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Body Image, Culture and Sexuality

by Mark Bradley(more info)

listed in weight loss, originally published in issue 198 - September 2012

In today's society, body image has become an increasingly hot topic of discussion; whether it be chatter in the school playground or coverage in the tabloids, it has become very difficult to avoid. Although this objectification of self occurs more frequently within the female sector, an increasing number of males are feeling the pressures of the human gaze.

As a result, the body 'ideal' becomes ever evolving too, causing one to question what is normal and wonder what it is that is ultimately influencing how we perceive our own body image?

Mirror Image

Body image and the influences around this can be divided into three categories:

  • How we perceive our real bodies as compared to when we look in the mirror;
  • How important our physical appearance is to us and how we feel others perceive us;
  • How we compare to others' bodies and then how we judge that.

Our body is the immediately observed part of our concept of self and is connected to a complex system of self-consciousness. Though we may consider ourselves as a consciousness and feel we exist in our mind and its thoughts – “I think therefore I am”, we are in fact intimately connected to the world via our bodies and our bodies are in many ways beyond our control.

We are not born with a body image. Yes we are born with the physical attributes, but we learn how to perceive them by the people who surround us. It is also determined by the society we are born into, as well as what is valued at the time, which is also bound closely to our social attractiveness and sexuality. It is thought that we have a powerful internal drive to be seen as attractive, not necessarily physically but in a more global sense; to have qualities that are attractive to others such as being honest and reliable as well as strong, beautiful.

“Our unique attributes of beauty or unattractiveness, height and weight, physical handicaps, if any, not only affect social responses to the self, they also affect our life chances. The body, therefore, is the prime symbol of the self, and the prime determinant of the self.”[1]

Not only has the ideal body image changed over time, society has changed dramatically in this century. There are few remaining hierarchies or social structures based on religion, parentage, money, or education. Society has become more egalitarian, but intrinsic to human nature is the desire to judge, evaluate and compare ourselves to others. If class and lineage are no longer the premier tools for measuring ourselves against others, what is? The answer is the more visible, tangible, observable aspects of ourselves, first among these, the body.

Today's culture has provided plenty of food, justice and shelter so they are less important in social attractiveness, leaving space for beauty to expand. Great emphasis is now put on physical appearance; we are told what we should look like, openly applauded or mocked if we do not fit an image accepted by the observer. Some call such focus on one’s appearance vanity - but that misses the point. We are responding to the deep psychological significance of the body. Appearance does indeed affect our sense of self and how people respond to us; it always has and always will.

This concern with appearance and weight is not simply an aberration of contemporary Western culture. Generations of ancient Chinese women hobbled themselves by binding their feet in order to match the beauty ideal of the time. There has always been a move towards trends in social attractiveness and what is considered attractive today will change tomorrow, Greta Garbo’s pale skin and eyebrows were the height of desirability in the 1930s but are now considered unattractive.

The concept of body schema - how we view ourselves and its complex connections are still not fully understood; we develop, neglect and view with pleasure or distaste, all or parts of our bodies, at different times of our lives. We age, grow, become sick, strong and eventually decay. The body at a basic level defines us, male-female, short-tall, beautiful-ugly, able-bodied-disabled; for centuries we have been shaping and changing our bodies in relation to all these factors.

“As we age no doubt our somatic concerns change; we may worry more about loss of hair or sight, fertility or potency; and such losses are hardly compensated for by gains in weight and girth and the increased risk of heart attacks. Death approaches and the self changes as, and because, the body changes; yet the body remains a central concern of the embodied self; an object to the subject, yet also constitutive of the subject” [1]

Behind the basic issues surrounding body image, there are often deep underlying psychological issues that are influencing us to feel this way.  The mental representation we create of what we think we look like is subject to all kinds of distortion from internal elements such as our emotions, moods, early experiences, attitudes of our parents and much more; and it strongly influences behaviour.

Although it may not  bear a close relation to how others actually see us, this comparison commonly takes form in how we dress, our grooming, diet and exercise and recently via surgery.

Cosmetic surgery is just the latest technique in a long history of changing our bodies to be adapted to our internal desires and is increasingly accepted, though often misrepresented, especially in the case of breast augmentation, in wider society. Careful mental health screening is part of the process to be accepted for cosmetic surgery, and the women are no different, from a clinical view point, regarding their mental health than the general population. Preoccupation with image and resultant dissatisfaction with their bodies falls well within the normal range; their choice of what to do to correct it is a new trend but it is not driven, on the whole, from a mental health issue.

As we have previously discussed, the body is deeply entwined with our concept of self; it is the image we present to the world, a physical representation of ourselves.

Underlying many disorders, particularly regarding how we look, can be a sense of shame. Shame has a rough translation as ‘hidden’, meaning that we keep and inner fear of a negative aspect of ourselves away from the observing gaze of others. For example, if there is a concern that we are not clever enough, we may become quiet in certain company or avoid situations where we may be open to ridicule such as a pub quiz. However if our shame is our body then we are under consistent observation, our shame on show and if this shame starts at an early age as suggested by the recent Body Image Report. This can impact who and how we love, work, parent, communicate and build relationships.

