Updated: Sep 16, 2020
The fieldwork under 'The Body Image Project' is a survey to understand the body image concerns faced by young adults in urban India. We highlighted in our previous article, how our social environment including peers, family, and social media act as the architects of our body image. And, subsequently how the architects mold the site of construction which is the individuals’ body image. For our next step in decoding the construction of the body image, we did our fieldwork to understand gaps, influencers, or the current views urban youth hold with respect to their bodies.
We sent out a short survey consisting of open-ended and closed-ended questions. Since we used convenience sampling the demographics of our sample include- students and young professionals belonging to upper-middle-class families in India. Owing to the demographics we assume the sample has access to social media and technology. To highlight how body image issues transcend beyond the societal construct of gender, the sample was not controlled for gender. In retrospect, it also helped in avoiding priming the participants to evaluate their body image from a gender-specific lens. We received a total of 100 responses from the age group of 18-25 years (M: 21.5 years). Following is an analysis of the responses we received.
What does body image mean?
We came across 4 themes when analysing this question, namely- the self, the other, physical qualities, and mental perceptions of the body.
The majority of the respondents did not have negative perceptions of the term “body image”. Words that were commonly used included, ‘perception, appearance, physical attributes, view'.Thus, body image is related to either perceptions and attitudes the individual has towards their own appearance or the way others view their body.
Feelings or emotions attached to the body image
When asked to relate to their own body image, respondents had mixed responses. One statement that resonated with us was, “Sometimes happy, sometimes sad”. This comment reflects the changing nature of the respondent’s relationship with their body image. It would be easy to categorize this relationship as either positive or negative, however, in reality, it changes across situations.
Insecurity and change are feelings we often run away from or feel overwhelmed by. Feeling insecure or conscious of their appearance was a recurring theme in our analysis. This highlights the rising concerns with body dissatisfaction. Furthermore, it can be worrisome when these changing feelings cause harm to the individual. Thus, it is crucial for us to understand how the negative and positive affirmations around body image concerns are shaped. Thomas Cash, a leading scientist in research about body image, defines it as self-perceptions about one’s attitude, thought, feelings, and beliefs. Considering this, an important theme in response to this question was ‘improvement’. Adolescents reported wanting to improve their body image. This improvement could be related to changing their perceptions and attitudes towards their body or their habits.
Ideal Body Image
Many of the respondents described their ideal body as a “healthy body”. While the constituents of a healthy body may vary from person to person, most participants related it to athletic goals. For example, “athletic and strong”, “muscular”, “lean and fit” were commonly used phrases. This does suggest respondents were giving importance to their appearance when they think about ideal body image.
Another theme that emerged was the valuation of the inner self for achieving the ideal body image. Responses such as, “what inspires confidence or makes me feel good in my own skin” can be used to describe this. Respondents felt the ideal body emerges from within and their beliefs about themselves as opposed to outside forces.
Self-confidence and Body Image Impacts
We found 67% of respondents felt body image affects their self-confidence. Furthermore, the majority of the participants felt body image concerns affect their professional, romantic, and familial relationships. Our body shapes all of our life experiences, and how we perceive it. Thus, it was not surprising to observe the closely linked relationship between body image and confidence levels.
A study conducted by Dove reported adolescents in India feel pressured due to ‘beauty ideals,’ and this discourages them from engaging in activities. Menon and Pant examined contingencies of self-worth to predict body image among college women. They found academic competence, and appearance contingent self-worth were predictors for body image for women in India. Thus, our body image and self-confidence influence our engagement with our social world be it a romantic, familial, or professional.
Steps towards an ideal body
We further investigated the steps our respondents are taking to achieve their ideal body. The first theme was ‘changing habits’ in their physical environment. Three recurring codes under this were altering eating behavior, exercise routines, and gaining or losing weight. While eating healthy and exercising will be beneficial for an individual when performed under the guidance of professionals, they can be harmful if undertaken without proper knowledge. In India, individuals often take up these activities without the support and are critical of themselves when unable to get desired results. This further adds to the dissatisfaction one may develop with their body image.
The second theme was ‘mental transformation’. Participants are trying meditation, yoga, sleeping for a healthy amount of time, mirror practice, or consciously not comparing themselves to others. They believe these activities will help them develop better mental health which will lead to satisfaction with their body.
The above response helps us understand a discrepancy in our thinking pattern. While some claim there is no ‘ideal body’ or the focus should be on their mental wellbeing, they also take up various ways to work towards the ideal body type. The practices mentioned by our community are important to lead a healthy and balanced life, however, the intention for engaging in them is something we can reflect upon.
Eating disorders and body image concerns
Dissatisfaction with body image becomes worrisome as it may predispose adolescents to develop eating disorders. 76% of the respondents in the study believed eating disorders are related to body image concerns, while 23% felt body image concerns may be related to eating disorders.
We were surprised to note that body image did not include perceptions related to skin tone or physical attributes such as height or hair. It is possible that these concerns become more prevalent with age or different stages in life such as when looking for matches through arranged marriages. The fieldwork has been consistent with other empirical research in the area that shows body image concerns are increasing among the youth. Our respondents report desires to lose weight, become ‘fit’, and give less importance to their appearance. Youth also wish to change their mindset around body image concerns. However, since body image affects our relationship with ourselves and others, it is important to construct a positive body image and most importantly, take ownership of our own body image.
Radhika is a research consultant with Katharsis Counselling. She is also working with the 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.