Thursday, August 25, 2005

Body Image and Self Worth In Women


Images of female bodies are everywhere. Women and their body parts sell everything from food to cars. Researchers report that women's magazines have 10 1/2 times more ads and articles promoting weight loss than do men's magazines, and over 3/4 of the covers of women's magazines include at least one message about how to change a woman's bodily appearance by diet, exercise or cosmetic surgery.

Film and television actresses are becoming younger, taller and thinner. Some have even been known to faint on the set from lack of food. These industries all insist that thin is beautiful and that fatness is always a dangerous problem in need of correction [1]

Why are standards of beauty being imposed on women, the majority of whom are naturally larger than any of these models and actresses? The roots, researchers say, are economic. By presenting the ideal body, the cosmetic, diet and product industries are assured of growth and profits. And it's no accident that youth is increasingly promoted, along with thinness, as an essential criterion of beauty. The stakes are huge. On the one hand, women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy beauty products, new clothes, gym memberships, and diet aids, just to name a few. It is estimated that the diet industry alone, in the United States, earns over 100 billion dollars a year. Sadly, research indicates that exposure to images of thin, young, air-brushed female bodies is significantly linked to depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls[2]

Another important aspect to realize is the vicious circle that perceptions of beauty hold in society. Young girls and young women are not only exposed to unreal aspects of body image in media, but also on the home terrain. Sometimes parents impose messages of fatness or largeness as being unacceptable, and thinness and smallness as more desirable. Words that are chosen can shape a young girl's body image and growing sense of confidence. "Those jeans make you look fat " will certainly cause a wave of insecurity. Choosing words that enhance beauty rather than emphasize a negative aspect of a person are much better choices. "Those jeans don't flatter you, I think these jeans are beautiful on you," would be a much wiser exchange.

Boys learn at an early age what is desirable, albeit unrealistic, from media and social messages at home and at school as well. Often they perpetuate the cycle, befriending girls who come close to the ideal image and casting aside those who don't. The circle is regrettably sealed when these boys mature to men who continue to objectify women in unrealistic ways.

As a young girl hears the words and messages of thinness, she can become indoctrinated into the world of unreal beauty. The cycle that starts with media, moves within the home and social world of the girl becomes internalized within her. Then she talks to herself in ways that perpetuate the myth of beauty. When failure occurs, as it always does, self image plummets and self worth is questioned.

What helps to break this cycle are indiviudals who break the mold that has been unrealistically cast for beauty. Helping people realize that beauty can come in many shapes and sizes will help young girls and boys redefine self image and body integrity. And it may help those who suffer with their own self worth to consider a raise in their status.

The Time For Change is Now

*Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign*
*Nike's Thunder Thighs, Big Butt & Tomboy Knees campaign*
*Seventeen and Glamour Magazine using "real life" models*

No longer are just rail-thin models showing up in fashion magazines and on billboards. Large women, or what are being called "real people," are now gracing ads of companies, magazine covers and commercials. Editors and ad executives say they are using more average women and fewer models to reflect changing body types and to help self-conscious teens see that not everyone is perfect.

This new advertising approach is especially important when one looks at child development. In late childhood and early adolescence social comparison plays a major role in self-perception. Boys look at other boys and learn to use their bodies as a tool to master the environment, where sports, strength and mastery in making, building and inventing are socially ingrained. Girls look at other girls and learn to use their bodies to attract others [3].

The shift in the industry enables young girls to see other renditions of beauty and can find more models like themselves with which to admire. Mary Pipher, author of a book about teen girls and body image, "Reviving Ophelia" says anything that shows realistic women is a step in the right direction to help girls gain self-esteem. Hopefully, Hollywood will follow the trend, showcasing girls and women whose shapes and sizes reflect the real world in which we live.

Consequences of the Unattainable Body

Pursuit of the unreal, ideal, thin beauty can result in poor self esteem, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders [4]. Eating disorders have doubled in incidence since the 1960s, and increasingly they are striking in younger age groups. They are also increasingly occurring in diverse ethnic and sociocultural groups unlike in decades before. Interestingly, the mental illness with the highest mortality rate is not Depression. It is Eating Disorders. Up to 20 percent of those with eating disorders die from their illness [5].

Did You Know [6]

* The genes that we inherit from our mother and father determine 70% of our body weight and shape. This means that we can improve the body we were born with, but only to a certain degree.

