Looking At You
Is body image being taken too seriously?
By Annie Bradford,
Body image problems
often rear their ugly (no pun intended) heads in college, although they are
often masked, mistaken for vanity, shyness, cautiousness, or even normalcy.
With widespread pressure among college students to look a certain way, to have
exact amounts of muscle or body fat, or to achieve perfection, a negative body
image may actually be the norm. But how can colleges and universities suffer
from a looks-obsessed culture when they are training the future thinkers, doers
and leaders of the world?
The stress of college
life can strike blows to anyone's self-esteem, though there are other forces
at work. A large part of the problem comes from our culture. Just look at the
trademark bodies of the 1990'sKate Moss' black-and-white waif in the Calvin
Klein Obsession ads; the tanned, washboard-bellied Diet Coke guy; the incredible
shrinking female cast of Friends. Youth and beauty seem to go hand-in-hand
in mainstream culture, and many college students strive for the complete package:
intelligence, looks, and status.
many think those three traits are linkedan idea reinforced by our media.
Heroes are also smart and beautiful; often villains are unattractive and unintelligent.
We associate particular physical characteristics with beauty, glamour, style,
and sex appeal, but no one ever explains why.
and internal qualities is such a powerful impulse that it affects day-to-day
behavior. "Everybody loves to stereotype people," says Jessie Johnson-Tyas,
a junior at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. "You look like this,
so you must do this and you must act like this. Having a certain type of body
affects how people interact with you."
indicate that people associate body type with everything from personality traits
to occupation. In a study conducted by Dr. Rick Gardner and colleagues at the
University of Colorado in Denver, a group of undergraduate college students
were exposed to pictures of the same male and female models, though the images
were distorted with a computer to vary in size. Students seeing larger versions
of the models tended to assign them more undesirable personality traits compared
with students who saw average- or thin-sized models. It has been shown that
these perceptions are common in both genders, and that they tend to develop
early in childhoodmuch like racial and gender stereotypes.
Although body image
concerns have traditionally been considered a female concern, the problem affects
many men as well. There are fewer culturally acceptable body types for menone
type championed by slick designers like Gucci or Versace, another by Abercrombie
and Fitch or Ralph Lauren. More men are turning to diets, compulsive exercise,
and even eating disorders to lose weight, change their body shape, and achieve
the new ideal of male beauty. Although it's estimated that up to twenty percent
of female college students suffer from an eating disorder, the American Anorexia
Bulimia Association reports that men make up about ten percent of eating disorder
sufferers. More recent data suggests that the percentage may be even higher,
perhaps because of men's reluctance to seek help for a "woman's issue".
Matt Miller, a
senior at Oklahoma City University, feels the heat. "Recently, you've started
seeing a lot more health magazines for men. I've been influenced to exercise
more to achieve a certain look." As a former dorm resident assistant, his exposure
to body image problems and eating disorders helped him put things in perspective
and focus more on goals than looks. Unfortunately, men suffering from an eating
disorder may find it hard to find help. Many colleges house most of their body
image resources in women's resource centers, a rather misleading practice. Perhaps
as a result of this gender gap, men may be less likely to recognize that they
have a problem, and may avoid seeking help.
These issues go
far beyond asking your roommate if you look fat in your jeans. Extreme body
image concerns often lead to eating disorders. Various factors contribute to
bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating, although the psychology and medical communities
suggest that the staggering increase in eating disorders over the past couple
of decades is partly due to our culture's increasingly unrealistic definition
of beauty. For example, the British Medical Association recently issued a report
contending that extreme thinness among models and actresses contributes to the
development of eating disorders in young women.
typically thought to be in outstanding health, often suffer from eating disorders
and exercise obsession. Much of the pressure comes from a lingering fat phobia
among coaches, trainers, and even doctors, says Dr. Mary Beth Diener, a psychologist
at the University of Texas who treats students with body image concerns and
eating disorders. "There is a perception out therethe less body fat, the
better," she says, "Athletes get a lot of pressure from coaches and people who
contribute to their training to be thinner and to have more muscle." Sadly,
these ideas are a dangerous myth: not only can extreme thinness impair performance,
but it can also cause long-lasting health problems, particularly in women.
