence (Cohn & Adler, 1992). Numerous studies have since confirmed the objective existence of the thin ideal in the media, and that women are judged a significant extent on their appearance generally and on their weight. There have also been attempts to investigate empirically how women perceive these social pressures, how they affect women’s behavior, and whether women’s reactions to these pressures put women at a risk of developing an eating disorder. A study conducted by Murray, Touyz, and Beumont (1996) addressed the role of one significant source of social pressure- the mass media, by comparing a group of females with eating disorders with a group of females from a normal community. Specifically, the study examined the extent of subject’s awareness of body ideals. They were also asked the extent to which and in what ways they felt influenced by the media. Many researchers have suggested that patients with eating disorders may be particularly vulnerable to the effects or influence of the media. Given their intense concern with their appearance, patients with eating disorders are typically influenced by fashion models and the media. They feel that they must live up to these standards. The sample was composed of 50 anorectics and 30 bulimic for the patient sample. The sample of controls consisted of 151 subjects. An interview was used as the major method of the study. The interview was semi-structured and consisted of primarily free response or open-ended questions. It covered a broad range of issues. As well as specific themes of body shape and weight, issues of attractiveness, health, physical fitness, and exercise were examined (Murray et al., 1996). The results of the study according to awareness of social pressures found that at least 90 percent of subjects in all groups stated that they thought that society in general has an “ideal” body shape for women. “Slim” was the most frequently offered description from each of the female groups, and it accounted for a majority of all the responses offered. At least three-quarters of the subjects in all the groups reported that some types of female figures are unacceptable by society. The most frequently reported “socially unacceptable” female figure type were “overweight”. Overall, only 10 percent of the subjects stated that underweight figures were not socially acceptable. Almost all subjects reported that there is a particular image of women portrayed in the media. An average of 92 percent of subjects reported that there is more pressure on women to conform to a particular body shape. The study also found that 99 percent of subjects started that women are most often judged by their appearance. The most surprising finding on the issue of awareness of social pressure was the very high level of agreement between the two groups- the eating disorder sample and the control sample (Murray et al., 1996). The results found that when examining the perceived influence of social pressure, the most common response (70 percent) was that the ideals portrayed in magazines had an effect of making them want to look like the ideal. Clearly showing that social pressure concerning weight and body shape had an influence on females. Significant percentages of the females commented that body shape ideals for women were constantly shown in the media. It is interesting to note that almost one-quarter of the female subjects felt that they were more influenced by social pressures than anything else. One subject commented: I think that I’m easily led by magazine articles, pictures, and diets. Television-not so much now, but earlier on- it portrayed a perfect body image, and everyone had to be like that This study shows that merely being aware that one is influenced by social pressures does not necessarily stop this process from occurring (Murray et al., 1996). Another study examined media use and perceived importance of appearance. Rabek-Wagener and Eickhoff-Shemek (1996) conducted a study investigating the impact of analyzing and reframing fashion advertisements on the attitudes and behaviors of the body images of females. The study investigated how an education intervention that focused on critiquing popular fashion advertisements and creating more inclusive fashion advertisements would affect females’ belief and behaviors about their own body image.
Fashion advertisements have been found to have a negative effect on body image attitudes and behaviors among American women. 70 percent of the teenage women who regularly read fashion magazines consider the magazines an important source of beauty information. The portrayal of “ideal” female bodes in fashion magazines has an influence on body image distortion, which is a feature of disturbed eating pathologies (Lennon, Lillethun, & Backland, 1999). Almost everyone has, at one time or another, wished they could change something about themselves. For many people, the desire to change involves something about their physical appearance. Body image is something that influences everyone. Body image affects people of all ages, both males and females. However, in the United States females are in particular, more conscious about looking good. For some their happiness and self-worth are largely determined by their body image. Whether or not their body size, body shape, measurements, and so on match society’s ideals determine how satisfied they are with themselves. In many cases, appearance becomes more important to the female than one’s health and well being. The media has been responsible for promoting a standard of beauty that in most cases is unattainable to many woman and unhealthy to most people. However, due to the effect of poor body image influenced by several factors women fall prey to this cultural ideal of thinness. The impact that the media has on women’s body image is generally poor and often detrimental to their perception of their body image. This poor perception can cause several vulnerabilities in woman including the need to create poor eating pathologies to achieve this ideal.