* Pictures of models in magazines and advertisements are technically altered. This means that a computer changes their picture by making their legs longer, their stomach flatter, and their muscles bigger. Most of the pictures you see in magazines have been altered, and in fact it is humanly impossible to achieve these body types.

*Feeling badly about your body size and shape can lead to unhealthy eating habits, such as skipping meals, low-calorie diets, and may lead to an eating disorder, and eventually could result in medical problems and even death.

*Exercise is important for your health, but too much can be a bad thing. Excessive exercise may be a sign that someone is overly worried about their body size and shape. In fact, another sign that someone may have an eating disorder is that they are always worried about how much and how hard they are exercising. Excercise to be fit, not thin.

*There are no "good" foods and "bad" foods. All foods can fit into a healthy diet.

What You Can Do

1. Develop criteria for self-esteem that goes beyond appearance. Find other aspects of yourself that are worthy of celebrating.

2. Cultivate the ability to appreciate your body, especially how it functions.

3. Engage in behaviors that make you feel good about yourself.

4. Reduce exposure to noxious media images.

5. Exercise for strength, fitness, and health, not just weight control.

6. Seek out others who respect and care about your body.

7. Disengage from abusive relationships where the subject of your body is used as a weapon to minimize your self esteem.

8. Identify and change habitual negative thoughts about your body.

9. Control what you can, forget about what you can't.

10. Seek professional help if necessary.


[1] Boston Womens Health Collective (1998). Our bodies ourselves: For the new century. Boston: Peter Smith Publisher

[2] Beauty and Body Image in the Media accessed at

[3] Stephens, DL, Hill, RP & Hanson, C. (1996).The beauty myth and female consumers: The controversial role of advertising. Journal of Consumer Affairs. 28, 137-153.

[4] Thompson, JK, Stice, E (2001). Thin-ideal internalization: Mounting evidence for anew risk factor for body image disturbance and eating pathology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 180-183

[5] Garner, D. M. (1997). The 1997 body image survey results. Psychology Today, 30-84.

[6] California Dairy Council


Nancy said...

Great post Deb!

I think finally the fashion industry figured out that fat women have lots of money to spend on clothes too. It was virtually untapped until a few years ago.

I see my daughter's kids picking cheese off pizza or talking about how big some kids are or how wonderful their metabolism is because they can eat anything and stay so small. They are very conscious of it much earlier than I was.

It is important for young girls to know about airbrushing of photos for perfect skin and that people come in all sizes and shapes and are just as good as the rail thin model types. And that being thin is not what makes a person good or better than anybody else!

I am glad Heidi suggested this for you to write. And by the way, it was strange for me to read about my husband's blog about Canadian's from a comment Heidi made on my blog...Very strange indeed! LOL

Heidi said...

Thankyou so much for your time in writing this post..Very much appreciated by me and others...It's a keeper.

There are many moments in my childhood when weight and body image was always an issue..My grandmother offering me a new wardrobe if I lose weight. My brother having contests to see how much weight I can lose..< What he didn't realize is when I would lower the scale # below 0 and hopped >

I had an Uncle his nickname for me was "Porky"...I could go on and on..And I haven't even hit my teens yet.

And you wonder why I have body image issues..More pressure as an adult...Even when I receive compliments I don't feel it inside..I'm not sure when that day will come or what it will take for me to " snap out of it"!

Rue said...

I have Chron's desease (Among other issues).My weight has fluctuated ratically for years. Right now I am about 20lbs too much. The downside of feeling better is you gain everything you lost during an active time and then some. Ever since developing very early (C cup at 12!) I have had to deal with being omniconscience of my body and all it's issues. It's always been not only how my body felt but how it looked while feeling what it felt! I have always wished I could live in a world where dealing with this condition and others was all I had to deal with. I mean, isn't it enough that I feel like crap? Isn't it enough that I am in pain? why the hell should I have to deal with how I look on top of it?
It's a hard world we women live in.
I find we are harder on each other than all those magazines and all the men in the world. Why do we do this to each other?

Nigela said...

interesting post. I read "Reviving Ophelia" for an education class (as well as the boy version, "Raising Cain"). very prevelant.

Dr. Deb said...

Dear Nancy,
I didn't make the connection of you and grumpy old man till now! I agree, that the industry is now focusing on an untapped market. But let us not forget, that although the campaign is good for body image, it is about making money for businesses. At least we can help our young girls and boys see what real beauty is.

