Factors that influence body image

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One of the factors influencing body image is social-cultural aspects. Human beings live in societies and it is in them that we get to know how we should look like. Cultures also play a major role such that an African American woman would rather be bigger while Caucasians lean towards a size zero. The sentiments of the African Americans are shared by Africans who believe that a woman should be big with broader hips and breasts so as to ensure fertility and sexual satisfaction. For example, in Africa, if a woman was too skinny they were put on a fattening diet as this also ensured that they got a husband (Ricciardelli, et al, 2004). Among the African American women, they do consider big hips and behind an advantage which they believe that their male counterparts will also enjoy the benefits during sexual intercourse. Thus, African American girls will grow up knowing that having more on the desired areas is what is beautiful and what they should aim towards. If it happens that they do not get enough ‘flesh’ in certain areas they will then feel inadequate. For the Caucasian women, they belief that smaller body is more desirable thus the girls will grow up wanting to be of that size. This has led them to develop eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia which has often ended in fatalities (O’Connell, 2009). For the males, cultural studies have shown that they are supposed to be big, strong and have rippling muscles. This is to enhance their masculinity. So the boys will want to develop six packs as the men will hit the gym working out to get the packs and increase muscles. This is universal as men in all cultures want to have such a body. A tall and big man will command more authority than a short and smaller man. A man who is smaller and shorter will often be on the receiving end of teasing and bullying. Women will be attracted to big bodied males as they exude a sense of security and virility (Ricciardelli, et al, 2004). Pageants are social activities that have taken over in defining body image to society. There are set international measurements for the different types of models. There are bikini models that should have a well proportioned body, catwalk models that should be very thin, catalogue models that are to be petite, lingerie models that should be shapely and feminine and the male models that should have excellent physical body shape but not too much muscle. This is the rule book that sets the standards of body image to the society. A model will never be successful until they meet these standards, no agency will sign them if they have the wrong proportions. Also when the model is seen as having added weight, they will be told to lose the extra pounds or lose income. In the US there is the American sweetheart look which for girls is blonde and blue-eyed. This can be shown by looking at the winners of miss teen USA and miss USA. Other girls will then dye their hair blond or bleach and wear blue contacts to achieve this look (Rubenstein & Cabellero, 2000).

The second influencing factor is the family and friends. A family is the first socialization agent that a child is placed into. Next are the friends who we make in the different areas of our lives. To most people we are more concerned with what our parents and siblings think of us. This then indicates the important role that parents play in shaping attitudes on body image. This role should be taken seriously so that parents can triumph over any external influences such as Barbie dolls and pageants (Anschutz & Engels, 2010). The opinion of close friends is also taken to heart. If a family defines the body image and the child does not meet the standard, then they get stressed and think negative of themselves (O’Connell, 2009). Also if most of one’s friends have an attitude towards a certain body type, then we tend to hold a similar opinion. A study carried out showed that teenage girls who have eating disorders often felt criticized at home by parents or guardians and siblings. The family may be directly or indirectly making the girls feel inadequate (O’Connell, 2009). A recent study has shown that friends are the biggest influencers of body image among teenagers than even magazines and celebrities. Teenagers are technology savvy and therefore know that the pictures in magazines and television have been digitally enhanced and air-brushed to make them perfect so they cannot possibly look like them. They will therefore take in more what their peers will describe the body types as to them this is more realistic. If among friends you are the only big one then there may be pressure for you to change yourself to look like the others. At times, it is someone who may want to join a certain clique of friends so one ends up changing their body and dressing in order to fit in. The feelings of acceptance and especially in areas such as school or workplace are the driving force behind change. From time immemorial, man has always valued conformity (O’Connell, 2009). Man is a social being and will subject ourselves to the dictations set by our relations.

