“When you look in the mirror, what do you see?”
Do you have trouble looking in the mirror? Does the reflection looking back at you cause frustration, anger, or sadness? If the answer is yes, you could have a disordered body image.
Take a look at the following questionnaire, developed by Cindy Maynard (1998), a registered dietician. It appears on the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center’s website’s section on body image.
A. Body Image Questionnaire
o Have you avoided sports or working out because you didn’t want to be seen in gym clothes? Yes / No
o Does eating even a small amount of food make you feel fat? Yes / No
o Do you worry or obsess about your body not being small, thin, or good enough? Yes / No
o Are you concerned your body is not muscular or strong enough? Yes / No
o Do you avoid wearing certain clothes because they make you feel fat? Yes / No
o Do you feel badly about yourself because you don’t like your body? Yes / No
o Have you ever disliked your body? Yes / No
o Do you want to change something about your body? Yes / No
o Do you compare yourself to others and “come up short?” Yes / No
Answering “Yes” to 3 or more of these questions may indicate a poor body image.
So what is body image? While there have been many definitions of body image, the most clinically accepted definition, developed by researchers Cash, Ancis, and Stratchan in 1997 separates body image into two distinct categories:
1. Body-image evaluation
2. Body-image investment
Body-image evaluation is the way in which a person perceives his or her body, including
one’s thoughts and feelings about one’s body. According to the Eating Disorder Referral
and Information Center’s website, body-image evaluation includes:
o How you see or picture yourself.
o How you feel others perceive you.
o What you believe about your physical appearance.
o How you feel about your body.
o How you feel in your body.
Body-image investment describes the actions one takes, as a result of one’s evaluation, in order to enhance, improve, or change one’s body (Cash et al., 1997). These actions can be as simple as getting a haircut or beginning an exercise program, or they can be as extreme as engaging in disordered eating or undergoing excessive amounts of cosmetic surgery.
Body image can be affected by many factors. Messages from parents, peers, and coaches can change the way we see our bodies. However, the most pervasive factor in developing a disordered body image appears to be the media. Societal images portray women as young, vibrant, and rail-thin, while men are portrayed as muscular, youthful, and lean. We see these images repeated over and over in television, on billboards, in magazines. The message is clear: beauty is young and thin.
This ideal image has become especially obvious over the last few decades.
At the turn of the 20th century, actress Lillian Russell was idealized for her beauty at 200 pounds, yet in the 1990’s, the term “heroin chic” was used to describe the emaciated look of typical models. From the 1950’s to today Playboy models and Miss America contestants have shown a significant and constant decrease in weight. (Turner, Hamilton, Jacobs, Angood, Deanne, Dwyer, 1997). Over time, these “ideals” have become less and less attainable, as many models and actresses have resorted to disordered eating in order to starve their way to a beautiful body. In fact, research done by Fox in 1997 showed that the current media’s “ideal”, is achievable by less than 5% of the female population. In an interesting follow-up study, this same researcher found that women who more closely resemble this ideal, do not have higher self-esteem. Instead they feel self-doubt about their appearance or question whether their worth is only related to their appearance.
A follow-up study was conducted by Anne Becker, director of research at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center. The study was done 3 years after the arrival of Western television to Fiji. The study elicited the following results (Harvard, 1999):
o 15% of girls vomited to control weight, as compared to only 3% of girls 3 years earlier.
o 29% of girls were considered “at-risk” for developing an eating disorder, as compared to 13% 3 years earlier.
o 74% of girls considered themselves “too fat”. Girls who watched television 3 or more times a week were 50% more likely to consider themselves fat and 30% more likely to diet.
o 62% of girls had dieted in the past month (more than the typical American teenager).
Additional researchers have concluded that:
o Only 30 minutes of television watching can change a young woman’s perception of her own size and shape (Myers and Biocca, 1992).
o Magazine and television viewing is directly related to dieting habits in young women (Levine, Smolak and Hayde 1994 as cited in Burggraf et al., 1999).
o Viewing women who possess the “thin ideal” body significantly impacts women struggling with Anorexia Nervosa. (Burggraf et al., 1999).
o Women who view fashion magazines perceive themselves to be larger than they actually are (Hamilton, Waller, 1993 as cited in Burggraf et al., 1999).
With the ubiquitous presence of the media, and the unachievable ideals that are represented, how do we determine what is healthy? To answer this question, we must separate the definition of a disordered body image from a healthy body image:
A disordered body image is one in which the person’s self esteem depends almost completely on the perception of body size, shape, and weight. On the other hand, a healthy body image is one in which the person’s self esteem is comprised of many factors, of which body image is only one part.
According to Nathaniel Branden who wrote what is considered the definitive work on Self-Esteem, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem (1994), self-esteem is comprised of two components: Self-efficacy and Self-Respect (p. 26). Self-efficacy is the belief that one has the ability, knowledge, and skills to take care of oneself. Self- Respect is the belief in one’s own value: it is believing that one deserves to be loved, to be treated well and to be happy.
Branden identifies six practices that are critical for the attainment and maintenance of a healthy self-esteem (p. 66).
o Living Consciously
o Living Purposefully
o Personal Integrity
Living Consciously means being aware of our bodies, our choices, our environment, and ourselves. It is being connected with our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves. To starve oneself, overfeed oneself, or despise or distort or reject parts of oneself because of a perceived defect, despite information to the contrary, all require a lack of connection to oneself. Believing that beauty is something defined by the media, without questioning its motives, lacks consciousness. Becoming more conscious enables one to make the best choices for oneself.
A central component to improving one’s body image is having self-acceptance. A realistic view of oneself, including strengths and weaknesses, is an important first step.
To focus on one’s flaws at the exclusion of one’s strengths, or vice versa, is to not have a realistic view of oneself. Without this, self- acceptance cannot occur.
Understanding that the media influences an individual’s self-perception does not mean that one should feel victimized by the media. We are each responsible for our own choices and behaviors, regardless of outside influence. However, having an awareness of the media’s power allows an individual to make more responsible choices about how one chooses to view oneself.
Branden defines self-assertiveness as “the willingness to stand up for myself, to be who I am openly, to treat myself with respect in all human encounters” (p. 119). It is the belief that, “My life does not belong to others and I am not here to live up to someone else’s expectations” (p. 121). When a person rejects one’s body or tries to change one’s body to fit an external ideal, one is rejecting one’s own authenticity. A person who can see who they are, to identify what they value, and to explore their own concepts of beauty begins the process of self-assertion.
Focusing exclusively on one’s appearance indicates that a person may lack connection with a higher purpose for one’s life. Looking at one’s values and the contributions one may want to make to society may help contextualize the importance of appearance.
Having goals aside from a certain number on the scale or a certain size on an article of clothing helps align people toward achieving a greater purpose for their life.
“When we behave in ways that conflict with our judgment of what is appropriate, we lose face in our own eyes,” explains Branden (p. 144). Most would agree that spending excessive amounts of time, energy, and resources on one’s appearance, or berating the self for one’s dissatisfaction with his/her appearance is not appropriate. If one were to witness another person engaging in such behaviors, one would likely identify it as such.
Highlighting the importance of living with integrity and being in alignment with one’s personal beliefs is the final pillar of self-esteem.
These principles, as identified by Branden are not measured by what we see in the mirror. Instead, they are measured through the things that we do, the way we handle ourselves, and the way that we treat others, probably the most significant of which is the one in the mirror. To find out more, check out Eric Viskovicz’s http://liveinfitness.com.