Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Our family, peers, and media influence the perception of our body. They comprise the social environment which acts as the architect of our body image. While we understand the different architects of body image, it is crucial to understand the impact on the individual. Continuing to reimagine the human body on a construction site, we reach the site of the construction. This site is undoubtedly the self or the individual. Here, we examine how the site is impacted by the architects. We will decode the insecurities one feels about their body weight, size, and image and why it has such an emotional impact on us.
When I think about the impact of body image on the self, I’m reminded of the popular saying, “a healthy mind leads to a healthy life”. As our body image becomes such an integral part of our life it occupies a lot of our mental energy. It affects our day-to-day interactions with others and ourselves. In fact, internalizing normative body ideals can lead to self-deprecating comments and an inability to believe in oneself. Have you noticed how a compliment directed at your body or your style makes you feel happy and confident? Researchers have shown body image concerns impact self-esteem, self-worth, confidence, unhealthy eating attitudes, and mental health of people of all ages. In a study conducted by Katharsis Counselling, out of 100 respondents, 67 thought body image always impacts their self-confidence and 41 felt it impacts their confidence on some days. Furthermore, results reveal that people believe in the narrative that an ideal body type exists. And, consequently, they negotiate their relationship with their body image while keeping an ideal body in mind.
Sometimes body image concerns can lead to severe consequences. Studies have reported that females are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors such as skipping meals. Other unhealthy behaviours include fasting, under-eating, and taking up ill-planned fitness regimes such as only cardio exercises. This indicates that individuals often take up extreme eating habits in response to their perception of their body size. Additionally, individuals take on a burden to look a certain way and feel embarrassed, angry, or frustrated when unable to accomplish that look. Thus, fixation on body types further reinforces the need to change our natural body forms through aggravating means.
Body dissatisfaction and unhealthy eating habits predispose adolescents to develop medical and mental health disorders. Bodyweight is often observed as a visible and physical entity. However, because of the meanings invested in our bodies, weight dissatisfaction seems to be as much a psychological experience as a physical one. Mental health deterioration due to this representation is a common phenomenon. The desire to lose weight among adolescents when coupled with a lack of knowledge about nutrition and unhealthy eating attitudes can have severe impacts on their mental and physical health.
Individuals can develop eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. In the last 20 years, researchers have begun to analyse their prevalence in the Indian population. A study in Bangalore revealed that 45 (67%) of the 66 psychiatrists had seen patients with dietary issues in the previous year i.e. 2010. One might wonder why the prevalence of body image concerns and eating disorders is increasing in recent years? I feel the following phenomenon contributes to this development. Access to social media increases comparisons with the ideal world. Following this, while people can distinguish themselves from artists and actors as having more resources and purpose to look a certain way, they are not able to distinguish themselves from their peers on social media. They find their peers, who are similar to them, being able to achieve or strive towards an ideal body. Their inability to do the same further diminishes their self-confidence and feeling of unaccomplishment. Thus, the lack of distance between their comparisons leads to negative perceptions about their own ability.
As per my personal observations during this pandemic, young people had dual responses towards their health after facing a lack of access to the outside world. Some took up fitness and attempted handstands or other fitness which became Instagram trends. Others felt detached and could not focus on taking care of themselves. With increased time spent on social media, they felt further agonised by those showcasing their fitness goals and developed negative perceptions of themselves. Fitness enthusiasts and instructors have time and again campaigned for the importance of realizing false body images and photographing for Instagram. However, manifestations of negative comparisons in everyday situations lead to self-defeating thoughts and embarrassment for individuals. Thus, the comparisons on social media along with the desire to lose weight were exacerbated through the pandemic. This situation and other changes make individuals, especially the youth, feel burdened to follow trends and add pressure on their bodies to change according to them.
To conclude, one must be conscious of the mental and physical impacts of body image concerns. The relationship between dissatisfied body images and unhealthy coping mechanisms must alarm one to evoke changes. These changes should focus on thoughts and perceptions towards our body image. Self-confidence and self-worth stemming from body image can act as a barrier between individuals and their goals. Thus, it is imperative for us to inculcate positive body images and move away from ideas of ideal body types.
Chandra, P. S., Abbas, S., & Palmer, R. (2011). Are eating disorders a significant clinical issue in urban India? a survey among psychiatrists in Bangalore. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45(3), 443–446. doi: 10.1002/eat.20952
Kornapalli, S.E., Macharapu, R., Vijaykumar, M., Mallepalli, P.K., & Satees, R. (2017). The Relationship between Body shape concern, Self-esteem, Social anxiety and Body mass index in College students.
Mohandoss, A. (2018). A study of burden of anorexia nervosa in India -2016. Journal of Mental Health and Human Behaviour, 23(1), 25. doi:10.4103/jmhhb.jmhhb_60_17
Nagar, I. and Virk, R., 2020. The Struggle Between The Real And Ideal: Impact Of Acute Media Exposure On Body Image Of Young Indian Women. [online] Available at: <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2158244017691327> [Accessed 7 June 2020].
Radhika is a research consultant with Katharsis Counselling. She is also working with Centre for Appearance Research at the University of West England. As a research associate at the Centre, she is involved with the delivery of an intervention called 'Free Being Me (FBM)' for inculcating body positivity among school girls. Radhika completed her graduation in Psychology from Ashoka University. She aspires to pursue a Masters in Counselling in the near future and is passionate about mental health advocacy, literacy, and research.