Body Image Research

Psychiatry_Psychology2.jpgBack in September, Sudip Ghosh offered a review at Brain Blogger of a new book on anorexia, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters.

One of the many aspects of the complex problem of eating disorders is body image. It was informative, then to come across an article summarizing a wide variety of research findings on body image. I’ve picked out a few of the more interesting and perhaps less well-known ones:

* In court, “attractive” people (whatever that means) have distinct advantages in our society. They are found guilty less often and when found guilty, receive less severe sentences.

* While concern with appearance is not just part of modern Western culture, there is a difference in degree of concern. With advances in technology and the rise of the mass media, normal considerations regarding our looks have turned to obsessions. Standards of “beauty” are becoming harder and harder to attain, particularly for women. The current media ideal of thinness for women is achievable by less than 5% of the female population.

* Reactions to mirror reflections vary according to species, age, gender, ethnic group, mood, sexual orientation, marital status, childhood experiences, menstrual cycle, whether a person has an eating disorder, what they’ve been watching on TV, what magazines they’ve been reading, where they shop, whether they take part in sports and whether they are pregnant, and even what they’ve had for lunch.

* If you were a mouse, a cat or a dog, you wouldn’t realize that the image was a reflection of yourself. Most animals think they are face to face with another member of their species. The great apes are an exception — chimps, gorillas, orangutans, and the naked apes (humans) are capable of recognizing themselves in the mirror.

* However, other great apes use mirrors to groom themselves, pick food out of their teeth and make faces at themselves for entertainment. But I’d be interested so know whether they also use mirrors to criticize themselves, like we do? It would be interesting to follow up on that.

* Female dissatisfaction with appearance and poor body-image begin at a very early age. Human infants begin to recognize themselves in mirrors at about 2 years of age. Girls can start disliking what they see only a few years later. In one US survey, 81% of ten-year-old girls had already dieted at least once.

* The main focus of dissatisfaction for most women looking in the mirror is the size and shape of their bodies, particularly their hips, waists and thighs. Men unhappy with their bodies focus on height, stomachs, chests and hair loss (and penis size, according to this study).

* Black women with high self-esteem and a strong sense of racial identity rated themselves more attractive than pictures of supposedly ‘beautiful’ Caucasian fashion models.

* People become significantly more dissatisfied with their own appearance after being shown TV ads featuring exceptionally slim and beautiful people or reading fashion magazines.

* Those who suffer from extreme body-image disturbance (body dysmorphic disorder) report a lack of holding and hugging as children.

* When in the pre-menstrual phase of their cycle, women experience higher levels of body-dissatisfaction than at other times.

* The mental well-being of obese women can be worse to than that of the chronically ill or even severely disabled. These problems are not caused by obesity itself — in cultures without fat-phobia or where fat is admired, obese people show no signs of these effects — but by social pressure and the association of beauty with thinness.

Isabella Mori

Isabella Mori is a psychotherapist in private practice in Vancouver. She has been working in the field of mental health, counseling, psychotherapy and movement therapy for 18 years.
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