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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.

In many articles, I’ve discussed the positive psychological impact of dressing comfortably but how can you dress comfortably if you can’t find clothes to suit your frame? While we’re lucky to be living in the Body-Positivity era where women are calling out brands for their one-size-fits-all offerings sadly, research has shown that 57% of women feel that there are no clothes to suit their body type. In an effort to help all women feel more confident in their clothing choices I’ve used psychological research to identify clothing styles that will suit women with the following 4 figures: Hourglass, Petite,  Pear Silhouette and Tall. 

A portion of this article was originally printed in Cosmopolitan Germany

Hourglass

fashion psychology
Image courtesy of Cosmopolitan Germany

Gestalt psychology is a school of psychology made up of a series of principles that provided the foundation for the modern study of perception. If we consider some of these principles when dressing, we can ensure that we’re emphasising the parts of the body we like and de-emphasise the parts of the body we don’t. For example, the Gestalt principle of figure/ground lets the eyes know what it should be focusing on (the figure) and what it should ignore (the background). 

In a garment that has two colours, our eyes will focus on the part of the body that has the least amount of either colour (the figure) and the areas that have the most amount of colour will be ignored (the background). People who have an hourglass silhouette typically determine their trim waist to be their best asset and want to emphasise this. To emphasize this feature, they can utilise the figure/ground principle by having a single block of colour in the middle of their waist that breaks up the rest of their dress/outfit. This can also take the shape of a dress that has a concentrated print along the waist, or, for example, a white dress that has a black coloured belted waist, anything that draws the eyes to the centre of the body. Accessories such as belts should be placed at the smallest point of the waist to create more of an impact. 

The styling rule that I’d like to abolish for people with an hourglass figure is that they should ‘avoid frills’ for fear that it will make them look “too big”. As long as frills or volume-adding features don’t over-shadow the waist, they can serve to complement an hourglass figure. For example, a blouse dress that cinches in at the waist or has a belted waist will be perfect. 

Having said that, peplum-style dresses that have added fabric around the waist should be avoided if you want to truly embrace your hourglass figure. High-neck, mid-length dresses in a figure-hugging material are extremely complimentary to people with an hourglass figure. Dresses in this style will hug the body at its three smallest points; the neck, the waist and the knees – fully honouring the hourglass shape. While short jackets will draw the eyes to the waist and highlight this area, women with a more adventurous style could embrace longer ‘ombre-coloured’ jackets to draw attention to the waist. 

Petite

Fashion Psychology

The best kind of dresses for dainty/tiny women are short dresses as these emphasise the length of the legs, elongating the body and allowing the wearers best assets to shine. Empire-waist dresses will also help to create this elongated effect. Two-pieces are also perfect for dainty/tiny especially when a crop top is paired with a high waisted skirt as again, this will make the legs appear longer. If pairing an outfit with heels, closed-toe pointed heels will be best as these also create the illusion of a longer leg. 

Gestalt’s principle of similarity states that when two things appear similar to each other, our eyes group them together. So, dainty/tiny women who choose to wear prints should wear dresses/two-pieces where the print along the chest varies slightly from the print directly under the chest area. The way the eyes will perceive these prints as two groups will make the bottom half of the body appear longer and make the wearer appear taller. Similarly, a short jacket will work best for this figure-type as it will allow the waist and areas below to shine. Based on this principle, dresses with a drop waist or short dress with a high concentration of colour or print at the very bottom should be avoided as it will make the legs appear even shorter.

If you find yourself coveting a garment that is too long for your body type either take a visit to the tailor or take a shortcut using hemming tape. Hemming tape is super easy to use and works on most fabrics, all you’ll need is an iron and a few pins. 

One styling rule that I’d like to abolish is that dainty/tiny women should avoid ruffles as these might make them look “too cute”. In fact, if ruffles are placed exclusively around the chest area or even around the shoulders this will draw the eyes up making the legs appear even longer. To avoid the “too cute” look, it’s all about placement. For example, a Molly-Goddard style dress with frills and volume all over the body can swamp the body making you look like a child playing dress-up. 

