Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Body shame
What is body shame, what are its precursors and consequences, and what can be done about it?
Have you ever looked in the mirror and felt upset? Maybe you looked at yourself and thought my stomach is too flabby or my thighs are too big. Research suggests that 90% of women and roughly 33% of men wish their bodies looked different (Heath & Tod, 2016). These negative appraisals of one’s self, are known as body shame.
Itoccurs because of subliminal and explicit messages in the media and one’s culture that depict what an ideal attractive appearance for a man and woman is (Sanchez, Good, Kwang, & Saltzman, 2008). With body shame, comes a range of negative emotional consequences and mental and physical health risks. Particularly in societies where specific types of bodies are constantly shown and objectified in the media . What consequences does this have for an individual though? What specifics cause so many to feel shame in their appearance? And most importantly, what can be done to improve and prevent body shame in men and women?
|The following is a quiz that indicates whether you experience some instances of body shame. This is not to be taken as a serious guide, as body shame depends on many more factors which are not addressed in this quiz.|
Note: Higher scores indicate positive body image, lower scores indicate body shame.
Body shame occurs when one feels guilt or shame about their physical appearance due to the perception that it does not conform to cultural appearance ideals (Sanchez et al., 2008). These ideals of what is attractive range between cultures and change with time (Calogero & Pina, 2011). For example, in Australia, the ideal body shape of a woman is someone with large breasts and hips, and a skinny waist, while the ideal for a man is someone tall, muscular and thin (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015). These ideals are so prominent within a culture that they are known without being explicitly told, and are thought of both consciously and unconsciously (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015). For instance, several of you reading the above example of Australia’s ideal body type, likely thought of how your own body compares. Specifically, you may have thought about which part of your body does or does not match this ideal.
These thoughts are so commonplace, that for many individuals the thought of changing an aspect of their appearance occurs whenever attention is drawn to their body (Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). Sometimes these dissatisfied thoughts can lead to a series of negative emotional consequences. These consequences range from the obvious guilt to depression, anxiety over one’s appearance, and low self-esteem (Calogero & Pina, 2011; Grabe, Hyde, & Lindberg, 2007; Sanchez et al., 2008). In most cases, individuals with body shame experience all these negative emotions, which are heightened in situations where attention is drawn to the body or when one compares themselves to others in an upward social comparison (Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). People tend to notice others they perceive as more attractive than themselves, which leads them to feel shame about their appearance while completely unaware that the other person is doing the same (Duggan, Heath, & Hu, 2015).
Furthermore, a significant number of individuals with body shame respond to these negative emotions through unhealthy means of body modification (Parent & Moradi, 2011). In many cases, the pursuit of trying to obtain the cultural ideal of attractiveness leads individuals in a ‘drive for thinness’ and a ‘drive for muscularity’ (Monro & Huon, 2005; Parent & Moradi, 2011).
Drive for thinness
Drive for thinness affects mainly women but is also common among homosexual men and to a slightly lesser extent, heterosexual men (Dakanalis et al., 2012). This drive for thinness essentially means that individuals want to lose weight so they can resemble their body ideal (Monro & Huon, 2005). It occurs particularly in western cultures, where media images of men and women are shown being thin and reaping rewards for that thinness, such as being in a relationship or having more energy (Heath & Tod, 2016). While wanting to eat healthily and be more active is proactive to health, many individuals with body shame tend to feel a lack of control over their body (Grabe et al., 2007). This means they may fear judgement from being more physically active or eating healthy and so avoid to do so, or go to extreme lengths to achieve this thinness ideal (Calogero & Pina, 2011).
Research suggests that individuals with body shame are nearly twice as likely to engage in cosmetic surgery, excessive exercise and unhealthy eating habits such as eating only one meal a day, purging, or taking laxatives (Breines, Toole, Tu, & Chen, 2014; Calogero & Pina, 2011; Dakanalis et al., 2015). Furthermore, the feeling of body shame remains even when one alters theirappearance because individuals still feel they fall short of the ideal which has often been altered in the media (Aubrery, 2007). This starts a downward spiral of poor body image and constantly wishing an aspect of one’s body was better which increases the risk of developing a serious eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia (Calogero & Pina, 2011; Duggan et al., 2015).
