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Either before you read this article or afterwards, at some point today you are going to think about your body image and whether you like it or not. Let’s be honest, I do it, you do it, we all do it. You are going to look at yourself in the mirror, and unfortunately, chances are you are looking at your body through the lens the fashion industry has forcefully embedded. So let me ask you this, how many times have you dieted to fit into those pants? Better yet, how many times have you exercised to have that ‘perfect beach body’? But have you ever wondered how the media can affect the way you perceive your body or your eating behaviour? Or how the models portrayed in the media can affect your body dissatisfaction?

It is without a doubt that sustainability is currently one of the focal points in the fashion industry. However, the (lack of) inclusivity of diverse body types and advertisements has also been a growing concern in the fashion industry with little to no effective intervention. Diversity and inclusivity are monumental aspects but they do not solely revolve around racism, sexism, cultural appropriateness, or sexual orientation in the workplace, despite their importance. The inclusivity of diverse body types and advertisements has been consequently insufficient whereby skinny models have been the predominant choice for major fashion brands’ advertisements. This has been psychologically proven to lead women to further internalize the thin ideal portrayed by the media and magazines, which adversely affects eating behaviours and body dissatisfaction.

THE SNOWBALL EFFECT OF THIN-IDEAL INTERNALIZATION AND MEDIA PRESSURE

Image Source: Research paper - Body Image: How we think and feel about our bodies from mentalhealth.org.uk

The fashion industry alone reinforces a certain thin beauty ideal that most of us tend to internalize. If it is coupled, paired, or even combined with exposure to the media, this will influence the way we perceive our bodies on a subconscious level. When we think of the models portrayed in the media and fashion industry, the first thing that comes to our minds is the ‘polished’ and skinny model. With the media portraying mostly skinny models, it is quite difficult to think that other body types are also considered normal, let alone attractive. When the majority of all the advertisements you see for your favourite fashion brands exhibit skinny models, it comes as no surprise that girls are constantly trying to reach this ideal that is being reinforced by the fashion industry. Why is that? It is because the fashion industry teaches us that ‘skinny sells’. 

Unfortunately, we live in a ‘media-focused world’, where the media is a potent transmitter that has a powerful impact on us. As countries become more Westernized, women are exposed to a beauty ideal, where this ideal portrays that being ‘skinny is beautiful’, therefore, an ideal that is unrealistic and unachievable. The idea that women have to live up to the beauty ideal that is set by cultural standards is something that is truly concerning and could potentially affect women’s psychological well-being. Whether we are reading a magazine or simply taking a walk, we are constantly bombarded by thin ideals on an everyday basis. For instance, in 2008 researchers Harper and Tiggerman found that magazines portray unrealistic thin ideals because they lack inclusivity, by portraying specific body types that are hard to attain. The portrayal of such an unrealistic beauty ideal leaves us thinking that this beauty ideal has become the ‘norm’ and everything outside of it is automatically categorized as unattractive. This may not only lead to body dissatisfaction but also allows individuals to engage in abnormal eating behaviours to help them achieve this ‘beauty-ideal’, such as self-induced vomiting or skipping meals. For instance, Stice’s 2002 research regarding body image has shown that the media’s influential portrayal of a ‘thin-ideal’ has led individuals who internalize it to be dissatisfied with their bodies and develop eating disorders.

 

Including more realistic body types could potentially have positive effects on individuals. In fact, Peck and Loken’s 2004 research shows that women feel more satisfied with their bodies after viewing pictures of plus-sized models. All in all, the influence of the fashion industry’s advertisements serves to show its desperate need to inclusively advertise body types of all kinds that are realistic and representative. This inclusiveness towards the advertisement of the many types of bodies may potentially lead to body satisfaction and healthy eating habits.

IT IS NOT A BARBIE WORLD, AFTERALL

Image source: Rehabs.com

Take a moment and look back at your childhood, back when younger girls used to play with a Barbie doll. Have you ever thought about how Barbie dolls can affect young girls’ body image? Indeed, we are living life in plastic, but it is not fantastic. Before a young girl’s body even fully develops, the world is showing her what it should look like through Barbie Dolls. According to the psychologist Jean Piaget, we rely on schemas as a framework used to organize our information mentally. For example, if a person sees a skinny model, the schema of a model and all the information related to it will be activated, such as ‘skinny’ and ‘beautiful’.

young people tend to consume less food when playing with a skinny doll.

