What I learned about body image is crazy

If you’re going to talk about fashion, I think it’s only right to talk about body image as well. When I started a bit of research about body image for this post, I didn’t know that I’d find such amazing information not only about body size and health but what can be done about all the unreasonable expectations.

I wish everyone was on board to replace women’s unhealthy expectations and social norms. Sadly, not everyone is yet. There is a lot of support out there and it’s growing every day, but its just not enough. Personally just by being fans of Upworthy and Toward the Stars on Facebook I’ve noticed my own internal dialog becoming a bit healthier, sometimes. Or is that because I have two small kids and no time to obsess about my abs anymore? I don’t know, a little of both I guess. (But it’s probably not true that I never obsess about my abs. Shhhh.)

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There are 1.1 million young people with eating disorders in the UK and two thirds of girls 13-14 are apparently unhappy with their bodies. The incidence of obesity is growing, but also perfectly normal sized and shaped young women are devastatingly unhappy with their bodies. I was, and sometimes – sometimes often – still am one of them. I have done all sorts of reading about weight loss and body image and even though I know intellectually it doesn’t matter, that doesn’t change how I feel. Which is why we need to change things!

Did you know that studies have shown people are healthier in the overweight bmi category than the normal or underweight ones? Seriously! This is not intended to shame anyone who is underweight, we all do the best we can, but this is how skewed our perceptions, values and self-worth are. Most women would rather be underweight than over weight even though it is far more unhealthy. And it’s not about just knowing the truth, though that can help in the long run. It’s about the whispers in our heads.

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Everyone knows this is the medias fault, and that “the media” just says they are just showing us what we want to see! It’s an awful self propelling feedback loop and it will take some serious conscious effort to push ourselves out of it. But it can be done. I’ll tell you how in a minute.

This Psychology today article, Media exposure and the perfect body talks about how in the 1950’s a psychologist theorized that we “rely on external models to form our self perceptions,” so it’s not exactly new. We decide what we like based on what everyone else likes. Beauty is cultural. We’ve all heard of the places where they prefer abnormally long necks or foot binding or any number of different kinds of fashion adornments. 

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I say, we can decide to like something different.

Interestingly, this new study agrees because it shows that our perception of beauty is fluid. Researchers showed very skinny models to one group and bigger models to a second group and in a second part of the test, as you would guess the group who saw the smaller models judged a smaller bmi as beautiful while those who looked at slightly larger models judged a slightly higher bmi as more attractive. Sadly everyone still chose underweight bodies to represent beauty but the fact remains just being exposed to different models for one minute affected their judgement. So if we can convince more and more companies to show us more diverse body types we can affect the cultural perception of beauty.

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 If we can stay aware of the messages we are receiving and try to choose the messages we buy from carefully then slowly we can change the cultural messages toward and about women. Clothing companies that show different sized and shaped models are the first thing to look for. Then look for magazines supporting the cause. Hollywood will follow suit, eventually. And over time, we can change things.

If you care to.

*Further reading: Ourbodiesourselves.org has a list of websites and organisations trying to create positive change for women (and men) and body image. Have a look.

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