What makes this drive for thinness more dangerous is the supposed definition of thin. In recent years, research suggests that, for many women, particularly adolescents, being normal weight is thought of as overweight while being underweight, which is 15% to 20% less than a person’s recommended weight, is considered the new normal (Tiggemann & Williams, 2012). This perception not only leads people who are above normal or average weight to feel shame in their appearance but increases cases of bulimia and anorexia around the world (Tiggemann & Williams, 2012).
Drive for muscularity
The drive for muscularity occurs mostly in men (Mustapic, Marchinko, & Vargek, 2015). This pursuit also poses several health risks, as men commonly report engaging in behaviours such as excessive exercise even when injured or taking unhealthy levels of anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) to try and gain muscle (Heath & Tod, 2016; Mustapic et al., 2015; Parent & Moradi, 2011). Additionally, men with body shame and a drive for muscularity increase their risk of developing muscle dysmorphia; a psychological disorder where a man fears being perceived as small and weak which pushes them to unhealthy limits and lengths to achieve and maintain a strong physique (Heath & Tod, 2016). This disorder is as common in men as anorexia is in women (Heath & Tod, 2016). Showing how internalising a culture and media’s depiction of attractiveness, can be dangerous. These disorders and emotions are the most serious consequences of body shame and often occur when individuals engage in self-objectification (Calogero & Pina, 2011).
Objectification theory, originally coined by Fredrickson and Roberts (1997), is a term that describes an individual’s repeated exposure to sexually objectified bodies, which results in the tendency to view one’s body as an object that is evaluated by others (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015). It usually manifests as body surveillance, which is where an individual habitually monitors and compares their own body against internalised cultural standards of attractiveness (Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). This means individuals take more notice of magazine images or music videos where women’s bodies are constantly objectified and develop the belief that their body is an important part of their identity which they and others are making judgements of (Parent & Moradi, 2011). This makes them more conscious and ashamed of their appearance, and/or makes them anxious about keeping with the standard shown in the media (Parent & Moradi, 2011).
Sadly, objectification increases in cultures where physical appearance is constantly shown to be important to one’s self-worth and tends to impact most negatively on adolescents (Grabe et al., 2007). Some suggest that the tendency to objectify one’s self is more common in this age group because it is the period where the most body changes occur and the most focus is on the body (Duggan et al., 2015). Additionally, many cultures seem to view youth as attractive, meaning there is great pressure for many individuals to try and maintain this youth (Grabe et al., 2007). In saying this, objectification and body shame can occur in older people as well. As media, such as anti-aging advertisements or diet supplement advertisements, which are often targeted at women, stress the importance of the body to one’s self-image (Calogero & Pina, 2011).
As individuals focus more on their bodily appearance, they increase in self-objectification and body surveillance (Duggan et al., 2015). This has several ramifications including increased body shame, appearance anxiety, decreased awareness of internal bodily states (i.e. satiety, hunger, fatigue and emotions), reduction of flow experiences, sexual dysfunction and depleted cognitive resources (Calogero & Pina, 2011; Duggan, Heath, & Hu, 2015; Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). Additionally, objectification also increases the risk of developing several psychological disorders such as eating disorders and depression (Calogero & Pina, 2011; Greenleaf & McGreer, 2006; Slater & Tiggemann, 2015).
Interestingly, objectification seems to impact most negatively on women (Ramsey & Hoyt, 2015). This could be because of the traditional view that beauty and appearance concerns stereotypically belong to females (Dakanalis et al., 2012). It could also be because of the disproportionate sexual objectification of women’s bodies in the media compared to men (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015). Nonetheless, males are also affected by body surveillance, though it occurs not through objectification but by internalising cultural standards of attractiveness (Parent & Moradi, 2011).
