It’s a Lie: how the media distorts our body images

by Dr. Krystal White, Contributing writer


At least once a day, most of us have at least one “I hate my body” moment. Men and women of all shapes and sizes frequently have a negative dialogue about not being “good enough” when it comes to their own body. Women average nearly one negative self comment about their shape or size every waking hour. The range, however, can extend to 10 disparaging thoughts per hour.
We are bullying ourselves constantly. Traditionally, most concerns about body image has been spent on girls. Current health professionals and research demonstrates that although boys are less likely to talk about their body insecurities, they still experience high levels of anxiety and fear.
Whether a person is thin, overweight or an average weight for their body size does not determine the frequency or the intensity of these negative thoughts. The truth is they often become quite habitual. We critique ourselves and lash out demerits without consideration.
These thoughts have a profound influence over not merely our self- esteem, but on our productivity (how efficient we are doing tasks), social success (how we perform in our interactions) and our physical health (how our bodies respond to stress).
Both men and women often start from a young age, learning to bully their bodies when they are challenged. When things go well, we feel well. When things go bad — with friends, relationships, school, our job — we have more negative thoughts and we take our stress out on our body. We amplify “problem areas” or exaggerate “flaws.” Our preoccupation with ourselves often serves as a sign that we are struggling to feel stable in another area of our life.
Whether you’re unhappy in general is a much larger factor in how you feel about your body than what your body actually looks like.
Our self-body intolerance is often about feeling out of control rather than feeling ugly.
Most research supports that the images we see, whether from Facebook, magazines, television programs or movies, train us to have a very narrow definition of what a “good” body looks like. We train our judgement over and over by exposing ourselves to images that are:

1) not realistic
2) manufactured to maintain the illusion of “perfection”. Most teens watch an average of 22 hours of TV a week and are deluged with images of fat-free bodies in the pages of health, fashion and teen magazines. They see their peers posting edited and carefully scrutinized photos of their lives in social media programs. The “standard” is impossible to achieve. When the 10 most popular magazines are analyzed, the women and men on the covers represent about .03 percent of the population. The other 99.97 percent don’t have a chance to compete, much less measure up. The models have had major body make-overs and have a full-time personal trainer. Most ads are reproduced, airbrushed or changed by computer. Body parts can be changed at will.
In 2010, nearly half a billion youth ages 10 to 15 used virtual worlds. In addition, many older teens enjoy playing massively multiplayer online games, which straddle the line between video games and virtual worlds by letting players engage in video game play within a continuing virtual environment.
Children also spend a lot of time in virtual worlds, where they create avatars that can be customized. Many of these avatars projectunrealistic body standards, therefore it’s often easy for teens or children to even feel their avatar’s appearance is even flawed. Avatars in ritual world are related to body confidence in the real world. Research shows that people who judge themselves as unattractive spend more time in virtual worlds. It also has shown that exposure to underweight avatars often makes average and overweight women feel less secure in their body shape and size.

Parents, teachers or other influential adults can give mixed messages, too, especially when they are constantly dieting or have body or food issues of their own. The diet/fitness craze is mind boggling. It’s not just about dieting; it’s finding the “most healthy diet” or the hardest workout in the least amount of time. The conversation in the lunch room, locker room, the bus to school, in the office and on our coffee dates all involve what people can do to be healthier. But often this focus on being healthier disguises negative body thoughts about a deep seated fear that we simply aren’t good enough, and no amount of eating right, make up or fashion is going to help us feel at home in our own skins.
All of these “lies” tend to be perpetuated through social media as well. We don’t hear them only once during the day; we see them in status updates or in the pictures of our social group. We are constantly capable of comparing ourselves to others. Viewing and taking “selfies” and spending time editing them can be a sign of low body confidence. People who base their self-esteem on how they are seen by others are more likely to share photos more than those whose self-esteem is based on factors such as how nice, successful or smart they feel. Children train each other to perpetuate this cycle by liking each other’s photos and spending time rewarding each other for being close to the model standard of appearance.

There are steps parents, teachers and professional communities can take in helping ourselves and the next generation feel more body confidence. The most important tool we have is discussing these matters directly with our children.
First, we need to stress body tolerance, educating ourselves and our children that thin doesn’t equal “healthy” or “good.” This education is best done while using media.
Whenever possible, adults should co-view media with children and teens. This joint use of media creates opportunities for teachable moments where skills of body tolerance or questioning images can be practiced and modeled. Talk about the pressures to look good, to comment on how other people (especially girls/women) look, and to feel badly about ourselves if no one is talking about our appearance. We may logically know this is a ridiculous habit, but until we discuss it openly, our children will automatically continue this unfortunate, unconscious dynamic.
When we or our children have these bullying self thoughts, we must question them. Does my shape or appearance equal my worth or my goodness? It may be useful for us, and our teens, to create a list of people we admire who do not have “perfect” bodies. Does their appearance affect how you feel about them?

Healthy shapes come in many sizes. As a society, we must learn to doubt the media images we are consuming and understand the negative thoughts they create. If we don’t, we will never feel at home on who we are.
(Dr. White is a pediatric psychologist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and the developmental health consultant for Europe Regional Medical Command. She specializes in healthy habits across the lifespan and evaluating developmental

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