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Body Image and Self Worth In Women

Posted Jan 07 2009 6:53pm

Images of female bodies are everywhere. Women and their body parts sell everything from food to cars. Researchers report that women's magazines have 10 1/2 times more ads and articles promoting weight loss than do men's magazines, and over 3/4 of the covers of women's magazines include at least one message about how to change a woman's bodily appearance by diet, exercise or cosmetic surgery.

Film and television actresses are becoming younger, taller and thinner. Some have even been known to faint on the set from lack of food. These industries all insist that thin is beautiful and that fatness is always a dangerous problem in need of correction [1]

Why are standards of beauty being imposed on women, the majority of whom are naturally larger than any of these models and actresses? The roots, researchers say, are economic. By presenting the ideal body, the cosmetic, diet and product industries are assured of growth and profits. And it's no accident that youth is increasingly promoted, along with thinness, as an essential criterion of beauty. The stakes are huge. On the one hand, women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy beauty products, new clothes, gym memberships, and diet aids, just to name a few. It is estimated that the diet industry alone, in the United States, earns over 100 billion dollars a year. Sadly, research indicates that exposure to images of thin, young, air-brushed female bodies is significantly linked to depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls [2]

Another important aspect to realize is the vicious circle that perceptions of beauty hold in society. Young girls and young women are not only exposed to unreal aspects of body image in media, but also on the home terrain. Sometimes parents impose messages of fatness or largeness as being unacceptable, and thinness and smallness as more desirable. Words that are chosen can shape a young girl's body image and growing sense of confidence. "Those jeans make you look fat " will certainly cause a wave of insecurity. Choosing words that enhance beauty rather than emphasize a negative aspect of a person are much better choices. "Those jeans don't flatter you, I think these jeans are beautiful on you," would be a much wiser exchange.

Boys learn at an early age what is desirable, albeit unrealistic, from media and social messages at home and at school as well. Often they perpetuate the cycle, befriending girls who come close to the ideal image and casting aside those who don't. The circle is regrettably sealed when these boys mature to men who continue to objectify women in unrealistic ways.

As a young girl hears the words and messages of thinness, she can become indoctrinated into the world of unreal beauty. The cycle that starts with media, moves within the home and social world of the girl becomes internalized within her. Then she talks to herself in ways that perpetuate the myth of beauty. When failure occurs, as it always does, self image plummets and self worth is questioned.

What helps to break this cycle are indiviudals who break the mold that has been unrealistically cast for beauty. Helping people realize that beauty can come in many shapes and sizes will help young girls and boys redefine self image and body integrity. And it may help those who suffer with their own self worth to consider a raise in their status.

The Time For Change is Now

*Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign*
*Nike's Thunder Thighs, Big Butt & Tomboy Knees campaign*
*Seventeen and Glamour Magazine using "real life" models*

No longer are just rail-thin models showing up in fashion magazines and on billboards. Large women, or what are being called "real people," are now gracing ads of companies, magazine covers and commercials. Editors and ad executives say they are using more average women and fewer models to reflect changing body types and to help self-conscious teens see that not everyone is perfect.

This new advertising approach is especially important when one looks at child development. In late childhood and early adolescence social comparison plays a major role in self-perception. Boys look at other boys and learn to use their bodies as a tool to master the environment, where sports, strength and mastery in making, building and inventing are socially ingrained. Girls look at other girls and learn to use their bodies to attract others [3].

The shift in the industry enables young girls to see other renditions of beauty and can find more models like themselves with which to admire. Mary Pipher, author of a book about teen girls and body image, "Reviving Ophelia" says anything that shows realistic women is a step in the right direction to help girls gain self-esteem. Hopefully, Hollywood will follow the trend, showcasing girls and women whose shapes and sizes reflect the real world in which we live.

Consequences of the Unattainable Body

Pursuit of the unreal, ideal, thin beauty can result in poor self esteem, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders [4]. Eating disorders have doubled in incidence since the 1960s, and increasingly they are striking in younger age groups. They are also increasingly occurring in diverse ethnic and sociocultural groups unlike in decades before. Interestingly, the mental illness with the highest mortality rate is not Depression. It is Eating Disorders. Up to 20 percent of those with eating disorders die from their illness [5].

Did You Know[6]

* The genes that we inherit from our mother and father determine 70% of our body weight and shape. This means that we can improve the body we were born with, but only to a certain degree.

* Pictures of models in magazines and advertisements are technically altered. This means that a computer changes their picture by making their legs longer, their stomach flatter, and their muscles bigger. Most of the pictures you see in magazines have been altered, and in fact it is humanly impossible to achieve these body types.

*Feeling badly about your body size and shape can lead to unhealthy eating habits, such as skipping meals, low-calorie diets, and may lead to an eating disorder, and eventually could result in medical problems and even death.

*Exercise is important for your health, but too much can be a bad thing. Excessive exercise may be a sign that someone is overly worried about their body size and shape. In fact, another sign that someone may have an eating disorder is that they are always worried about how much and how hard they are exercising. Excercise to be fit, not thin.

*There are no "good" foods and "bad" foods. All foods can fit into a healthy diet.

What You Can Do

1. Develop criteria for self-esteem that goes beyond appearance. Find other aspects of yourself that are worthy of celebrating.

2. Cultivate the ability to appreciate your body, especially how it functions.

3. Engage in behaviors that make you feel good about yourself.

4. Reduce exposure to noxious media images.

5. Exercise for strength, fitness, and health, not just weight control.

6. Seek out others who respect and care about your body.

7. Disengage from abusive relationships where the subject of your body is used as a weapon to minimize your self esteem.

8. Identify and change habitual negative thoughts about your body.

9. Control what you can, forget about what you can't.

10. Seek professional help if necessary.


[1] Boston Womens Health Collective (1998). Our bodies ourselves: For the new century. Boston: Peter Smith Publisher

[2] Beauty and Body Image in the Media accessed at

[3] Stephens, DL, Hill, RP & Hanson, C. (1996).The beauty myth and female consumers: The controversial role of advertising. Journal of Consumer Affairs. 28, 137-153.

[4] Thompson, JK, Stice, E (2001). Thin-ideal internalization: Mounting evidence for anew risk factor for body image disturbance and eating pathology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 180-183

[5] Garner, D. M. (1997). The 1997 body image survey results. Psychology Today, 30-84.

[6] California Dairy Council

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