Body Image: And Dangerous Messages from the Media and “Body Image Movements”

Pablo Picasso — Algerian women (Delacroix) (detail), 1955

The media is full of opinions that affect body image; photos and stories about being too thin, too fat and everything in between. Movies, television, magazines and advertisements constantly remind their audiences that ‘thin is in’ or some other fad. It’s a far cry from the distant past, particularly the Renaissance period in Europe, where many paintings portrayed beautiful, large, curvaceous men and women who were symbols of fertility and prosperity.

Today, the concept of beauty has shifted dramatically.

As the 1900s ticked over, the thin body shape and size grew in popularity, and continued as an ideal for beauty with the ‘Twiggy’ look in the 60s, and ‘heroin-chic’ in the 90s leading the way. Thin is still a strong influence today. The unrealistic connection between beauty and thinness has had many unfortunate consequences with girls starving themselves and damaging their very health to achieve a ‘look’. Those who already suffer from low self-worth can spiral into patterns of negative self-talk and further damage their self-perception by aiming for unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards.

Time ticks on and eventually, it hits home that ‘thin isn’t always in’, which then caused a proliferation of well meaning body image movements to come along and encourage the importance of not judging someone based on their size. And while many organisations help raise awareness of important body image issues, other less regulated self-help ‘gurus’ encourage the acceptance of any body weight at all. While this is admirable, body weight extremes — from being underweight to obese — can greatly increase the risk of health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

All time has done is given people a never-ending slew of mixed messages about body image. It’s hard enough to know who we are, never mind how we should look. Body image is a tenuous thing, and relative to each person. How can it be improved?

According to The MindShift Foundation Clinical Psychologist Dr Lars Madsen, “Starting with yourself is the best place to counter negative thoughts on your image. Overcoming this type of difficulty, essentially, is about developing body acceptance. There are no meaningful differences between ones weight in terms of personality and abilities. Body weight doesn’t say any more or less about character than eye or hair colour does. People of all weights — thin, medium and heavy — have problems. Body weight has nothing to do with worth. One does not have to be a certain weight to have a satisfying life.”

Dr Madsen suggests that these simple mental exercises can help improve body image and understand there is no right or wrong when it comes to shape and appearance.

  1. Focus on your positive qualities, skills and talents to help you better appreciate your whole self.
  2. Say positive things to yourself every day and avoid negative self-talk.
  3. Appreciate and respect what your body can do rather than how it looks.
  4. Avoid comparing yourself to others; remember that everyone is unique and your differences are what make you special.

It is also important to understand that there is no right or wrong when it comes to weight, shape, size and appearance. Challenging beauty ideals and learning to accept your body shape is a crucial step towards positive body image.

Take the first steps to counter any negative self-image you have of yourself by changing how you perceive your physical appearance, let go of your personal assumptions about your appearance, and disconnect from damaging forms of media.

Set yourself safe goals such as leading a healthy lifestyle and achieving a healthy body weight, and talk to someone you trust or ask a healthcare professional if you need extra help. Your health matters.

Elizabeth Venzin is the Founder and CEO of the Australian Not-for-Profit Organisation The MindShift Foundation. Resources about preventative mental health can be found on the MindShift website www.mindshift.org.au