Times change. People change. Bodies change. But interestingly, findings from body image research haven’t changed much in the past 30 years. Sadly, the common thread of impossible beauty standards still stitches its way through the world’s many cultures. And people still struggle to like, let alone love, what they see in the mirror.
In the early 1990s, I co-authored research on body image. With senior researchers, I published in professional journals and presented at professional conferences. And we set the passion of our findings on the hope that our research would effect a positive change in body image.
It was a good start.
The latest findings in body image research aren’t so different from those back then. The findings did not necessarily help people fall in love with their bodies then, and the latest findings still don’t.
One of the major missing pieces back then was the overemphasis on the individual and the underemphasis — or even complete lack of recognition — of the role of sociocultural influences.
The impossible beauty standards that are globally prevalent (and some form or other has always been) create body image distress, especially for the majority of women.
Body image distress also affects men and people who are transgender, as well as work, home, and just about every aspect of life. It’s not “just a girl thing.”
Nor do body image and appearance concerns apply only to younger people. Body dissatisfaction is certainly not exclusive to youth.
Appearances change. Bodies age and adapt to changing expectations like pregnancy and health conditions. And, while we cognitively adapt to the inevitability of time, we typically don’t stop (de)valuing our bodies. Body image concerns often remain.
There has been a backlash of sorts since our body image research of the ‘90’s.
Concepts such as body neutrality, body respect, and body peace have risen over the emphasis on body love and positivity.
One major shift affecting the body image world is the acknowledgement of Diet Culture.
Diet Culture is the pervasive, sneaky, manipulative, ubiquitous world we live in, and the lens through which we see the world. Let’s look at examples of the latest findings in body image research. Hopefully you will find some nuggets to inspire you to fall in like with your body. (Who knows? Maybe in love with it.)
Latest Findings in Body Image Research
1. According to body image research, is social media always bad for body image?
The influence of social media – positive or negative – depends on the form of social media, the type of post, and who’s doing the scrolling.
For example, the body image of adult women may benefit from Instagram’s The Body Positive posts. The effects can be so significant that researchers suggest body positive posts may actually protect against the social media’s negative effects.
That being said, findings also suggest that girls and women who are insecure are more likely to use social media as a way to feel better about themselves.
Unfortunately, social media often makes them feel worse. (I am purposely not including examples of such social media. Randomly clicking on posts will illustrate plenty of examples.)
Research has also shown that engaging in social comparison increases social media’s effects on body dissatisfaction.
Unrealistic filters used on social media images are proliferating – to the point where people are pursuing surgeries to look like their filtered social media image.
You don’t have to be a Mensa member to realize how damaging – and dangerous – this is for body image.
Taking the damage one step further, poor body image is associated with an increased risk of eating disorders and overall lack of well-being.
It can be tough to remember that most images on social media are not real. And people usually post only those images that show them in the best light, often looking different from how they look in real life.
Curate your social media. Follow accounts of people who celebrate body diversity and highlight the joy of living in their bodies.
If you enjoy decorating and moving your body, delight in that celebration of self. Such joy is kabashed when bodies are objectified.
2. Definitions: How is body positivity defined?
Positive body image is defined as accepting all bodies, regardless of size, shape, skin tone, gender, and physical abilities, while also challenging present-day beauty standards.
Body positivity has its roots in the fat rights movement of the 1960s. The National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) criticized Diet Culture and fought for equal rights of people of higher weights.
Over time, the effort evolved into the body positivity movement, which emerged on Instagram in 2012. It’s now extremely popular, accounting for 13 million social media posts in 2020.
Is body positivity even realistic? How about body acceptance or body neutrality in the meantime?
What is body acceptance?
Body acceptance isn’t about loving every bit of your body all the time. In fact, body acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean loving your body at all.
Instead, it’s about accepting your body as it is and appreciating it for all it does for you.
What I like about body acceptance is that it takes emphasis off your appearance (in a way that body positivity doesn’t) and allows you to relate to your body in new ways.
In body acceptance, you respect and care for your body with proper nourishment (no dieting!), regular movement (not punishingly hard exercise that you hate), adequate sleep, and more. (You’ll certainly have lousy body image days, and that’s OK.)
Part of body acceptance is acknowledging the feelings you have about your body and learning to live your life in spite of them.
What is body neutrality?
Body neutrality also challenges beauty standards. It emphasizes neither negative nor positive thoughts or feelings toward the body. The neutral approach to body image is that it doesn’t matter if you think your body is beautiful… or not. Your value is not tied to your body, and your happiness doesn’t depend on what you look like.
Living in the body you have can be joyous.
It can also be torment and anything in between.
You don’t have to love or hate your body.
You can feel neutral. (Yes, really!)
YOU get to decide. YOU define you.
We live in a culture where the prevailing message runs contrary to proudly claiming your body. Living life beyond the constraints of societal pressure is challenging, even counterintuitive. Camaraderie from other like-minded souls can help.
3. What are general and recent trends and statistics in body image research?
- Over half of women aged 18 to 25 would rather be run over by a truck than have excess weight.
- Even 3-year-olds have body image problems — a reality that should give every parent pause and grave concern.
- 94% of female teenagers have been shamed for how their bodies look.
70 million people around the world suffer from eating disorders, and around 90% are young women aged 12 to 25.How will these trends reverse?
The only way to create a tipping point toward body acceptance and even positivity is for each of us to take a stand. And that effort requires connecting with like-minded people, both on social media and in real life.
4. How did body image problems become so rampant?
Body image develops in the central nervous system and has perceptual, affective, cognitive, and behavioral components.
Ultimately, it is shaped by a series of internal (e.g. bodily sensations) and external (e.g. culture) factors, none of which necessarily reflect reality.
There’s a relevant theory about body image that comes from the eating disorder literature.
The Allocentric Lock Theory suggests that people with an eating disorder are unable to store new information about their bodies (e.g. weight loss) in their short-term memory.
This brain difference causes an inability to “update” information and perceptions about their bodies.
The result? They become “locked” in their long-term, autobiographical construct or body image.
Tragically, dissatisfaction with appearance, aka poor body-image, usually coincides with the brain’s formative development.
Neurological components in the brain, according to recent research, determine the mental representations of one’s own body.
While neurological factors in the brain may “set the stage” for possible body image distortions, the external environment plays a huge role, as well.
A simple time-travel through era-driven figure ideals exposes just how fickle society’s preferences and standards are.
Body image ideals are ever-changing. No matter how close you think you can get to the “perfect” body or how many promises and products companies make to help get you there, you’ll always wind up feeling defeated.
The ideal we are told to strive for is always in flux. How convenient for the diet industry, which continues to profit. We are set up to fail. And led to believe it is our fault. Due to lack of will power or insufficient restraint.
What’s in today will be out tomorrow.
But, like fashion and ‘80’s hair, it all comes back around. After all, too many industries depend on seasonal change for their survival. And the “ideal” they end up creating trickles down to every aspect of life for our social species, including power and wealth.
Even as body image research churns with new theories and discoveries, one influence is incumbent upon each and all of us as a consuming society:
Unless we make changes in how we portray and accept the “ideal” body, standards, ideals, pressures, and expectations will remain the same.