Last month I did something really brave – I set aside my fears of public speaking and co-facilitated workshops for junior high girls on body image and beauty standards. The workshop is a tool developed by Hopewell Eating Disorder Support Centre to raise awareness of body image concerns. It covers a range of topics such as:
- The unrealistically “thin ideal” for women and “overly-muscular ideal” for males which, when internalized, can create feelings of anxiety, shame and guilt since we are not able to achieve them (Cash & Fleming, 2002; Grogran & Wainwright, 1996). Results from research show that young girls exposed to Barbie report lower body esteem and an internalized “thin ideal” (Dittmar, et al., 2006). Additional research results demonstrate that teen magazines with slender, enhanced images create high levels of body dissatisfaction in young girls after just 5 minutes of viewing (Monro & Huon, 2005).
- The concept of media literacy, which we defined as viewing the media with a critical and informed attitude. Part of this is challenging the practice of Photoshopping images by explaining the extent of digitally enhanced images in the media and showing before/after images for analysis.
- Exposing the diet industry with particular emphasis on fad diets and providing information on popular fad diets, explaining how to critique the ads and listing the dangers of losing weight in this way. We shared results of studies that found 95% of people who diet gain the weight back within one year (Grodstein et al., 1996, Weinsier et al., 2000).
- Defining negative self-talk and discussing how to combat it and promote positive self-esteem. Promoting the overarching message: “Don’t question why you are different, question why the images are all the same”.
I observed two disturbing trends throughout the series of presentations. First, the narrowness of beauty ideals being taught to our youth was clearly demonstrated when we asked how women are portrayed in the media. At every workshop the very first answer was “skinny”. The only other answer provided was that women in the media are made to look “perfect” with no flaws like acne, moles, scars or wrinkles.
We then asked the same question but about men. The first (and only) answer given was “muscular” with elaborations like “six-packs” and “ripped”. Second, I was taken aback by some of the reactions to the before and after photos we showed to demonstrate the extensive use of Photoshop in ad campaigns. There were gasps and a chorus of “ewws” when the before photos showed wrinkles, rolls and acne.
But the workshops yielded many rewarding moments. We were asked incredibly insightful questions which segued into discussions about misleading advertising (mascara commercials using false lashes on models for instance), the reasons why magazines continue to use Photoshopped images knowing the harmful impact on readers, and why you cannot equate “thin” with healthy or “fat” with unhealthy.
As someone who has struggled with body acceptance in the past I am passionate about having an open, honest dialogue with youth. Sadly, when I asked the students if anyone had ever talked to them about these issues the overwhelming majority of them said no. So who IS talking to our youth about body image? Cosmopolitan magazine, America’s Next Top Model and MTV.
Yikes. What makes this even scarier is that the methods used to achieve these unrealistic beauty ideals are often damaging, including anorexia, bulimia, laxative abuse, plastic surgery, botox and liposuction. Surgery complications and disordered eating can result in a lifetime of health complications, mental health concerns and even death.
Yet the beauty industry keeps churning out narrower standards and new products to meet them. Just consider the two latest “beauty fads” to make the news – vaginal bleaching to “lighten” the color of your vagina and the “feed-tube diet”. Imagine shoving a feed-tube up your nose with the lovely side-effects of bad breath and constipation just to lose weight temporarily for a big event, or risking kidney failure and cancer for the sake of a lighter colored vagina! What’s next?!
Want to learn more?
This article from Beauty Redefined examines the impact of exposure to digitally altered images on our minds.
Another great article from Beauty Redefined examines the progression of the “thin ideal” by looking at the advent of the BMI, historical figures of beauty and the connection between health and weight.
“Stop Hating Your Body (SHYB)” is a great place to explore if you want more insight on the scope of this issue. The tumblr is a library of true stories posted by individuals struggling to overcome body hatred, disordered eating, feelings of failure, suicidal ideations and social pressure to conform to an unrealistic beauty ideal. (*Trigger warning for individuals recovering from eating disorders or self-harming behaviors).
The REAL Body Revolution is my tumblr where I am building a library of images of REAL beauty to combat the current narrow and false ideals.
Cash, T. F., & Fleming, E. C. (2002). The impact of body image experiences: Development of the
body image quality of life inventory. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31, 455-460.
Dittmar, H., Halliwell, E., & Ive, S. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5-to 8-year old girls. Developmental Psychology, 42, 283-292.
Grodstein, R., Levine, R., Spencer, T., Colditz, G., & Stampfer, M.. (1996). Three-year follow-up of participants in a commercial weight-loss program : Can you keep it off? Archives of Internal Medicine, 156, 1302-1305.
Grogan, S., & Wainwright, N. (1996). Growing up in the culture of slenderness – Girls’ experiences of body dissatisfaction. Women’s Studies International Forum, 19, 665-673.
Monro, F., & Huon, G. (2005). Media-portrayed idealized images, body shame, and appearance anxiety. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 38, 85.
Weinsier, R. L., Nelson, K. M., Hensrud, D. D., Darnell, B. E., Hunter, G. R., Schutz, Y. (1995) Metabolic predictors of obesity. Contribution of resting energy expenditure, thermic effect of food, and fuel utilization to four-year weight gain of post-obese and never-obese women. J Clin Invest. 95: 980–985.