How is this related to body image? One thing we know about children is that they learn through observation. Most girls played with a Barbie doll when they were young and chances are, they compared themselves to it. We have been culturally wired to not even think twice about the impact a Barbie Doll might have on younger girls. Some of us might think giving a young girl a Barbie doll to play with is normal; it’s actually quite the opposite, as Barbie dolls portray an unrealistic beauty ideal standard for women. This could allow young girls to internalize this ‘beauty ideal’ portrayed by the Barbie doll, making them feel like they are in a constant attempt to achieve it. In fact, Barbie dolls have received much criticism regarding the unrealistic thinness that the doll portrays. This affects young people’s body dissatisfaction and eating behaviour, as research by Anschutz and Engels (2010) shows that young people tend to consume less food when playing with a skinny doll. This is very concerning as Barbie dolls, being the primary toys given to young girls, are affecting their health and eating behaviour. This further contributes to advertising diverse body types that are realistic and representative because younger girls will first internalize Barbie Dolls’ body types and then move on and grow up to internalize that of models.  

Thankfully we are beginning to see positive changes in the fashion industry. Recently, Matell Inc., the creator of Barbie Dolls, has made a fundamental change in history. After selling the skinny beautiful Barbie Doll for almost fifty-seven years, a curvy Barbie doll was finally created; a Barbie doll with a tummy and thick thighs, which is quite a shocking change indeed. So, how did young girls perceive the new curvy Barbie doll? Interestingly, young females perceived the original skinny Barbie as ‘pretty, intelligent, helpful, and popular’. However, according to Harrigers et al., (2019) study, young girls perceived the curvy Barbie Doll negatively, by associating it with adjectives such as ‘chubby, fat, and big’. Sadly, this shows how some young girls internalize the ‘thin-ideal’ at a very early stage. 

BODY IMAGE IN THE ARAB WORLD

As the Arab region places high importance on Appearance (Behrens-Abouseif, 1999), it is with no surprise that body image concerns exist, which is exactly what I found in my research study regarding body image in the Lebanese population. Although several research studies have been conducted on body image in the Arab world, research regarding this topic in Lebanon is scarce. Research about body image is undeniably vital but this remains understudied in Lebanon, especially when it comes to how the media and internalizing a thin ideal influences women’s body dissatisfaction and eating attitudes. For this reason, my study extended on previous research and aimed to further the understanding of body image, by exploring the relationship between eating attitudes, body dissatisfaction and socio-cultural attitudes towards appearance (such as media pressures and thin-ideal internalization) in Lebanese women. The findings of my research study concluded that:

  • The more Lebanese women are dissatisfied with their bodies, the more likely they are to engage in abnormal eating behaviour.
  • The more Lebanese women feel pressured by the media, the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with their bodies.
  • The more Lebanese women feel pressured by the media, the more likely they are to engage in abnormal eating behaviour.
  • The more Lebanese women internalize the ‘thin-ideal’ portrayed by the media and magazines, the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with their bodies. 

This study illustrates the link between thin-ideal internalization, which is consistently reinforced by the fashion industry, and an increase in abnormal eating behaviours, excessive body dissatisfaction, and higher susceptibility to media pressure. Now more than ever, we are realizing the powerful impact we have on upcoming generations, so the question is, do we want them to look in the mirror and love what they see or not? 

The whole situation with coronavirus has undoubtedly taken us by surprise, and in many ways, it has changed our daily lives – myself included. One of the habits that I have unfortunately, developed is being unconsciously glued to my phone 24/7. While watching everyone on Instagram becoming a yoga expert, among other popular lockdown activities, I started wondering what the effect of this was having on my mental health. Don’t get me wrong, it is fantastic that Instagrammers can offer us a form of escapism during these turbulent times. However, for many, seeing such visuals can plunge you into a rabbit hole of social comparison. Therefore, it’s a great moment to ask the question – could social media be the cause of our undoing?

The dark side of Instagram

We are social creatures. The human mind often defaults to social comparison – what other people are doing, eating etc. As the Social Comparison Theory by Festinger (1954) states, we self-evaluate through judging ourselves against others. More worryingly,  we also tend to use other people as reference points to compare our bodies. What happens when you add social media to the mix is that it often results in dissatisfaction with one’s body image. Psychologists say that because Instagram is based on visual communication, it is the easiest for its users to compare themselves with ideal standards of beauty. We are bombarded with pictures of thin and fit people, which serve to harm our body image. 

Why is Instagram potentially worse than the fashion magazines and ads we see off-line? Such social networking sites are peer-generated. What does that mean? Well, the power of comparison is more potent when we’re talking about someone who has many similar characteristics to us. Therefore, a perfect, photoshopped model will not have such an effect as an authentic and spontaneous selfie from a social media friend. Potentially, because we are staying at home now, we can spend more time on social media. Platforms such as Instagram could have a more significantly detrimental effect on body image, especially the “fit inspirations”. What we can observe for the last couple of months is that all weights and yoga mats are sold out, everywhere. Exercise has been associated with a more positive body image (Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006). Still, there should not be any pressure to exercise because everyone does. Which, in fact, might be the case. 