This means men see other men depicted as successful and attractive either through the media or in society and feel to achieve the same success they should look the same (Parent & Moradi, 2011). This response is best described by evolutionary theory, which suggests individuals with the most appeal – be it money or attraction, are more likely to attract and secure a mate and therefore have a better chance of passing on their genes (Sanchez et al., 2008). This internalised belief that a certain physique, such as being tall and muscular attracts more females, leads males to critically observe themselves (Heath & Tod, 2016). This observation increases the attention of a male’s current level of muscularity since height cannot be altered so easily (Heath & Tod, 2016). If they feel their appearance does not match their perceived ideal then they feel shame (Heath & Tod, 2016). This shame can develop into problems including muscle dysmorphia, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction (Heath & Tod, 2016; Dakanalis et al., 2012; Mustapic et al., 2015; Parent & Moradi, 2011).
Media outlets such as print media and television are the biggest contributors to self-objectification and body shame (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015). Print media especially has been highlighted for its detrimental effects, as not only are images on the cover of magazines usually of sexualised, photo-edited bodies (particularly of women), but the content inside offers several beauty tips, techniques, and tools to achieve this ideal (Calogero & Pina, 2011). This provides the message that one’s body and appearance is important, and suggests that people’s appearance and bodies can be easily changed (Calogero & Pina, 2011). Additionally, it gives the impression that these images are realistic and achievable when in fact they have been edited to appear thinner, stronger, and more youthful than they are (Calogero & Pina, 2011).
The correlation of body shame and being exposed to printed images in a magazine is so dramatic, that studies have found just by reading a set of word cues that sexually objectify a woman, or viewing an image of a muscled bare-chested man, is enough to produce body dissatisfaction and preoccupation with wanting to change one’s appearance in both men and women (Calogero & Pina, 2011; Dakanalis et al., 2012; Gervais et al., 2011).
Television can also increase a person’s body shame, though this effect is only relevant in specific programs such as soap operas, music videos, advertisements directly related to idealised bodies, or advertisements which use an ideal image to represent their product (Monro & Huon, 2005). Objectification theory suggests this effect is because any focus, either implicit or explicit towards the body increases the development of self-objectification and body shame (Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). Unfortunately, television appears to negatively impact women the most (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015). This is because the media focuses and exposes women’s bodies more so than males, which triggers a sexualised gaze and increases the sexual objectivity of women’s bodies (Gervais et al., 2011). This phenomenon is known as faceism, which suggests while 2/3 of men’s faces are shown in the media, less than half the images of women focus on their faces and instead depict more of their bodies (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015). These portrayals of women and the growing number of sexualised images of men in print media, contribute to the risk of self-objectification and are the leading contributor to body shame for men and women all around the world (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015).
Society also triggers body shame, as the media merely responds to popular ideals held within one’s culture and advertises them (Grabe et al., 2007). In several cultures, physical attractiveness is viewed as important, as societies tend to stress to people from a young age that looks do matter (Aubrery, 2007). For example, girls are shown that doing one’s hair and wearing make-up is essential to looking and feeling good, while males are exposed to messages that being strong physically and being handy (i.e., knowing how to fix things) are a necessary part of being a man (Aubrery, 2007). While not all individuals internalise these ideals, many recognise that being physically attractive is an important part of finding and attracting a potential mate (Sanchez et al., 2008).
When men and women feel relationships are an important part of their self-worth, they are more likely to care about their appearance (Ramsey & Hoyt, 2015). Once again this effect is particularly true for females, who have been shown to experience heightened risks of anxiety, depression and bulimia if they have high relationship value (Sanchez et al., 2008). While men are also faced with this pressure to be attractive, this effect is more prominent in women because not only do women self-objectify, and are more objectified in society and the media, but men, particularly in relationships, tend to report that the physical appearance of their partner is important (Sanchez et al., 2008). This effect is demonstrated in the matching hypothesis, which suggests men are more likely to trade a woman’s status for looks, while women are more likely to trade a men’s looks for status (Ramsey & Hoyt, 2015). While not everyone internalises this view, research has found that men tend to value a woman’s appearance more than women do a man’s, showing that the pressure for women to ‘look good’ not only comes from within but also from others in society (Ramsey & Hoyt, 2015; Sanchez et al., 2008).