The third factor of influence is sports. Women and men are dictated upon on what sports they can participate in largely due to their body type. Sports have been classified as masculine or feminine and each has its own body type to go with it. For example, boxing is one of the sports that are largely thought of as a masculine one. This is because one has to build up muscle mass as it involves having to fight off the opponent which is what males usually do. Women who are boxers will have to work out and develop muscles such that they will resemble a man (Swami, Steadman and Tovee, 2009). They are then subjected to public scrutiny as whether they are really ‘females’ and if biologically they are then they are labeled as lesbians. A recent case is the South African athlete Caster Semenya who is a runner, in the 800 meters, and a world champion. She had to undergo compulsory gender determination tests as people and officials questioned how she appears too masculine. This has led many young women to actually shy away from such sports. The athletes themselves also do actually have negative body image perceptions when they think that their bodies are not as they should be. They thus begin a struggle of getting the desired body and this is varied whereby some may need to loss weight and others add weight. There has always been a negative relation between athletes and weight control. When they are underweight, they tend to use steroids to put on weight and develop muscles. When the athlete has been told to lose weight they will use drugs to achieve this as to them it is either do or die and they do not have the luxury of loosing weight on their own schedule. The steroids have a harmful effect on the body’s physiological processes. In male gyms, these steroids are sold undercover as the peddlers target men who want a faster solution to developing muscles. In some sports such as figure skating, one is supposed to have a certain body type. For the women, they are to be thin and average weight so that they are flexible enough to be lifted duding the routines. For the men, they are to have good muscle capacity so that they can lift the females. When someone is watching these sports, their attention is drawn to the body type that the athletes have and will admire them and want to have such (Swami, Steadman and Tovee, 2009).

The fourth factor influencing body image is the media. The mass media is perhaps the biggest factor and especially in this advanced technological age. Mass media is a general term that is comprised of print and digital. Print media include magazines, newspapers and catalogues. Digital media includes television, radio, internet and social networking sites .Everyday and all the time we are bombarded with information that may often be uncensored by authoritative figures such as parents or the government (Jean, 1999). The media promotes certain body images and especially underweight females. This ends up encouraging harmful practices in order to achieve the body type that they saw on television or in the magazine. Media largely affects women more than men most likely because they are more gullible than their counterparts. You will find that quick diets are the most selling information in the media. The diet industry in the US is at an estimated value of $100 billion every year.  Human beings will react more to a virtual stimulus thus these diet companies will advertise using pictures of people who are in their before and after to actually show the results thereby selling more of their products (Grogan, 2010). What most people may not realize is that these companies will often doctor the results so their sales go up. They will also omit any information on the side-effects or what is contained in the diet pills that will be harmful to consumers. It is mostly young women in comparison to older women who will read magazines, watch movies and television where they see thin women and their minds will subconsciously take that size as what they should be. The worst influencers are models that are nowadays a size zero (Jean, 1999). The ‘common’ woman will then do all her best to achieve this size. The media also plays havoc on the self esteem of women who feel that they are not good looking enough. Allen Ginsberg said that whoever has the control on media will then control the images that are released thus in turn controlling the culture at that time. This is very true as the people you see in the media are mostly small bodied for women and heavily muscled men. Nowadays it is not unusual to hear young children, as young as six years old, talk about how fat they are (Jean, 1999). This is a situation that has been brought about by their exposure to mass media that does promote underweight. It leaves you wondering their attitude when they reach adolescence and hormones begin to change their bodies as they undergo the changes that come with maturity. Mass media has been blamed for eating disorders in countries where television programs are being brought in from other countries. An example is Melrose place and 90210 which were among the programs to be aired outside USA that had themes on body types. In certain areas the local perceptions on body image changed to the negative (Rosen, Gross & Vara, 1987).

When all the factors that influence body image have been analyzed, the next step is to look at how the situation can be corrected and save ourselves from self-destruction. Cultures will always change according to the times and we should therefore not take to heart whatever is said or has been set. People should learn to filter the information that bombards them from the mass media. As for young people, figures of authority in their lives should check the kind of information that is passed to them. Parents have the biggest influence on body image and should therefore not dictate but be more accepting and unrestrictive. In sports, the competition is often stiff and to them much is at stake. Body image is something that affects us all regardless of our age, race or gender. It knows no boundaries. At one time or another we question our body’s image and wish that we could look different. The same factors of influence can be used to spread the message of acceptance regardless of your body type. In the end health should come first before body image.