Risk Factors for Body Dissatisfaction
Different people have bodies of different shapes and sizes. Despite the diversity of body shapes, many men and women wish that their body looked different. This phenomenon is known as body dissatisfaction or negative body image and is all too common. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) defines negative body image as “A distorted perception of your shape—you perceive parts of your body unlike they really are” and also adds that those with negative body image see themselves as unattractive and feel self-conscious and awkward in their own bodies (NEDA, 2013). In contrast, those with positive body image see a true representation of themselves, and are also able to disconnect their self-worth from their body shape, accept their body as unique and feel comfortable and confident in their own bodies (NEDA, 2013).
Body dissatisfaction can start early. Girls as young as three years old have been found to show a preference for thinness (Gorgan, 2010) and 41% of a sample of first through fourth graders wished they were thinner, (NEDA, 2013).
A study of college aged women and men, Grossbard, et al., (2011) found that women tended to perceive themselves as heavier and more muscular than they really were. They also tended to rate their ideal body type and what they believed men preferred as thinner and less muscular than they rated themselves. However, men tended to prefer a woman who was heavier than what the women assumed the men preferred. Men also tended to rate themselves as thinner and less muscular than they really were and rated their ideal body type and what they believed women preferred as heavier and more muscular than they rated themselves.
Body Dissatisfaction and Body Comparison
What accounts for this level of distorted perception and negative body image? Many theories have been set forth including the theory that comparison to the bodies of others creates body dissatisfaction and body comparison has been found to predict future body dissatisfaction (Gorgan, 2010). This has large implications for minority women and men who may find a greater discrepancy between themselves and the European majority body types and shapes. In fact, the average American woman is around 5’4” tall and 165 pounds, while a woman who is to represent beauty, Ms. America is on average 5’7” tall and 121 pounds. This image yields a lower and underweight BMI than the BMI of Ms. American in the 1960’s. In one sample of elementary age girls, 69% said that images in magazines influence their ideal body and 47% said that those images made them want to lose weight (NEDA, 2013).
What can be done to combat messages of negative body image? One approach is the Healthy at Every Size Approach (HAES™) which encourages girls and women to listen to their internal hunger cues rather than restrict and to exercise for enjoyment instead of for weight loss while accepting that their body is unique and that health is more than weight. The program was shown to be more successful than a diet program in a study of female dieters. Those in the HAES™ program and the dieting program showed improvements in self-esteem, body acceptance, and depression. They also lowered their LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. However, dieters did not maintain these levels and returned to pre-study weight and health levels at 24 month follow up, while those in the HAES group maintained their health gains and pre-study weight (Bacon, Stern, Van Loran, & Keim, 2005).
Developing a Positive Body Image
To develop positive body image, you must understand that your self-worth has no linkage to the shape of your body. Spend some time thinking about all of the wonderful and unique things about you which have nothing to do with your body. If this is difficult, ask those who care about you what they like about you. Once you feel better from the inside, you can appreciate how miraculous your body is in the way that it works like an amazing machine. Refrain from comparing yourself to others. Your body is yours, unique and it is likely that someone has once looked at you and wished that they had something of yours. Developing Body satisfaction takes work and there are several workbooks out there which can help you through the process or for 10 steps to loving your body.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Size Acceptance and Intuitive Eating Improve Health for Obese, Female Chronic Dieters.
Research Gate. Promoting Positive Body Image in Males and Females, by Sarah Grogan.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Perceived Norms for Thinness and Muscularity Among College Students: What Do Men and Women Really Want?