Pear

Fashion Psychology
Source: Girlwithcurves.com

Women with pear silhouettes either want to embrace/draw attention to their lower half or they want to minimise it. The types of fabrics that you wear around this area can help you to either emphasize or de-emphasize it. For example, glossy fabrics reflect more light, attract the eyes and make the surfaces underneath it appear larger. Matte fabrics absorb light and make the surfaces underneath it appear smaller. Rough surfaces also absorb light more unevenly than dull surfaces. If you want to emphasize your lower half and make it appear even bigger, wear a shiner material on the bottom, one that reflects light. If you want to minimize your lower half wear dull, uneven materials on the bottom like linen or perhaps sequins on a night out as these will absorb more light. 

For women who want to balance their body and make their top half look more in proportion to their lower half, harness the power of stripes. Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that horizontal stripes make the body appear smaller while vertical stripes make the body appear larger. So, if you would like to emphasize the chest area, wear a dress that has vertical stripes on the top and horizontal stripes on the bottom. Adding another layer up top for example,  by adding a t-shirt under a slip dress will also create balance by drawing the eyes to the upper half of the body, making it appear slightly larger. Make sure that the t-shirt and the dress are contrasting colours to achieve the desired effect. A mid-length, volume inducing jacket, like a puffer jacket for example, will also achieve the same results. 

Many women with a pear silhouette find it hard to locate dresses that don’t have a large chest area. One dress style that avoids this issue is a wrap dress. Traditional wrap dresses will allow you to adjust the fit of the dress to make it tighter at the top to accommodate your smaller chest area while draping loosely around the lower half to provide comfort. 

One styling rule I would like to abolish for the pear silhouette is that those with this shape need to avoid slip dresses. While many slip dresses were designed with a straight figure in mind some are cut in a way that allows more room on the lower half of the body to suit pear shapes. If you’re on the look-out for a slip dress, pay close attention to its cut to see if it goes in at the waist and gets wider at the bottom. This will allow it to drape nicely around your curves. 

Tall

Fashion Psychology

Women who embrace their height should wear maxi dresses. Maxi dresses are the perfect dress for taller women as it makes them look statuesque. When wearing midi dresses, taller woman should opt for form-fitting dresses especially around the lower half of the body. Midi dresses are very popular at the moment but can look unflattering on tall women if they flare out too much just under the knee or around the calf, creating the appearance that the dress was meant for a shorter individual. However, if the dress is form-fitting and utilises a figure-hugging fabric, the length that the dress stops at won’t matter because it will look deliberate.

Tall women should pay close attention to their proportions if they want to create a balanced look while also embracing their height. If you have longer legs, then perhaps avoid empire waist dresses as this will serve to make your legs look even longer. If you have a longer torso, a dress with a drop waist will over-exaggerate this portion. Find a dress that cinches in at the natural waist or use a belt to achieve balance. 

For both tall and androgynous women who feel like they’re wearing ‘a costume’ when wearing a dress, focus on tailoring. Dresses that have more volume around the shoulder area can create a more masculine aesthetic as studies have shown that people deem those with broader shoulders to possess masculine traits. Picking dresses with tougher fabrics such as leather can also add to the effect. When in doubt, throw on a classic biker jacket or tailored blazer to create a more androgynous look.

The styling rule that I would abolish for tall women would be to ‘avoid heels’. Tall women should not shy away from their height and embrace wearing heels. If the thought of towering over people is too daunting, throw on a pair of three-inch heels; not quite kitten heel, not quite high-heels but a happy medium. 

Do you have any styling tips that you’d like to share, let us know in the comments!

Since the height of #effyourbeautystandards we’ve seen body-positivity transform into a buzzword of sorts, conjuring up more eye-rolls than celebratory fist pumps. “Although advertisements position corporations as catalysts for a revolution in the way we

At its core, body positivity is a radical movement aimed at promoting the healthy acceptance of one’s body no matter what shape or size. At least, that’s what it was when we were first introduced to it in 2012 with Tess Holiday’s #effyourbeautystandards campaign. Sick of fashion’s one-dimensional depictions of beauty the size 26 model called for us to “take back our right to be a total babe regardless of our size… big OR small we all deserve to feel beautiful.”

And it worked. One million Instagram followers, a major modelling contract and a People magazine cover later, Holiday’s success is not only a victory for the people, its an example of how we as consumers flock to change. So used to seeing a conveyor belt of waif-like models sprawled across fashion magazines, psychology teaches us that our brains are actually hardwired to appreciate the novelty of seeing a model above a size 6 being celebrated and revered.

