“A girl, a girl, thin, tall, and fair.
Her hair, her hair, was like a delicate colour of the ginger, delicate colour of ginger.”
It took me years to unlearn the meaning and intent of this rhyme which my girlfriends and I would often sing and march into school. I had to relearn that I don’t have to be thin, tall, or fair to be called pretty.
Unfortunately, rhymes like these are just one of the hundreds of rigid and unrealistic ideas of beauty that our culture has fed us since the very beginning. It was only when I studied Psychology I realised that I and almost my entire friend-circle was grappling with body-image concerns. It was then when I realised the notions of beauty fed to me by my parents, family members, and media were the ones who presented me with a distorted, unkind, and narrow definition of beauty.
Body image refers to “a person’s perceptions, thoughts and feelings about his or her body” (Grogan, 2008). It benefits to have a positive body image as a negative body image is damaging effects like low self-esteem, rampant dieting, and eating disorders.
According to Naomi Wolf, “‘beauty’ is a currency system like the gold standard ... in assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to the culturally imposed physical standards; it is an expression of power relations. Often men and women who are not called beautiful according to society's standards face stringent social and economic implications. According to research, "conventional attractiveness is a realistic route to power for women"; women deemed attractive are "more popular, more likely to marry men of higher socioeconomic status and maybe more often hired, promoted and even paid higher salaries.
Body image is no longer primarily a female concern. 30-40% of people with eating disorders are male (The Hindu, 2018). Emphasis on, and objectification of, the ideal male body is growing, so that the well-toned body, with a V-shaped upper torso, has become so muscular that it is as unattainable for the majority of men as the thin ideal is for women. (Pope et al., 2000)
Causes for body image concerns
Our society and most cultures have always valued the beauty of an individual, be it a man or a woman. Although each culture has its idea for beauty, one of the most popular is the thin idealization. It refers to idealizing the slim figure and finding it beautiful. Some of the main causes of thin idealization come from the culture, society, media, and western influence. Factors such as those mentioned below also play a huge role.
The consumer media is always showcasing unrealistically thin models. The problem arises when these models are shown to be living the happiest lives and are completely content with no problems in life. Hence, the message given out is that buyers should not only consume the actual product advertised but also its symbolic meaning. For instance, if you drink green tea like a famous Bollywood actress then you will not only lose weight but out of nowhere, your life will turn as glamorous, happy, and successful as her life is supposed to be.
Idealized media models only communicate that affluence and beauty should be central life goals for everybody but they also define the parameters of what it means to be beautiful, successful, and happy. For instance, often advertisements define beauty in rigid terms like having fair and spotless skin and after the model in the ad becomes fairer, all aspects of her life improve, she gets a good job, gets married, becomes popular, etc.
An Indian study (Hindustan times, 2019) found that a whopping 90% of women believe that films and television shows do tend to make fun of people who do not conform to the standard norms of beauty. 89% of women reported feeling uncomfortable about themselves when they read comments on social media about other people’s appearances.
Culture and society
Culture and society also propagate the thin idealization repeatedly to people from a very young age. It’s often seen that the Barbie dolls are of an unnatural and unrealistic size that her waist is 39% smaller than that of anorexic patients (Dittmar. H, 2007) whereas boys are targeted with toy action figures, who are extremely muscular.
A lot of countries have started idealizing the thin because of the west. India had earlier regarded heavy women as beautiful and healthy but western influence has been successful in propagating the thin idealization. Think about how unrealistically thin the world-famous fashion models are!
Cognitive restructuring is one of the most effective ways to solve body image concerns by psychologists. This method requires the participants to counter their attitudes by speaking against the thin ideal of beauty. This causes dissonance to the participant as they are acting opposite to their beliefs by speaking against their internalized thin ideal of beauty. For instance, a person who thinks they are on the heavier side, look into the mirror and say ‘ I love the way my body looks.’
Another strategy is to write a letter to a girl who is struggling with her body image to persuade the girl not to pursue the thin ideal. So the arguments you give to the struggling girl will oppose your aspiration for the thin-ideal too and help you to move towards body positivity.
The next exercise is the ‘Appearance facts or fiction exercise’ where participants review whether 6 statements were generally regarded as fact or fiction. Five of the statements reflected dominant beauty myths, (e.g., ‘Most models and actresses have a healthy weight’, ‘Attractive people are happier than less attractive people’), and one focused on the media (‘Looking at photos of models in fashion magazines can lead to feeling bad about oneself.). They are then given rebuttals challenging each beauty myth and asked to rework their original answers. For instance, the myth about attractive people being happier than less attractive people will be challenged by presenting statistics showing that attractive people also have their share of hardships and being pretty doesn't mean she will have a successful career...
Another activity is to role-play to resist pressure to pursue the thin ideal. The facilitator acts like a severe dieter and participants make attempts to reduce their excessive dieting behaviour. For instance, the participants would give arguments like you must respect your body and nourish it or its important to have a healthy relationship with food.
Often women fall prey to self-objectification where they internalise the notion of society, that her body is a sexual object and that her appearance is more important than her internal traits. For example, a boss praises his female employee more for her looks than the work she does. This makes a woman internalise the idea that she is more valued for her beauty than her functionality. Thus, making women aware of their body functionality is one of the most important approaches to positive body image. Research shows that making women realise the functions of their body like running, playing an instrument, body language makes them love their body and less focus on their appearance. The end goal is to stop associating women with beauty.
Apart from individually targeted interventions, a Macro-level Intervention strategy is required which involves work at multiple levels like policymaking, education, design, architecture and media surveillance. The School curriculum should include issues of body image, notions of beauty, effects of body image on mental health etc. They should be taught under the topic of Psychology and Sex Education.
Further, there should be serious surveillance on the functioning of marriage portals. Women are described as a commodity in matrimonial columns of newspapers and websites, for example, ‘...looking for a fair, slim, tall, beautiful, homely girl…’
In sum, this goal will fall under the task of Gender Sensitising our policy framework. We need to analyse and make policies through a gendered lens because there can’t be any neutral lens and if there is one then that is from a male’s perspective.
It has taken a lot of years for me to come to terms with my body and I’m still under process as the internalization is very deep. Nobody should be made to feel ugly about their body. We are all beautiful in our way no matter what!