The effect of the ideal body

What it makes students feel

Across the nation, people look in the mirror, and what they see is not what they want. Instead of an ideal body, demonstrated through advertisements, magazines and models, they see a different reflection. Even when they have healthy bodies, these media outlets influence young teenagers’ perceptions of what their bodies should look like.

“In our culture, there is a lot of comparison to an ideal, and unfortunately the comparison to the ideal is not average. It is, for girls, it is very thin, underweight,” Peggy Walker, AP and IB psychology teacher, said. “For boys the ideal is also not average or normal; it is having a six pack, having a well-toned stomach.”

A child advocacy group called Common Sense Media performed a study and discovered that children as young as six think that their body is larger than the ideal body. The issues that children have with their bodies continue into adolescence and then adulthood.

“Some of the models that are looked at as good examples are actually anorexic,” Walker said. “Those aren’t normal for adolescents, they are also not normal for adults. But, in our culture, especially in Western culture specifically in Southern California, we are exposed to that a lot. That is a lot of what leads to body image issues.”

One statistic from PBS reveals that most fashion models are thinner than 98 percent of American women.

Walker points out that anyone can feel body insecurities, no matter their gender or their body shape. This is something that Cynthia* has seen and experienced as well.

“I think anybody is susceptible to it, because people have different views about how they see themselves, Cynthia said. “Like my friends who are thin, they still think of themselves as fat.”

She herself has been suffering from body insecurities for a long time and has even had family members question her body.

“Honestly, I am not on the thin side, and I have always had family members ask me why I haven’t lost weight,” Cynthia said. “It makes me feel bad about myself sometimes, because I feel like my body is not good enough for me and for other people.”

Further contributing to her negative self image, she recounts times when she tried various tactics such as starving herself to lose weight, none of them working for very long. However, one of her worst moments was after a social media post, deeply affecting her for days afterwards.

“It was the day after I won a singing competition in middle school. One of my friends showed me a post in Instagram calling me … ‘thicky,’ saying that I shouldn’t have won,” Cynthia said.

Before seeing the post, her confidence was “up to the moon;” yet, afterwards she felt “humiliated.”

“I cried every night,” Cynthia said. “I thought that maybe that person was right, that I didn’t deserve to win. That’s why I stopped singing for a while.”

Cynthia still feels the effects of the post even now despite it having been taken down, claiming that negative comments never go away and “it never stops.”  

 

How it affects them at school/consequences

Body image, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), comprises of what a person sees and feels when they look in the mirror; problems can arise when this perception of one’s body becomes negative.

NEDA reports that symptoms of poor body image can include anxiety, body dysmorphia, feelings of depression and low self-esteem; these can lead to life-threatening eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, as well as unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to change or feel different about one’s body.

Project EAT, an initiative launched by the University of Minnesota to examine body image factors in everyday life, found that in 2010, 38 percent of teenage boys and 50 percent of teenage girls used “unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, taking diet pills, and smoking more cigarettes to lose or control their weight.”

Walker believes that the best way to combat negative body image issues is to talk to trusted confidants, be it friends, parents, teachers, etc. She also believes that improving self esteem is key to having a better body image.

“If you already are a bit insecure or have low self-image, it is probably going to influence you more,” Walker said. “If you have a real positive self-image and high body acceptance, then you are going to go with those changes, and be more accepting of them.”

In addition to open dialogue, Walker promotes education to help individuals cope when dealing with body insecurities, calling education “helpful in understanding that growth process and understanding what is ideal and what is realistic.”

The National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI) also seeks to educate people, recently addressing body image issues by sponsoring the performance of “SELFIE,” a play performed by NPHS students about teenagers struggling with mental health issues. Rory Smith, senior, played Jessie, a young girl who struggles with an eating disorder. Jessie was self-conscious and focused on losing weight in order to have an ideal body size. Smith’s character was able to bring awareness to mental health issues that happen within society.

“Playing that character made me sad, to be honest, because there are people who suffer from eating disorders and it makes me wish I could do more to help,” Smith said. “I think everyone struggles with body issues in some way. Everyone has insecurities, whether it be about their inner-selves or about their appearance.”

The play attempted to make the audience more aware of the effect “ideal body” standards can have on teenagers.

“I think it’s important because a lot of mental health issues that we see in our society exist within our school. A lot of it can be helped if more people were aware and more sensitive to those types of issues,” Smith said.

Craig Hastings, junior, was honored to be a part of “SELFIE.” Hastings believes that the play was meant to raise awareness about issues in students’ lives that expands beyond body image, including divorce and drinking.

“It sends the message to be patient with everyone and that everyone is going through something all the time,” Hastings said. “You really have to be aware that other people have problems too.”

“SELFIE” was aimed to shed light on the different social and mental issues and body insecurities teenagers deal with, similar to how some social media users are trying to raise awareness for individuals suffering from body insecurities; however, there is still controversy over whether enough is being done to combat these threats.

 

How to fix it/call to action 

Some, like Cynthia, still see unrealistic body ideals being promoted in the media and believes that the biggest culprits of spreading impossible body standards come from “the models in magazines, and in social media (where) you see a lot of gurus or models.”

Project EAT discovered in a study that boys who read dieting or weightloss articles were four times more likely to engage in weight loss behaviors, and girls were six times as likely.

As social media has become more popular and new technology is made, many researchers are studying how media affects societal body ideals and standards, and what consequences they have on teenagers.

A study performed by the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, published in 2016, discovered that among young adults, 31 percent of boys and 56 percent of girls say that the most important aspect of their social media profiles was choosing a picture with “good looks.”

Another innovation in technology has brought a new way to obsess over looks: editing apps and masking filters. Apps such as Facetune, Perfect365 and filters in Snapchat/Instagram give users the ability to self-edit their photos, giving individuals the freedom and desire to change how they look.

“I don’t know how I feel about it, because I know sometimes I use it and it makes me feel good about myself, but at the same time I am literally just covering up what I actually look like,” Cynthia said.

Nevertheless, others think that today’s society is gradually adapting to these changes in image and beauty, citing commercials that feature models with larger figures or unique hairstyles. Walker said that she likes “Dove” and “Seventeen” magazine because they do not photoshop their models. These tactics help steer society’s views “ideal” body standards by portraying other body types in advertisements.

“I think that an important thing that we can all do is be more accepting of the fact that there is not just one body type that is attractive, we should be appreciative of the diversity that comes in different body shapes and sizes,” Smith said.

While some believe that specific societal standards need to be made more generous, Keith* has a different stance on the issue.

“I don’t believe a change in standards will help anyone. It will only cause another group to be insecure. Instead we should create a more accepting society, of all bodies,” Keith said.

Acceptance is a strategy praised by Walker, and Cynthia cites it as the solution for her body image issues.

“I started accepting myself, and being more comfortable with my body and not even caring what other people think of me,” Cynthia said. “So to those suffering from body shaming, it’s okay to be skinny. It’s okay to have curves. Beauty doesn’t have a weight limit. So love the body that you have.”

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