The long overdue change

Somehow, throughout the last years, we have accepted likes as a numerical measurement of physical beauty. This unbelievably reductionistic fact is the part of current reality. In the eyes of young girls, the number of likes equals not only their beauty but also how worthy they see themselves. Fortunately, this is where some people say enough is enough, urging for a pause in self-objectification and homogenous ideals of beauty. Billie Eilish spoke up about being more than her body in her short film “Not My Responsibility“. This is one of the profoundly empowering moments that we’ve recently experienced and desperately needed. She’s saying a definite no to being defined by her body. 

In spite of the negativity, Instagram might not be all that bad. Body positivity content, such as Billie Eilish’s movie, is what we can actually see emerging on Instagram. As highlighted by fashion Psychologist  Dr Aurore Bardey, “social media is changing – Instagram is where we can find diversity and representation. Whatever body type you have, you can find yourself in social media”. She underlines that Instagram is actually the most inclusive platform. The diversity we can see grow on social media decreases the negative aspects of social comparison. In some sense, Instagram has brought democracy to representations of beauty. With such a revolution of accepted beauty ideals, Instagram is where we can find a sense of belonging. In the end, it can actually have a positive effect on body image.

The antidote

When talking about presenting an inclusive and diverse image of the female and male body, most of the fashion brands have a long way to go in how they promote themselves on social media. 

When I asked Dr Bardey what advice she would give on the topic of lockdown and body image, she proposed trying out sustainability as an approach to daily life. Sustainability not only in the sense of material consumption but also the consumption of information and how we spend our time. It is the perfect time for reflection because we, in a sense, have to take a break from fashion. It is an incredibly fast-paced industry, now making an obligatory pause. Usually, trends on and off Instagram are incredibly short-lived. Therefore we are used to everything changing, always wanting something or simply wanting more. Thus, by valuing the time we have now, we can spend it more positively.

If the choice is to use social media, we can decide how to consume it. As Profesor Laurie Santos from Yale explains, the clue lies in what are the reference points that we’re letting inside our head. Are those the ones to which we will be making upward social comparisons that will make us feel dissatisfied? Perhaps, we could curate the information around us by allowing the information that is getting in to be more accurate and more representative of real people’s bodies, real people’s experiences. As she underlines, it is hard to stop information after it gets into your head, but you can choose what you allow to get in.

Any way you choose to spend your time in the lockdown is okay. It is not anyone’s right to dictate what you should do or how you should feel but if you’re feeling jealous or ‘not good enough’ it’s time to evaluate the content you’re consuming. Curate a feed that actually makes you feel good about yourselves. I mean, you have the time.

Many stylists will tell you that vertical stripes have a slimming effect. Scientific research has proven this assumption to be false.

 

“Shakaila you really should wear vertical instead of horizontal stripes, you already have large breasts”.

I’ve received many a criticism in my 24 years of life but this one stuck with me ever since I heard it from a well-meaning colleague about 4 years ago. At the time, I never really realised the true extent of my love of stripes. Half of my wardrobe consisted of some sort of striped pattern – strangely most of them horizontal. Would I have to part with my penchant for the simple and elegant pattern because it made me look disproportionally large? I finally ended this rather nonessential period of contemplation upon discovering that the demonization of horizontal stripes is nothing but an old wife’s tale.

It’s a commonly held belief that when it comes to clothing, horizontal stripes have a widening effect. If you have a larger bottom half, stylists such as TV Personality Gok Wan recommend that a horizontal striped top will help to “balance you out” by broadening your chest to match.

However, research suggests that horizontal stripes have the complete opposite effect.  In 1925, Hermann von Helmholtz created the Helmholtz illusion. He composed an image with two squares containing equally spaced stripes – one with vertical stripes and the other, horizontal. As shown in the image below, the square containing horizontal lines appears taller and narrower than the identical square made up of vertical lines. This illusion occurs because horizontal stripes have more “filled space” from top to bottom thus making it look taller and thinner than the same-sized square.

Moreover, research has found that the illusion holds when applied to the body. A 2011 study found that when participants observed pictures of identical mannequins wearing horizontal and vertical striped clothing, the mannequin wearing horizontal stripes “needed to be 10.7% broader to be perceived as identical to the one in vertical stripes” (Thompson & Mikellidou).

Given the near century old history of the Helmholtz illusion it’s unclear how the ‘Horizontal lines make you look fat’ trope has managed to gain such a reputation.

Styling is as much of an art form as it is a science so before you cast out a portion of your wardrobe – check the data.