Body Image And Self Identity Essay

It has been documented in children as young as three [1], but it is adolescents who appear to be most at risk for developing unhealthy attitudes towards their bodies based on this perception. At a time where young people are focused on developing their individual identities [2], they are also highly susceptible to both social pressure and media images [3] which can have a profound effect on how they see their bodies. [4]

Having poor body image can have numerous negative effects: one of the most common is lowered self-esteem, which carries with it its own associated risks. In a national U.S. study in 2008, 25 per cent of girls with low self-esteem injured themselves on purpose (compared to four per cent of girls with high self-esteem); and 25 per cent reported disordered eating (compared to seven per cent of girls with high self-esteem).[5]

Poor body image is also connected to bullying, [6] with youth who have poor body image more likely to be perpetrators or targets of bullying behaviour. [7] (See our resources on gender stereotyping and cyberbullying for more on how to deal with this issue.)

Traditionally seen as more of a girls’ issue, in the past decade a growing body of research has emerged exploring body image and boys: a 2012 study found that 50 per cent of both boys and girls in Grade 10 felt that they were either too thin or too fat. [8] A 2011 Canadian study concluded that adolescent boys also experience anxieties about their bodies, although they are less willing to talk about them. [9] Health professionals also note that boys, like girls, are not immune to media images that promote narrow standards of attractiveness.

In the past, ethnicity was considered a protective factor, with African-American girls and women reporting less body dissatisfaction. However, the protective effects of culture and ethnicity may no longer hold. Recent research has shown that even cultures that have traditionally had positive views of larger bodies, such as Mexico and Samoa, have begun to adopt the thin ideal [10] and more and more, Black models and entertainers are expected to conform to White standards of thinness and attractiveness.

In a world where pervasive media images fuel unrealistic expectations about how we should look – and dissatisfaction if we fail to make the grade – it is vitally important that both girls and boys be taught the media literacy skills they need to critically engage with media representations of male and female bodies. The following sections explore the role various media play in influencing our perceptions about how we look and the role that media education can play in changing these representations and perceptions.


[1] Harriger, J.A., R.M. Calogero, D.C. Witherington et al. 2010. Body size stereotyping and the internalization of the thin ideal in preschool girls. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 63: 1-5
[2] Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2002). A test of objectification theory in adolescent girls. Sex Roles, 46(9/10), 343 – 349
[3] Tiggeman, M., & Pickering, A. S. (1996). Role of television in adolescent women’s body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 20(2), 199 – 203
[4] Clark, L., & Tiggemann, M. (2007). Sociocultural influences and body image in 9 to 12 year-old girls: The role of appearance schemas. Journal of Clinic Child and Adolescent Psychology, 36(1), 76-86.
[5] Dove Self-Esteem Fund. “Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Report on the State of Self-Esteem.” Commissioned: June 2008. http://content.dove.us/makeadiff/pdf/Self-Esteem_Report.pdf.
[6] Brixval, Carina et al. Overweight, body image and bullying – an epidemiological study of 11- to 15-year-olds. European Journal of Public Health, March 7 2011.
[7] Shelton, Sarah and Laura Liljequist. Characteristics and behaviors associated with body image in male domestic violence offenders. Eating Behaviors Volume 3, Issue 3, Autumn 2002, Pages 217-227.
[8] Freeman et al. (2012). The Health of Canada’s Young People: A Mental Health Focus. Public Health Agency of Canada.
[9] Norman, M. (2011) Embodying the Double-Bind of Masculinity: Young Men and Discourses of Normalcy, Health, Heterosexuality, and Individualism. Men and Masculinities, 14, 4: pp. 430-449.
[10] Alexandra Brewis, Amber Wutich, Ashlan Falletta-Cowden, and Isa Rodriguez-Soto, “Body Norms and Fat Stigma in Global Perspective.” Current Anthropology 52:2 (April 2011).

Society shapes us in many ways, possibly more than we realise – from our interactions, to our personal development through to others’ perception of our bodies as a reflection of self worth.

We are social beings. Genetically we rely on one another for the survival of humanity. That primal connection makes our interactions physiologically and psychologically important. So it’s not surprising that how society perceives us affects us on many levels.

And it’s partly how society perceives our bodies that is of concern; we’re talking body image. So what does that involve?

Body image is both internal (personal) and external (society) 

This includes:

  • How we perceive our bodies visually
  • How we feel about our physical appearance
  • How we think and talk to ourselves about our bodies
  • Our sense of how other people view our bodies

How we look has possibly never held as much societal importance or reflected so significantly on our perceived self worth.

The media in particular, has increasingly become a platform that reinforces cultural beliefs and projects strong views on how we should look, that we as individuals often unknowingly or knowingly validate and perpetuate.

The more we look at perfect images of others and then look to find those same idealised characteristics in ourselves and don’t find them, the worse we feel about ourselves.

It’s a cycle that breeds discontent.

With such strong societal scrutiny it’s easy to see how the focus on how we look can slide into the dark side – negative body image.

