The following article contains references to body issues. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and does not constitute medical or other professional advice.
Body image and self esteem can be an extremely personal thing, linked strongly to our overall confidence and mental health. These are ‘internal’ factors that play a role in body image; existing within our minds, yet often formed through outside influences slowly shaping and moulding our self perception.
In this article, we will explain some of the potential factors research has suggested have an impact upon our body image. This is not a definitive list, as body image is an extremely personal and intricate concept, but we hope to detail a diverse range of potential influences
From being young children, we start forming opinions of our own bodies. The comments of peers have been shown to have a particularly big impact, hence why a large number of people will still mention bullying incidents during childhood when self esteem comes up in conversation. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that there is a strong relationship between negative self worth in children and reports of bullying or ‘weight teasing,’ showing us the impact that experiences can have on our self image.  It’s so important because of this to consider how much we have allowed the opinions of others to dictate our opinions of ourselves, and separate out what is true from what is simply toxic feedback from our past, seeking to be hurtful or to gain a reaction.
Advertising and the media
Its suggested that we could be exposed to around 500 to 600 images in the media every single day. In these images, the average female model used is 5’11 and 117 pounds on average, whereas the average woman is between 5’3 and 5’8 weighing 166 pounds. If these figures are accurate, only 1.8% of women match up to the media’s ‘ideal’. It has been suggested that this is the largest gap ever seen throughout history between the average person and society’s idea of ‘perfect,’  so it is no wonder that almost half of children between 10 and 16 years old report feeling a need to change their body weight as a direct result of seeing these images.  The chances are that the majority of us have been subconsciously influenced by images in the media, which are an entirely unrealistic portrayal of the average person. Models are sometimes even doctored with airbrush and plastic surgery to achieve a ‘flawless’ effect, and regardless of the natural beauty of many models, this is not a standard anyone can hold themselves to. Many models actually report feeling a low self worth too as a result of the impossible industry standards! Advertisers tend to use such unattainable expectations as a tactic to keep consumers feeling inadequate and needing to buy more beauty products, when ultimately, there is no such thing as a perfect or ‘flawless’ person.
The impact of social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook on body image has been on the rise, particularly thanks to image doctoring and ‘influencer’ culture. Social media is a constant bombardment, and hard to break away from due to its essential role in day to day life, which can cause the huge pool of people online to be a big issue when it comes to comparing yourself to others. Often we don’t realise ourselves doing it, but the pressure to present a ‘perfect’ front on social media can be overwhelming, and often it can be therapeutic to disconnect for a while and reconnect with what is really important.
Public health campaigns
Genetics play an unavoidable role in our appearances, accounting for 25% to 70% of our bodies according to research estimates.  Despite that, many feel an enormous pressure to completely change their body type, often worsened by well-meaning public health campaigns promoting services such as weight watchers.  With a constant stream of official advice regarding which weight ranges are acceptable and which methods to maintain a specific weight are recommended, it can be difficult not to be hyper-aware of your body, especially for plus sized people who are often targeted by these campaigns and made to feel ashamed of their appearances. While taking care of your health is of course important, it’s crucial to remember that health is not always correlated with weight, nor is weight at all correlated with beauty. Being outside of the ‘recommended BMI’ is nothing to be ashamed of, and you do not have to feel any pressure to abide by diet and exercise regimes which are often commercialised and thrive on mass insecurity.
Research suggests that the concern many have for their appearance has a strong impact on their quality of life. However, as we’ve mentioned, young people today often rate their attractiveness by how much they measure up to beauty standards portrayed in the media; television, magazines, music videos, fashion models, beauty campaigns and social media. Although various cultures possess their own beauty standards, these are often influenced by Eurocentric (white-european) beauty standards.  For example, the colourism present in Black and Asian cultures may be the result of western standards, in which white women are the ideal seen in the media, reflected in findings from one cross-cultural research study which highlighted significant differences between cultures in body weight ideals and body dissatisfaction.  Considering ethnicity in body image allows us to recognise the impact of factors outside of body size, such as hair texture and skin tone/complexion. Although images present in popular media may vary across cultures, it still has the same effect; ethnic people living in Western societies may be pressured by a mixture of both their cultural ideals and Westernised standards.
A survey conducted by the Girl Scout Research Group found that “5 out of every 10 girls believe that their families influence the way they feel about their bodies.” This often occurs through criticism regarding weight gain, as well as praise following weight loss, leaving many with the feeling that their parents approval is dependent upon falling within a specific weight category; potentially shaping their opinion of their own body.  Constant comments surrounding appearance and eating habits can also cause a person to feel that they are constantly scrutinised by others, causing feelings of anxiety should they carry this into adult life. Negative influences aren’t always directly the result of criticism, however, but often come from observing a family role model over-emphasising their own concerns about their bodies, essentially passing insecurities down to their children. Those who grow up in a household with dieting mothers are said to be more likely to diet themselves, for example. Considering whether your family has influenced your body image can often be enlightening in thinking about the standards you hold yourself to, in order to reflect on whether they are realistic.
The influence of sexual orientation
Body image issues are incredibly varied across communities of sexual minorities. For example, queer men experience different issues within their communities compared to queer women. Regarding gay men, there are two notable studies — one from the US  and one from the UK  — which show that queer men experience relatively low amounts of body appreciation compared to straight men, with queer men feeling a much greater pressure to conform to an “athletic appearance-ideal.” Various studies have also taken place around the relationship that lesbian and bisexual women have with their body image compared to straight women, and the data has always been fairly inconsistent . However, it is important to keep in mind that the majority of people surveyed were white people in countries where they are the ethnic majority, and that queer Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) people face an immense cultural pressure to meet certain body image ideals, especially in very white queer spaces. . It is also common within the LGBT+ community to feel a pressure to fit within a specific mould or stereotype of what queerness should be,  often related to heteronormal society requiring that there be a feminine and a masculine persona in even a same-sex relationship. This can have an enormous strain on body image and expressing self identity, due to the expectation that two individuals in a relationship cannot both be comfortable in total masculinity or total femininity.
The impact of social comparison and internalisation
Research has revealed that individuals with the tendency to engage in ‘social comparison’ – determining your own personal and social worth based on how you compare with others – are more likely to engage in ‘internalisation’ . So, what is internalisation? Internalisation refers to a person’s acceptance of a set of norms and values that has been established by other people, changing their public behaviour (the way they act) and/or their private beliefs. An individual internalising specific standards of beauty is a perfect example; a topic referred to as the “thin-ideal concept”, the extent to which we accept socially defined ideals of attractiveness and engage in behaviours to produce these ideals.  An example in this case, would be the common perception that a female who has a slender, and what is considered feminine physique with a small waist and little body fat holds the ‘ideal’ body type. So, if a person happens to have the tendency to internalise in general, according to research they would be more likely to find themselves experiencing body dissatisfaction as a negative consequence. In the society we live in, it is extremely easy to compare ourselves with public figures such as influencers and models. Therefore, it is increasingly important to avoid the habit of comparing yourself to others as doing so can often foster feelings of depression, low-self-confidence, low trust in others, and toxic envy.
If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this post, please see our resources page for support.
Our next article will focus on how to still develop a positive body image despite these influences!
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