Lastly, society contributes to body shame through comments about appearance (Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). Surprisingly, even compliments appear to increase the risk of body shame (Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). This is because appearance comments direct attention to the body (Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). While this attention can be good, it tends to only heighten the individualsdesire to maintain this image (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015). In comparison, when an individual is faced with a negative comment or is teased about their appearance, it increases the risks of disordered eating, poor psychological health, and heightens the experience of body shame in an individual (Slater & Tiggemann, 2015).
Due to the serious risks that body shame poses to individuals’ health and emotional well-being, addressing and preventing body shame among individuals is of extreme importance. One solution to reducing body shame is to teach individuals about the media (Grabe et al., 2007). This approach suggests that making individuals aware that images in the media are often unrealistic and edited, and understanding that sexualised bodies is a form of objectification used as a strategy to sell products, will hopefully limit people’s internalisation of these images (Grabe et al., 2007). This means individuals are more likely to know these standards are unrealistic and are less likely to feel ashamed for not conforming to them, or feel they should conform to these images (Calogero & Pina, 2011).
Furthermore, it is suggested that people take an activist approach against the objectification of bodies in the media (Grabe et al., 2007). This not only reduces sexual objectification of individual’s bodies (which increases the risk of sexual abuse and attacks) but also limits self-objectification (Ramsey & Hoyt, 2015). Thus, resulting in decreased body shame and improved psychological functioning (Grabe et al., 2007).
Additionally, interventions should focus on cognitively restructuring how individuals perceive their bodies (Dakanalis et al., 2012). This means de-emphasising the importance of appearance while increasing the importance of health and promoting positive self-esteem and body-image (Duggan et al., 2015). Interventions like mindfulness therapy or specifically dialectical behavioural therapy could help reduce body shame by focusing on body acceptance and integrity and highlighting other aspects that are important to one’s identity (Duggan et al., 2015).
Research also suggests taking on a self-compassion approach (Breines et al., 2014). This means individuals treating themselves with kindness and understanding when they are faced with insecurities or problems (Breines et al., 2014). This involves limiting negative appraisals of one’s self, and understanding that nobody is perfect and everyone’s bodies are different (Breines et al., 2014). Understanding that no one’s body is alike is important, as many people with body shame tend to feel they are alone in not attaining this attractive ideal when in reality few do (Calogero & Pina, 2011). Self-compassion has been shown to reduce body shame and improve psychological functioning by increasing happiness, self-esteem, motivation, relationship satisfaction and optimism, and reducing depression and anxiety symptoms (Breines et al., 2014).
It is important to note when addressing body shame interventionsshould consider ‘what’ specific body image desires individuals have (Heath & Tod, 2016). For example, some men may want to be slender rather than muscular, while some women might want to be more muscular than slender which may pose its own body shame risks from bias societal views (Heath & Tod, 2016).
Body shame affects many individuals who live in a society where specific ideals of attractiveness exist. This ideal image is reinforced through societal beliefs, relationships with others and through the media. Itoften results in negative emotional consequences such as depression and anxiety and can pose serious health risks to individuals who try to alter their bodies through unsafe means to achieve these ideals. To prevent and reduce body shame, individuals should be taught about media advertising strategies, endorse a broader image of self that stresses appearance is not as important as one’s health, and understand that everyone’s body is different to foster a more positive self-image and body integrity.
Anorexia nervosa and extrinsic motivation (Book chapter, 2016)
Self-image (Book chapter, 2011)
Muscle dysmorphia (the Adonis complex) and motivation (Book chapter, 2014)
Cosmetic surgery motivation (Book chapter, 2014)
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