The report condemns the current media culture for making people feel bad about who they are and how they look:

“Hollywood and the fashion, cosmetics and diet industries work hard to make each of us believe that our bodies are unacceptable and need constant improvement. Print ads and television commercials reduce us to body parts— lips, legs, breast — airbrushed and touched up to meet impossible standards. TV shows tell women and teenage girls that cosmetic surgery is good for self-esteem.”

Some argue it's ironic. They believe that in telling people how to solve their imperfections via such methods as surgery and expensive makeovers, that they are providing society with a means to better itself, when actually most would argue these means unrealistic and unaffordable to the majority. As a result, society is then presented with these unattainable ideals leaving them only with a sense of inferiority and longing, creating more insecurity than what was already present.

There has never before been so many visuals and media exposure related to the body and never before have their been so many contrasting opinions. This leads with no surprise to an undoubtedly large amount of confusion and frustration. In a single two hour television slot there will be a program telling women that voluptuous curves and a glorious tan will improve their outlooks, while flick to another channel and it's all about flat is back and the latest advancement in weight loss or liposuction.  Within the male sector it tends to be more focused on bulking up and securing as many 'packs' as one can or what facial hair is on trend.

Research has shown that nearly all women feel ashamed of their bodies at one time or another. In today's society - which prizes personal responsibility and self-discipline with regards our bodies - people are pressured to believe that with enough will power they can control everything about the size and shape of their bodies.

Is it all Mental?

When we look at our bodies in the mirror, if we feel flabby or fit depends as much on your brain as your waistline. Researchers at University College London discovered that they could trick volunteers into feeling like their waistlines were shrinking by stimulating the nerves in volunteers’ bodies. That suggests that two people who have identical bodies might experience their body image differently.

Think of it this way: if we touch something hot it activates cells on the surface of your hand designed to detect heat. We have them for pain and other visual images also, receptors that that tell us how our body fits into ‘space’ i.e. if our arm is up or down.

However we do not have these tools when it comes to working out our body size, and not just to work out whether we’ll fit into our clothes. For example, in order to reach across a table to pick up a cup of tea, your brain has to factor in not only how far away the tea is, but also how long your arm is.

Our brain intakes a great deal of information to do this. The research at UCL indicates that sometimes we get confused about the information and hence we ‘see’ what the information thinks must be real, hence people with eating disorders may genuinely ‘see’ themselves as heavier than they are. For the rest of us it presents a problem of image overload;  given the constantly shifting body ideal, often presented to us via media outlets, it becomes increasingly difficult to assess normal.  The result may be that we go for the extreme as a safe option - taller, thinner, more muscular - or if we put on weight we underestimate the amount because despite the evidence of a mirror or scales what we ‘see’ is translated by our brain as normal.

Body image and its links to body shame is powerful and deeply rooted in our beings and impacts on many other areas of our lives such as identity, appearance, sexuality, self-worth and esteem, parenting, health and ageing. The long reach of body shame can sway our entire approach on life from who and how we love, work, communicate and build social relationships.

Increasingly our relationship with our own bodies has become combative; we run the risk of having a lifetime of body shame that we carry around due to our inability to measure up to standards of perfection that owe more to a distorted cultural lens than reality. This in turn lowers our sense of self-worth, drains our mental and emotional energy. On top of this, many of these distortions can be dangerous, physically unhealthy and self-destructive.

There needs to be a change in how we approach health and our bodies and this ideally should start at school. We need to educate, from an early age, a common understanding of our physical selves. This theme needs to be reinforced at home; parents and educators could provide a powerful force of change for future generations. To blame the media as leading this attack on our body image misses that vital point that it is up to us, not them, to stem the tide. If we can educate ourselves to understand that their images are truly not real, then we will be free from them and then they will adapt to our needs, not us to theirs.

References

1. Synnott. A. The Body Social: Symbolism, Self and Society.  p2. 1993.

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About Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley MSc Psychoanalytical Developmental Psychology, with a background in Health Psychology,  has worked and trained around the world developing an evidence based approach to psychological care. Having studied in the UK and with renowned Dr Dan Hughes in the USA, Mark is presently doing a major piece of research into positive psychology and weight management at Bath University. He works in the UK and abroad and was recently the lead psychological consultant regarding the Polar bear attack in Svalbard, Norway where he travelled to the Arctic Circle to provide on the ground assistance.

Mark Bradley Associates has practices in Leeds and in London at the prestigious Bowskill Clinic. He provides psychological assistance for companies and individuals and also has practising rights the foremost major private hospital group in the UK. With his background in health psychology and close links with personal trainers, nutritionists and health professionals, Mark has developed a unique programme of healthy weight management. His clients range from ultra endurance athletes to morbidly obese pre and post bariatric operation patients. His insight into the pressures of today’s image lead society has inspired a programme of support for clients from children, teenagers and adults. Mark may be contacted via  www.markbradleyassociates.com

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