There is a cycle occurring within most of western culture that is perpetuating an unending and deeply saddening reality – the quest for bodily perfection. Spurred heavily by advertising campaigns and Hollywood (at 5’11” and 117 pounds, most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women who average 5’4” and 140 pounds), the unattainable ideal is leaving 80% of American women dissatisfied with their appearance. (Smolak, 1996). This dissatisfaction isn’t restricted to adults either. Several studies show unhealthy body images appearing in girls as young as 6 years old:
42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner (Collins, 1991).
81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (Mellin et al., 1991).
51% of 9 and 10 year-old girls feel better about themselves if they are on a diet (Mellin et al., 1991).
46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets (Gustafson-Larson & Terry, 1992).
A person’s body image begins to form in the earliest stages of development. Thus, it is crucial for those closest to a child (parents, older siblings and mentors) to model healthy attitudes towards their own bodies in order to combat the false ideals presented in the broader culture.
During a summer at a Christian camp, I facilitated nightly discussions with a cabin of girls. Out of these eight young women, six of them had seriously struggled with varying degrees of eating and exercise disorders (two had to seek professional help). Of the influences that shaped their poor attitudes towards their bodies, one girl spoke of a perfectionist mother who avoided fatty foods and another spoke of a verbally abusive father who warned her to workout at the gym so she wouldn’t get too fat.
Despite the discouraging statistics, there are some promising trends in the broader culture. Dove soap has initiated a campaign using real-life models displaying wonderfully normal bodies on billboards and in magazines across the US. (See their “Real Beauty” campaign at http://www.dove.com/real_beauty/default.asp) Emme is a professional full-figured model who has spoken at schools around America to combat the perception that beauty is narrowly defined as being waif-thin. (Check out her website: http://www.safesearching.com/officialemme/allaboutemme/press/0701_people.shtml) But, we can’t put too much faith in the media to undo what the past century has instilled in our perceptions of beauty, perceptions which are unfortunately spilling over into developing countries (see our article review on Fiji teens). We need to begin modeling to our youth healthy attitudes toward our bodies and a definition of beauty that is more defined by health and individuality.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What has been your experience with body image? How was your body image formed? Were their any specific people, role models, advertisements, etc. that shaped this image?
How do you think those working with youth should model healthy body images?
How would you describe a Christian image of the body?Or, describe an image of the body from another religious standpoint or personal philosophy?
Adults, especially mothers, older sisters and older mentors, can have a huge effect on how young girls view their bodies and so should take special care in exhibiting a carefree and healthy attitide toward their bodies and those of other women.
The first creation story records God viewing the newly created world and humankind: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Certainly this includes female and male bodies.
The mystery of Christ’s incarnation fully embraces our human bodies and his promise to raise them up offers a powerful indictment against cultures that degrade or manipulate bodies for the sake of appearance, profit or desire.