Body image, changing ideals and the pursuit of fitting in
One of the things that has come up a lot recently in my discussions with people, is body image. Research shows us that body image difficulties are extremely common for both women and men, and are likely exacerbated by social media and expectations about how we think we ‘should’ look. Whilst this article focuses on female body image, we know that men also often struggle with body image difficulties, and that this has been increasing over the years.
When you look back at societal ideals over the years, it is no wonder that people struggle to feel comfortable in their own bodies! Societal ideals have varied wildly. In the 1950s, adverts for sugar products to help women gain body fat were commonplace, with tag lines such as “when I was skinny, men wouldn’t look at me”. The message given to women at that time was that being slim with little body fat was not attractive. This in some ways mirrors earlier eras, including the 1930s, whereby voluptuous women were viewed as more attractive, wealthy and fertile.
Fast forward to the 1970s, and the message being pushed was for women to be skinny and slim-hipped. This ideal continued for some time, though was also accompanied later by a shift from an emphasis on pale skin to a desire for tanned skin.
Around 2010, societal ideals changed from ‘skinny’ to ‘strong’ and muscular, and hashtags such as #strongnotskinny flooded the internet. This era encouraged women to have visible muscles, and in particular a big bum.
More recently, there has been a huge shift into body positivity, with messages about loving yourself at every size, and all sizes are beautiful. In many ways, this move has been viewed as positive by those in larger bodies, and those who don’t meet the standards of the ideal.
However, as a client said to me this week (posting with consent), “I’ve never been skinny, I’m not very strong, and I don’t love myself at every size, so where do I fit”? My client talked about almost feeling ashamed that she didn’t like her larger body, and secretly wanted to change it, but felt she couldn’t be open about this as then she would be going against the body positivity movement. I’ve also had a couple of clients who were naturally very slender and slim, and who struggled with their body image as they felt they needed to gain muscle or body fat to fit in, and even had comments made towards them such as “you are not a real woman, real women have curves”.
Whilst sometimes well-intentioned, there are so many problems with any ‘movements’ about body shape/size – mainly that these put such an emphasis on the importance of your body shape for ‘fitting in’ or being ‘desirable’, that people will inevitably think there is something wrong with them if their body doesn’t fit the ideal, which frankly most women’s bodies don’t. What this often leads to is a pursuit of meeting such expectations, combined with feelings of inadequacy, shame and constant comparisons.
How on earth would anybody actually keep up with the changing ideals? If you were born in the 1980’s like me, by now you will have needed to be very skinny for a time, then gained a lot of muscle, developed a tan, and now have a large bum as well! And if I don’t fit into those expectations, then I’m told to love myself regardless!
Body image issues as well as eating disorders such as anorexia, and orthorexia are common and can be all-consuming for those struggling with them, and it’s easy to see how social media and societal messages influence this. If you feel that you may benefit from psychological therapy around any of these issues, don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Dr Theresa Comer, Clinical Psychologist.