Why Women Hate Their Bodies

Why Women Hate Their Bodies

There are many factors that may contribute to the way people view their own bodies. A major factor in the adoption of negative body image and body shaming comes from the role of the media in cultural standards and ideals. Body type ideals vary across cultures, however it has been found that in Western cultures there is a greater emphasis on the objectification of the female body. This objectification has been severely detrimental to female mental health due to its link to self-objectification and social comparisons. As the cultural ideal body type becomes increasingly more unattainable over time, increased media exposure to this ideal has a negative effect on female mental health.

Objectification theory posits that exposure to sociocultural context, which regularly emphasizes the objectification and sexualization of the female body, is harmful to the mental health of women (Bosson, Vendello, & Buckner, p. 460). Objectification is the term used in describing an individual’s body being used for others and encourages the idea that the person is less than human. Additionally, the theory states that objectification tends to impact women more than men. One of the most negative impacts of objectification is that it teaches young girls to value their bodies based on physical appearances rather than other qualities. Another implication of the increase in objectification of the female body is its link to the mental health of women.

For example, in recent decades, there has been a significant increase in the number of cases of bulimia nervosa (Rosenberg & Kosslyn, p. 314). Bulimia is characterized by periods of binge eating which are then followed by methods to prevent weight gain such as purging or excessive exercise. Approximately 75-90% of individuals diagnosed with bulimia nervosa are female, further proving the increased vulnerability of women compared to men. The increase in cases of bulimia can be attributed to cultural factors such as the ideal of thinness, media exposure favoring thinness, and the person’s understanding of the ideal. One way that objectification affects body image and eating habits reflected by the effect on self-objectification.

Society’s unrelenting objectification of women also negatively impacts women because it leads to self-objectification (Bosson et al., p. 460). Self-objectification means that a person defines the self based on its physical appearance rather than other strengths that may or may not be visible. Because society as a whole puts a higher emphasis on physical appearances, such as size and beauty, women begin to internalize these feelings and begin to judge themselves based on these standards. Aubrey (2006) found a positive correlation between higher levels of exposure to objectifying media sources and self-objectification. Consequently, there are negative results from trying to maintain and/or achieve an unattainable ideal. For example, in addition to objectification experienced in everyday life, outside sources, such as media, play a role in the objectification of women and the cultural ideal of thinness. Pressures imposed on individuals by media, peers, family, etc. to maintain a small body result in the thin-body ideal (Stice & Shaw, 1994).

The media holds an enormous influence over cultural ideals of body image, and, in most cases, provides a source of social comparison. Harper & Tiggemann (2008) found that women who viewed media sources containing women with an ideal body type tend to report a higher level of self-objectification and an overall dissatisfaction with their bodies. An example of this can be seen in a study done with adolescent girls in Fiji (Becker, Burwell, Gilman, Herzog, & Hamburg, 2002). The study demonstrated how great the influence of television is on body image. Prior to this particular study, the girls had no television influences and the ideal female body type in their culture was different; their standard was shapely and robust. When the ideal body type was larger in size, almost all of the girls participating reported that they did not feel negative emotions towards their body. However, after the introduction of television, roughly seventy five percent of the girls reported that they felt overweight. Additionally, increased rates of dieting and other weight loss methods became prevalent within the population of the study. However, cultural influences such as media are not exclusive to women and can affect men as well. For instance, some men who have professions or hobbies that are weight dependent, such as wrestling or modeling, would also be more conscientious of their weight in comparison to others. Additionally, men who are naturally more conscious of the appearance may also be more at risk for body image issues. Self-objectification and internalizing negative body image feelings are stepping stones for upward social comparison.

When cultural ideals are unrealistic and seemingly unattainable, they lead to continuous upward social comparisons by those who are not able to achieve the ideal. Social comparisons occur when an individual compares an aspect of themselves to that of another person (Bosson et al., p. 461). When the individual making the comparison finds that they do not meet the ideal standard, negative outcomes, such as increased levels of body shame and increased rates of eating disorders, ensue. An example of the negative effects of upward social comparison can be seen when examining how the cultural ideal of thinness has changed overtime. Research examining this topic suggests that the ideal female body type has steadily decreased in size overtime (Rosenberg & Kosslyn, p. 315). This decrease in optimal body size has been reflected in media sources such as Playboy and Miss America contestants. The women featured in these media sources show a trend towards smaller waist and hip size. However, in reality, the average body mass index (BMI) for women across the United States has been steadily increasing from 21 BMI in 1954 to 27 in 2008. In contrast, the average BMI of Playmates has decreased from 19 asreported in 1954 to 18 as reported in 2008. This study of American women shows how the effects of unrealistic cultural ideals translate into adverse weight outcomes.

There is a significant amount of evidence presenting the relationship between the objectification of the female body and its damage to female mental health. While it is not easy to change public opinion or alter peoples’ beliefs, there is a necessary call for change in how society views women as a whole. If we claim to care about the women in our lives, then we need to execute this change to better female physical and mental health. There are many steps that can be taken to improve the way women are viewed, such as altering media portrayal and increasing awareness of how objectification is detrimental to female health. New, realistic standards of female bodies and the idea that women do not need to look a certain way need to be encouraged.

 

References

Becker, A.E., Burwell, R.A., Gilman, S.E., Herzog, D.B., & Hamburg, P. (2002). Eating

behaviors and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. The British Journal of Psychiatry: the journal of mental health.180, 509- 514.

Bosson, J. K., Vendello, J. A., & Buckner, C. E. (2019). The psychology of sex and gender.Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

Harper, B. & Tiggemann, M. The Effect of Thin Ideal Media Images on Women’s Self- Objectification, Mood, and Body Image. Sex Roles (2008) 58: 649. https://doi.org/10.100 7/s11199-007-9379-x

Rosenberg, R. S., & Kosslyn, S. M. (2014). Abnormal Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers

Stice, E. & Shaw, H. (1994). Adverse effects of the media portrayed thin-ideal on women And linkages to bulimic symptomatology. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 13, 288- 308 doi: 10.1521/jscp.1994.13.3.288