David Holt, a sophomore
at the University of Tennessee, realized the severity of body image problems
after watching several friends suffer from eating disorders. "I [realized] how
big a problem it was, and I became more and more disgusted with the fact that
. . . this could be elevated to being more important than intelligence, aptitude,
[or] any of the things that actually matter." Since coming to college, his feelings
have become more intense. "In high school, we were told that it . . . would
go away," he says. "Then when you get to college, you see people who are twenty-five
or twenty-six who still haven't gotten over it, and you wonder if it's ever
going to happen."
Some progress is
being made. University health centers and other campus organizations give more
attention to eating disorders, drug abuse, depression, and other consequences
of poor body image. Outreach programs target groups at a high risk for body
image problems and eating disorders, such as dormitories, athletic groups, and
Greek organizations. And organizations like About-Face,
a San Francisco-based group dedicated to exposing unrealistic depictions of
women in the media, attack negative, demeaning, and stereotypical images of
women head-on. Unfortunately, the campaign towards positive body image has yet
to eliminate the problem.
a non-traditional, second-degree-seeking student at the University of Texas
at Austin, has noticed that even on her activist-friendly campus, no one steps
forward to promote body acceptance and awareness of negative messages in the
media. "I think that the biggest problem is that . . . you are dealing with
people who have just come from home . . . they still believe in a very 'traditional'
point of view. I think it isn't until they really start to develop their own
[sense] of who they are that they start to realize just how bad the media .
. . is. By that time, most of these traditional students have already left the
campus." Other factors also influence students, says Ralson. "I am sure a number
of these students struggle with body image issues everyday and they think, 'If
I stop this charade, no one will like me, no one will want to be with me, andgood
griefwho would want to marry me?'"
Many people suffering
from a poor body image cite the media as one source of concern. While the motives
of advertisers aren't exactly complex (sell, sell, sell!), it's interesting
to wonder why we have internalized their 'ideal body image'. Why does a non-existentor
barely existentstandard created on a runway or on Madison Avenue attract
us? Maybe it's not just a matter of worshipping a human mannequin. Dr. Hue-Sun
Ahn, a psychologist at the Princeton University Counseling Center, theorizes
that "with the advancements in technologywhether it's the ability to create
a computer-refined . . . unrealistic but 'perfect' image, or whether it's the
increase of communication through electronic meanswe [have fewer] opportunities
to get to know people on a . . . personal level. [We don't see] the non-visible
qualities of a person, such as compassion, spiritedness, sense of humor, loyalty,
along with all the human flaws, shortcomings, and imperfections." Could it be,
in our culture of Instant Messages and cell phones, that we forget what people
are really like, both internally and externally? More importantly, how many
of us would like to remember?
Despite these obstacles,
some people are optimistic. Holt and Miller look to the future for change, both
from the media tycoons who decide what we are exposed to, and from society finally
shunning looks obsessionin the same way the civil rights movement, the
women's movement, and other social movements changed the way we live together.
Imagine living in a world where we revere human bodies for what they can do,
rather than for an arbitrary set of physical features.
medical profession has also been shifting its views, recognizing that proper
nutrition, regular exercise, and healthy lifestyles are far more significant
indicators of overall health than weight or body size alone. Some ideas, though,
have been painfully slow to develop. For example, few people recognize the influence
of our fat-phobic culture on the growing rate of obesity in America. It's likely
that many people taught to hate their bodies do not care for them as a result.
Though our style-over-substance, form-over-function culture influences even
highly trained professionals, more people are realizing that good health is
not synonymous with the type of body idolized in fitness magazines.
to the problem is crucial. The thin, tanned, sculpted celebrities promoting
causes like animal rights or AIDS awareness seem ill suited to hold benefit
concerts or media events to promote body acceptance. Even among students, it's
much more stylish to act on behalf of starving children in Africa than starving
young middle-class women in America. However, unlike many of the causes that
have been furthered by student activists, this is our battle. A poor body image
silences far too many in our generationare we ready to talk back?