However, since the height of #effyourbeautystandards we’ve seen body-positivity transform into a buzzword of sorts, conjuring up more eye-rolls than celebratory fist pumps.  

Another #flashbackfriday shooting with @danabrushette 💦 I miss my pinup days sometimes 😇 #effyourbeautystandards

A post shared by Plus Model💕Wife💕Mom💕Feminist🐝 (@tessholliday) on

Just look at the Lee Jeans campaign which on one hand encouraged us to ‘celebrate our curves’ and on the other hand featured this slogan next to an image of a typically thin model. It would be funny if it wasn’t so damaging. Social comparison theory states that we subconsciously compare ourselves unrealistic media ideals and when we realise that we do not measure up we feel worse about ourselves and our bodies (Festinger, 1954).

So now, not only do we have to deal with the psychological warfare of these airbrushed images of perfection making us feel like a sack of rotten potatoes, we also have them screaming at us to ‘love ourselves’. And that is what happens when consumerism meets social change. In the paper Commodity Feminism and Its Body: The Appropriation and Capitalization of Body positivity through Advertising’,  Emma Luck discusses the hijacking of the body positivity movement:

However, although advertisements position corporations as catalysts for a revolution in the way we see women’s bodies, they ultimately serve the same beauty standard that they attempt to resist, and the very nature of advertising—as a tool of capitalism—makes it incompatible with the goals of activism.

It must be said that not all brands are wolves wearing body positivity slogans. The real difficulty is seeking out the brands that are genuinely interested in promoting such diversity because sometimes, inclusion isn’t really inclusion. Unfortunately, a pattern still exists where body positivity campaigns often exclude Black and Minority Ethnic women. Whilst it must be noted that studies have suggested that Black women show less desire for thinness (Nelson, 2009) and are often celebrated rather than ridiculed for their curves that is still no excuse for them to be left out of the conversation. Research also indicates that witnessing the continued under-representation of one’s ethnic group causes group members to feel devalued within society and in turn, negatively impacts upon one’s self-concept (Knobloch-Westerwick & Coates, 2006). If the goal of body positivity is to promote positive attitudes towards body image in its entirety then it shouldn’t and cannot continue to be presented solely as a White woman’s movement.

In 2015, we again saw Instagram being used as a tool for social change as  stylist and fashion blogger Susan Moses started the #AllBeautyisRelevant hashtag admonishing mainstream media for leaving Black and Brown models out of the plus size revolution. With the host of Black and Minority Ethnic models such as Liris CrosseCerise Cross and Nao producing some draw dropping work of late I’m hopeful that we’ll soon see Body positivity become more reflective of our diverse culture. ​

Model Cerise Cross, Photographer: Mekx photography
Model, NAO Photographer: Ehsaan

The ‘plus-size’ industry is slated to be worth $20.4 billion and fashion giant ASOS is one brand that has seen great success since entering the market, even recently announcing plans to launch a plus size range for men in spring 17. But when the brand tweeted an image of size 16 model Naomi Shimada in one of their wares, labelling her ‘plus size’ caused upheaval in the twitter-verse and led to the question: ‘how body-positive is the label ‘plus size’ anyway?’ In its retraction, Asos denounced ‘plus-size’ as a ‘whack’ ‘industry term’ and I’m inclined to agree. When the average UK woman is a size 16, putting them in a separate category to highlight their otherness simply doesn’t make sense and e-retailer ModCloth understands this. Instead of creating a separate range of plus size garments ModCloth introduced pieces in “extended sizes” that range for example from a size 2 to a size 22. That is what Body positivity should truly be. Not a movement that revels in the use of a token ‘plus -size model’ not one that cheers when we see an ad that haphazardly admonishes us ‘love our curves’ but one that celebrates inclusion,  championing brands who make such simple gestures which say ‘we have something for you and you and oh, you too!’

Fashion brands are becoming to body positivity what social justice warriors are to twitter, making grandiose and shallow attempts to align themselves to the latest movement in the hopes of being seen. Still, one cannot ignore the fact that fashion can and has been a catalyst for social change so its now our job to reclaim the movement, re-shape it and repackage it to ensure that body positivity works in the way that it’s supposed to.