The greater our discontent with how we measure up when compared to the societal or media supported norms, the more negative our body image, and the greater the risk for extreme weight or body control behaviours occurs. We’re talking…

  • Extreme dieting
  • Extreme exercise compulsion
  • Eating disorders
  • Extreme or unnecessary plastic surgery
  • Using steroids for muscle building

Who’s to blame for our body perceptions, be it good or bad?

Society gives us a number of reference points that shape our perceptions whether positive or negative. When it comes to our bodies there are a number of sources that affect us more than others.

Today’s embedded ideals – The physical

Life today sees image upon image of fashionably clad women, perfect skin, tiny waists, ample breasts, fashionably protruding behinds (of Kardashian and Beyonce fame) all with a weight of no greater than 59kg.

They are unrealistic images of beauty, genetically impossible for many of us to emulate. The same thing applies to the 6-pack or ripped abs shoved in the face of men via famous sportsmen and male fitness models, which for many is impossible to achieve without illegal steroids.

Yet we are told that these unattainable bodies are normal, desirable, and achievable. When we don’t measure up we develop a strong sense of dissatisfaction and the way that manifests can be ugly.

The Media 

The images of perfection we see in print, film and television project an unrealistic version of reality that we are continually told is attainable – if we work out, eat less and lather our bodies in transformative, firming and tightening creams.

The media is a powerful tool that reinforces cultural beliefs and values, and while it may not be fully responsible for determining the standards for physical attractiveness, it makes escaping the barrage of images and attitudes almost impossible.

Prejudice – Size

Intolerance of body diversity has a lot to do with prejudice of size and shape in our culture. Being thin, toned and muscular has become associated with the hard-working, successful, popular, beautiful, strong, and the disciplined.

Being fat is associated with the lazy, ugly, weak, and lacking in will-power.

With this prejudice, fat isn’t a description like tall or redhead – it’s an indication of moral character and we are conditioned to think that fat is bad.

Those closest to us – family and friends

We learn from other people, particularly those closest to us about the things that are considered important.

Friendships are particularly important in body image development because we place high value on them, spend lots of time with our friends and develop shared experiences, values and beliefs.

Classrooms, University dorms and common rooms are often filled with negative body talk: “I wish I had her stomach” “I hate my thighs” “I feel fat.” Listening to this tends to reinforce the need to focus on appearance and make comparisons between us and other people’s bodies.

So how can we build a strong and positive body image?

Positive body image involves understanding that healthy attractive bodies come in many shapes and sizes, and that physical appearance says very little about our character or value as a person.

How we get to this point of acceptance often depends on our individual development and self acceptance. To get to that all important point of balance there are a few steps we can take:

  • Talk back to the media. All media and messages are developed or constructed and are not reflections of reality. So shout back. Speak our dissatisfaction with the focus on appearance and lack of size acceptance
  • De-emphasise numbers. Kilograms on a scale don’t tell us anything meaningful about the body as a whole or our health. Eating habits and activity patterns are much more important
  • Realize that we cannot change our body type: thin, large, short or tall, we need to appreciate the uniqueness of what we have – and work with it
  • Stop comparing ourselves to others. We are unique and we can’t get a sense of our own body’s needs and abilities by comparing it to someone else
  • We need to move and enjoy our bodies not because we have to, but because it makes us feel good. Walking, swimming, biking, dancing – there is something for everyone
  • Spend time with people who have a healthy relationship with food, activity, and their bodies
  • Question the degree to which self-esteem depends on our appearance. If we base our happiness on how we look it is likely to lead to failure and frustration, and may prevent us from finding true happiness
  • Broaden our perspective about health and beauty by reading about body image, cultural variances, or media influence. Check out a local art gallery paying particular attention to fine art collections that show a variety of body types throughout the ages and in different cultures
  • Recognize that size prejudice is a form of discrimination similar to other forms of discrimination. Shape and size are not indicators of character, morality, intelligence, or success

Each of us will have a positive body image when we have a realistic perception of our bodies, when we enjoy, accept and celebrate how we are and let go of negative societal or media perpetuated conditioning.

But the media and society in general, are not all bad.

As with most things, with the bad comes the potential for good and increasingly, people the world over are waking up to the negativity and conditioning that we are bombarded with daily.

If not for this awakening we would not have initiatives like Live Life Get Active; where awakening ourselves to a healthy and fulfilled life is at the core of what we do.

Live Life Get Active is a social initiative built to create a fitter, healthier and happier Australia.

We approach health and well-being from a fun and socially engaging perspective and the importance we put on a healthy lifestyle is reflected in our pricing structure – there is none.

So, if you’d like to take your first steps to feeling better about yourself and working on a fitter and healthier you, then register and come and join us in the park. You’ll be able to enjoy the friendship and support that comes from training with others that feel the same way.  We have camps in locations across Australia so join today – And don’t forget EVERYTHING is FREE and EVERYTHING is provided so all you need is you.

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