Body image is how a person feels about the way he or she looks. It is not based on fact, but rather is learned from the surrounding environment that surrounds us. Body image can change as children grow and become influenced by different biological, psychological, and social factors.
Once kids reach their teen years, body image becomes closely related to self-esteem, so if kids do not feel good about their bodies, they may not feel confident about themselves. Having poor body image can also lead to depression, eating disorders, and even the desire for cosmetic procedures, all of which can damage health. Having positive body image leads to a feeling that inner beauty is more important than how one looks, which is necessary for teens to feel confident about themselves and their abilities. Although most people think of body image as a “girls’ issue,” more and more studies are showing that boys are affected as well.
The Downside: Media Can Harm Body Image
Research indicates that when a young person does not feel like his or her body meets society’s image of perfection, he or she can have a difficult time developing a strong self-esteem. Where do young people learn about this ideal body? Through the media, of course!
Ideal Female Bodies
Media teach young people that the ideal female should have a big chest, small waist, lean hips, no blemishes, no stretch marks, and no wrinkles. Young women are taught that if they do not meet this ideal, they should exercise, diet, get cosmetic surgery, or buy expensive makeup and creams to achieve it. Yet the reason supermodels are so famous is precisely because they are not typical; though they may work to keep their bodies healthy, their proportions are often unable to be imitated naturally. Young women, whose bodies are often going through growth spurts, can damage their bodies by eating too little, exercising too much, or undergoing surgery in response to the quest for "unachievable perfection."
Ideal Male Bodies
Media also teach that males should be tall and blemish-free, have broad shoulders, toned arms, “six-pack” abs, and a small waist. Though there are few studies on the body image of males, we do know that young men who do not meet these ideal standards often turn to steroids, over-exercising, and restricting their diets to create what they believe to be "the perfect body."
Television and movies are media that show bodies in three dimensions, giving viewers a clear idea of what kinds of bodies are acceptable. Research has shown that soap operas and music videos in particular increase young people’s drive for thinness.
The Internet offers young people a chance to find information, both true and false, about how to improve their bodies. One dangerous new development is the phenomenon of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites, which encourage young people to adopt unhealthy behaviors to lower their weight or increase their muscularity.
Magazines can be another source of media pressure. With the creation of “teen” versions of popular adult magazines such as Vogue, People, and Cosmopolitan, young people often read articles that claim to have miracle suggestions for how to “lose weight fast!” and “look years younger!”
Advertising, both on television and in print, is perhaps the most powerful medium for presenting unrealistic body types. Advertisers attract attention for their products by showcasing them with thin women and muscular men. With advanced techniques for retouching photographs, models’ bodies are often “improved” by computers, giving people an unrealistic sense of what bodies look like naturally.
The reality is that there are many different body types out there that are healthy, but they may not look like the media’s ideal. It is important for kids and teens to remember two things:
- The only way to achieve a healthy body is to exercise regularly and eat healthily.
- People are attracted to others because of a combination of factors including intelligence, sense of humor, talent, empathy, and other personality characteristics, not just physical appearance.
© 2004-2008 Center on Media and Child Health, Children's Hospital Boston.
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