This week we wanted to look at body image issues for both young men and young women and synthesize some of the resources out there on the topic.
We should begin by acknowledging the rather obvious fact that both boys and girls, men and women struggle with body image. As current research has shown, mass media and social media play a key role in shaping what children and young adults believe is both the desired and attainable male or female form. For young men, they often feel scrawny and seek to build muscle by maintaining a rigorous workout schedule and diet plan, while supplementing with steroids. For young women, rather than bulking up, the goal is to slim down by using diet products including laxatives.
In an article for the New York Times, Perri Klass references the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS) which surveyed children age 9 to 14 periodically over the years as they grew up. The study found that by the age of 23 to 25, 10.5% of women surveyed had reported using laxatives to aid in weight loss over the past year. Similarly, 12% of men in the study reported using muscle building products. Because the use of these products increase with age, the study points to the “need for early intervention”. For example, parents should speak to their children about body image and the kinds of images they see on social media from a young age. By asking, “What do you think of that picture?” or “Who is that picture for?”, parents can help their children to be critical consumers not only of the broader media, but also of friends’ images on social media.
Lisa Damour explains that questions like these are particularly important given the widespread use of social media platforms like Instagram where teens may post “carefully crafted bikini shots” year round. For her, it’s not so much that young girls are comparing themselves to Victoria Secret models, it’s that they are comparing their bodies to those of their friends and acquaintances. Damour explains that in practice, this behavior is a “tax on their concentration”. Findings from a study conducted in 1998 appear to corroborate this point. Researches put both male and female undergraduates in their own dressing room with a mirror and either sweaters or swimsuits in various sizes. The participants were told to put on their garments and wear them around the dressing room awhile before filling out a fake form to evaluate the apparel. While they were waiting, they were given a maths test to use their productively. The researchers found that the female students wearing sweaters performed much better than their swimsuit-wearing female counterparts, while male students performed the same whether in a swimsuit or sweater. A second study swapped the maths test for an exam that sought to determine “the capacity for focused attention” and still the results held. Their conclusion?
In short, when women are prompted to reflect on their physical appearance, they seem to lose intellectual focus.
While men may not suffer a loss of concentration, Scott Griffiths argues body image and the portrayal of the male figure in the media (and social media) is still taking a calculable toll men. Why? Griffiths explains,
Boys, just like girls, are influenced by the images they see… As society places increasing value on those aspects of physical appearance that can be modified through diet and exercise, whether it’s body fat or muscle or some new combination thereof, we create the environment in which eating disorders can flourish.
Females want to get skinnier. Males want get bigger. So many young men and adults turn to muscle builders like anabolic steroids to try and achieve the kind of increased muscularity they see in movies, on models, in social media. But like anorexia or any other eating disorder, Griffiths explains “muscle dysmorphia” is a real mental disorder where individuals who suffer spend an average of 5.5+ hours per day thinking about their muscles and body size. They might protect their diet and training schedule by turning down important social occasions. Feelings of insecurity or shame about their body may take over completely. And perhaps most troubling, fully half of those with muscle dysmorphia have reported attempting to commit suicide at least once.
For both male and female children, it is imperative that parents set an example by celebrating their children not for what they look like, but for what they can do and achieve. Be similarly critical of the objectification of women in the media and the characterization of men as stoic and uncaring about their appearance.
For Jessi Kneeland, it was the constant objectification and sexualization of her body by men that lead her to associate her body with danger. After she was sexually assaulted twice at the age of 7 and 9, endured sexually charged “compliments” like, “you’re jail bait” at the age of 11, and suffered through an unhealthy relationship as a teen, Kneeland explains that she simply saw herself as “the kind of girl you violate”. Which is why she argues:
Negative body image isn’t just about body, it’s about personal and cultural factors, it’s about shame or the feeling that there is something wrong with us.
While social media may serve to reinforce these feelings in many ways, social media itself has given rise to the body positive community which preaches self love and advocates for feeling proud of and secure in you body. While Kneeland admits this is a step in the right direction, body positivity doesn’t offer a lasting solution for someone with a negative self image. Why? Because according to her, it’s not about how skinny you or how muscular you want to be. The physical “flaws” that we choose to obsess over are really masking something much deeper. Perhaps it’s the fear of being judged or made fun of. Maybe it’s the fear of being unloved and ignored.
“The problem isn’t with our bodies. It is with the stories we believe about ourselves that we believe our bodies are broadcasting to the world.”
Social media allows children and adults alike to create content and share it with the masses. Photo sharing platforms in particular, have a direct influence on our perception of ourselves and our bodies. They invite us to make comparisons, to critique, to judge, to fall prey to photoshopped and perfected images. In some cases, more positively, they may invite us to celebrate what we most cherish about ourselves. Regardless, it is our responsibility to consume media critically and to assist children in doing the same. Moreover, as Kneeland reminds us, our self-image is multidimensional, the product of more than just unrealistic fashion adverts. We must also strive to understand the emotions and thoughts and experiences from which the insecurity and negative body image originates.