The term ‘body image’ is commonly used to refer to the conception and appreciation (or lack of appreciation) that a person—most often a young person—has of his or her body. In itself there is nothing wrong with this. All of us has some views on our bodies, whatever they may be. However, societal pressure, particularly in an advertisement-laden society such as that found in the United States, can exert a profound influence, both upon the body images of young people, and (more disturbingly) upon their behavior. It would be widely acknowledged that the notion of body image poses a serious social problem, one that has not thus far been adequately dealt with on any significant scale (Cash 2004). This paper will discuss the general problem in question, as well as offering some specific suggestions as to how the notion should evolve moving forward.
One important issue concerns the disparity in impact that the notion of body image has on young males and females, respectively. The reasons for this may be obscure, but the disparity itself is surely not open to question. Females, far more often than males, suffer from body image-related disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. Two questions are posed by this fact. The first is why there is this gender- (or sex-) based discrepancy. The other what to do about it.
There has been relatively little research done on the first question, which may say more about the obvious nature of its answer than about the interests and dispositions of researchers. Young women are judged, and the behavior that society exhibits towards them is influenced, to a great degree based on their physical appearance. The same is not true of young men, at least not to the same extent. This difference itself cries out for explanation. An adequate explanation would presumably refer to several factors: (1) The fact that women, despite the great social and political progress that has been made since roughly the 1960s, are still commonly viewed as occupying a subordinate position in society, and even within families; (2) Women are too often judged on the basis of the men that are in their lives, rather than on their intrinsic merits; (3) Men are more influenced than are women, when it comes to sexual desire and romantic interest, by pure physical appearance; (4) The society and commercial archetypes of the perfect woman bear little resemblance to actual women (and, perhaps more importantly, they represent an ideal that is for the most part unattainable); and finally, largely as a result of the first four factors, (5) The self-image and self-esteem of many young women are much more closely tied to their conception of their bodies—which is itself, of course, dramatically influenced by the aforementioned societal standards—than are the corresponding traits of young men.
While this is by no means satisfactory as a full explanation of the difference between body image as it affects men and women, respectively, it does seem to me to be a close approximation (Rozin and Fallon 1988). And in any case, it allows us to advance some distance toward our second, arguably more interesting question. If these are the facts about the relevant discrepancies in respect of body image, between young men and young women, then what ought to be done about it?
Obviously the answer depends upon whom one asks. Merchants and advertising agencies would presumably want to make few changes. Billions of dollars are spent each year on clothing, cosmetic products, and diet plans which young people—again mostly young women—hope will allow them to attain something akin to society’s conception of the perfect body image. But this is not the question at issue here. The question I want to answer concerns what ought to be the future of the notion of body image amongst young people. And it is taken as obvious that this normative question does not coincide with the descriptive question concerning what best suits our free-market, capitalistic society (Smolak 2004).
It must be acknowledged that there is no simple answer to this normative question. We can say vaguely, and nearly without content, that what ought to happen is that a state of affairs wherein young women are not taught, whether tacitly or explicitly, that their value as persons and as individuals is directly tied to their physical appearance, ought to be brought about. This is true enough, but not terribly helpful. We can also say that models, actresses, and other would-be symbols of what women ought to look like ought to be more representative of the ways in which real women actually appear. While more specific than the previous suggestion, this one shares with it the defect of being altogether unrealistic, at least at the present time.
In my view we must start at the beginning, with the way that young women (girls) are welcomed into the world. As harmless and as charming as it may seem, the nearly ubiquitous tradition of clothing baby girls in pink, and baby boys in blue, itself begins the nearly inexorable progression toward gender- and sex-stereotyping that is arguably at the root of the serious problems concerning body image that young people later encounter. From here boys typically begin to play with cars, trains, airplanes, and so forth, and girls with dolls. One does not have to be a militant feminist to wonder why in the world so many tens of thousands of parents would assume, in the complete absence of relevant evidence, that their boys will be primarily interested in the vehicles, and their girls only in the dolls. But of course it seems harmless, and it is traditional. The problem is that even something that seems harmless, and that definitely is traditional, can be quite harmful—or at least lead to something that is quite harmful—indeed.
Think about the emphasis that is placed, by some young women, as well as their parents, upon the prospect of their wedding day. Again this may seem harmless. What is wrong with dreaming about such a pleasant imagined event? The question, however, is not whether it is pleasant, or even whether there is anything wrong with it. The question is why it is something that some young women would spend so much time thinking about. How many young men spend a significant amount of time dreaming about their wedding day? The answer is not many. And the reason is that the hopes and dreams of young men are simply not tied to an event that requires the desire and romantic capitulation of another person. This is surely how it ought to be. The only question is why it has to be different for young women. It should not have to be. Of course, it can and would be argued that women are biologically programmed differently from men. This may be true. But morality is not hostage to biology, as any number of examples would show.
At best this short essay opens a question—and probes a few lines concerning its solution—that desperately needs to be addressed. Little mention has been made here of the specifics of body image. The reason for this is that body image, and the problems attendant upon it, are a symptom of the problem, rather than the problem itself. The root problem is that young women, for many different reasons, are led nearly from birth to believe that their worthiness as persons depends crucially upon their appearance. And the requisite range of acceptable appearances, to make matters much worse, is set by advertisers and Hollywood—together they set demands that young women in general cannot (and frankly should not) aspire to meet. It has been suggested here that the only effective way to address this problem is by radically reconceiving our notion of the proper way to raise young girls and young boys, one with respect to the other.
- Cash, T. F. (2004). Body image: Past, present, and future. Body image, 1(1), 1-5.
- Rozin, P., & Fallon, A. (1988). Body image, attitudes to weight, and misperceptions of figure preferences of the opposite sex: a comparison of men and women in two generations. Journal of abnormal psychology, 97(3), 342.
- Smolak, L. (2004). Body image in children and adolescents: where do we go from here? Body image, 1(1), 15-28.