Dear Heidi,
I was *stunned* by what you grew up with and the messages that must color the view you have of yourself. So often, family members' perceptions and fixations get translated onto others. I really hope that you can buck the family system with redirecting "fat" messages, shake your old inner perceptions and wash away the old memories of trauma. You need to celebrate the smart, pretty and healthy sides of yourself!

Dear Rue,
Having any chronic illness is hard to cope with, and Crohn's is especially tough because it affects the digestive tract and intestines. There are many cultures that celebrate curvaceous women: Latin, Latin-Americans, Africans, African Amaericans, Australians, and Hawaiians just to name a few. I like to surround myself with people who love me for me, and not judge me on my physical appearance. I make it a policy to "cast off" those who don't get with that program. When you can feel pretty and beautiful, a confidence exudes. I try to teach that professionally and personally, and I live by the edict as well. I hope that you can start redefining for yourself where your beauty lies.

Dear Nigela,
I am glad that you found this post relevant. I did not read "Rasing Cain" and will put that on my list. Blogging is so great when people share things. Thanks!


Nigela said...

I would actually advise reading "Real Boys" by William Pollack, more so than "Raising Cain," whose authors ignore almost completely gay issues for boys.

Dr. Deb said...


Sounds good. I'll order both.


Grumpy Old Man said...

Interesting post.

I'm not convinced we can blame this all on advertising and the meda. If American men liked a different shape of women (as was fashionable before WWI, at least, and probably later), and companies could make money catering to the image, they'd do so.

If weight gain was desirable, they'd be peddling "calorie enhanced" instead of "lite" food.

Media images of athleticism in women, now common, weren't when I was young. That's a real change in the culture, and probably to the good.

We also need to consider the nostrums of health care propaganda. They've pushed the danger of overweight, although now it seems there's more danger in lack of fitness.

I do think education should include an ability to look critically at advertising, propaganda, and media messages of all kinds. We should take a few minutes every day to thumb our noses at unsavory aspects of the cultural scene.

Nice chat. Now I'll have a steak sandwich with fries and a chocolate sundae.

Dr. Deb said...

Dear Grumpy Old Man,
I do place emphasis on media, but also the family constellation and society's standards. I am not sure which comes first in the chicken- and-egg theory, but suffice it to say all of these layers play into body image and self worth.

Historically, large and curvy women were pursued as they meant survival and fertility for the human species. Somehow, smallness got filtered in over the centuries, and only within specific cultures. My point is that marketing an "unattainable" message not only causes a severe case of empty pockets, but also poor self esteem and a lowered appreciation of one's body. Beauty can be found in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and we need to rail against standards that don't push that as an agenda... Just like you said.


Heidi said...

"You need to celebrate the smart, pretty and healthy sides of yourself"

Deb..I did celebrate today..but I wasn't smart with the food choices I made which were very unhealthy.....Stress/worry = Food+ comfort..If only for a few mins..I took it.

The family system was all out of love and concern I can't fault them for that.

Thanx again..I'm glad " we" bloggers found you out there.

Have a great weekend.

Dr. Deb said...

Dear Heidi,

Hmmm....Why do you have to celebrate with good food choices? I think the key to eating is indulging and then finding a way to balance thereafter. Whether thereafter is later, the enxt day or the next week. Try not to put eating, or anything for that matter, in all or nothing categories.

I'm glad your out there in Blogville too. So nice making friends in new places!


Anonymous said...

Kudos, Debbie!
Great article...and so true. I know that I fall into that "rut" that society has 'defined' on appearance...even after losing a great deal of weight, I've put back on about 8lbs that I can't seem to "shake"...but, have become obsessed with trying to take it off. Gym workouts have become more stressful than stress-relieving...waking up at 4:30 a.m. to hit the gym and then feeling it is productive only if a treadmill has a calorie readout of 700 cals or more..ugh

We need to keep plugging these articles...I think we all fall victim to it at some point in our lives...

A Flowered Purse said...

Oh wow what a great post! i am going to save that to reread! I do think it has a lot to do with media as well. I love that new Dove commercial that have real women with no airbrushing. Its awesome!
thanks again

Dr. Deb said...

Dear Melissa and Dianna,

So glad you found the post helpful. I agree, we have to rally against those that hold unrealistic beauty beliefs.


Julie said...

I stumbled on your blog today. Wow, amazing Thank you so much, really hit home today.

Anonymous said...

A recent study I read about in a newspaper (I forget which one) noted that men are much happier with their wive's body than the wives are with their own. I hate to say it, but the media is that powerful. The pictures they show and the people they choose to show is propaganda, whether intentional or not.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Deb!

I remember always having a pretty healthy attitude towards my body growing up. I didn't feel the pressure of meeting some sort of weight standard. I worry now, though, for my little one and the world she will be a part of. Kids now seem to have so much more to worry about and deal with.

I am building her self esteem every day, not only is she beautiful with a beautiful body, but that she is strong and brave too. Not too many little girls know that they can be brave and strong and not be a boy.

Hopefully- it will count for something when she's about 12 and may have some of these worries.

I'll keep your post for future reference!

Dawn said...

Hi Dr. Deborah. This IS a great post. Thank you for doing it.
I too grew up in a household where i was reminded on a daily basis of my weight. My mother would tell me that in her childhood/teens, she was never as big as I. for years she did this, and i developed(maybe not all from her) anorexia and bulimia. when she noticed i wasnt eating, she would then tell me that i need to eat more. so confused i was!Dont eat/eat/dont eat/eat grrrr. I agree too that media plays a HUGE role in distorted body image. Its so frustrating to see all these magaines plastered with one view of how society should look. have a good weekend!

Dr. Deb said...

Dear Julie,
Thanks for your comment. I hope you'll visit again.

Dear Hamel,
I recall hearing that as well!! I'll have to do a search for that reference. Would be good to have.

Dear Sher,
I am always so pleased when someone has a good relationship with his/her body. Kudos to you and your family for providing that ---and for you for continuing that circle with your daughter.

Dear duskydawn,
I know about the mixed messages and how they can make you feel so confused. The first step in loving who you are and celebrating all that is "you" is realizing how to challenge the toxic messages you get from family, friends and even the media. I hope you have a great weekend too!


Heidi said...

I'm glad there is such great feedback..If you ever need more suggestions I have plenty . ;)

Dr. Deb said...

Der Heidi,
Suggest away!

Other posters please suggest as well. Maybe this blog can incorporate a Questions and Answers Section.


for_the_lonely said...

Thank you very much for this post! I appreciate all of the information that you give to us, especially this one. I love the campaigns that you have listed, and am glad that the advertising companies have realized that not all beautiful women are an unhealthy size 6or smaller. :)

Hugs to you,

Dr. Deb said...


I love the new campaigns and the trend that is emerging too. I enjoy writing and blogging is a great way for that! So glad you found the post meaningful.


Motherhood is Here said...

I agree that the effects of media on image and self-worth can be monumental. It is hard enough to retain a positive self-image, much less when there is so much competition for one particular look, regardless of your natural makeup. Anna

Dr. Deb said...

Dear Anna,
Competition for a particular look is not easy to resist for so many women. Just looking at TV this morning, I counted 8 commericials in the 1/2 hour I watched whose messages were so negative toward women.


Anonymous said...

I keep coming back to this post again and many things I've said and thought expressed so eloquently! I see women where I work picked on to their faces and derided behind their backs by guys who continually prove that we're all dogs in so many ways!

Dr. Deb said...

Dear Alan,

I like the think that all men aren't "dogs", and the same goes for women. We are just so ingrained with what perfection is supposed to look like that some of us get caught up in it in destructive ways. I hope the next time someone says something mean, you'll correct their misperception. Every moment, no matter how small, always helps.

Peace out

ash said...

i have had an eating disorder since 10th grade, or maybe i could say it started in 6th because that year was the first time i was raped so i ate and ate thinking i would be so unattractive nobody would want me- not til 10th grade i started wanting to lose that weight. i went to extremes losing 16 lbs on avg a week i became real sick now i am already in college and still struggle with the whole issue... but i see it everyday- somehow i still long to be the angelina or the mary kate. The attention they get is ridiculous for their so called in some cases "good work". Ugh my friend is anorexic also and she is finally up to 124lbs and she is 6 ft. her father thinks she is getting chubby and wants her to eat less. People are like this everywhere. In the commons people are getting judged by what they eat like they are going to turn into it. I Hate my body and this issue is Very Difficult for me.

Dr. Deb said...

I just scrolled down and found your posts. I haven't visited them in quite some time.

It is so hard when addiction hits you whether it is an eating disorder, drug alochol use or even cutting. The best way to move through these very difficult times is to make sure you have a professional team working with you.
Slowly, as things change, so does your outlook. And hopefully soon you will experience more self love instead of self hate. I wish that for you!


ashley said...

thank you, i am a drug addict, cutter and have an eating disorder, things have been getting better and even sometimes i surprise myself with how i handle things compared to how i used to