Body image is the way one views themselves and their own bodies, sometimes (mostly) in relation to others. When body image is implied, it is usually in terms of negative body image. Negative body image can be defined as, “the psychologically salient discrepancy between a person’s perceived body and their ideal body, which manifests itself as the experience of negative thoughts and esteem about one’s body and appearance” (Bell & Dittmar 2011). Negative body image is commonly associated with body dissatisfaction.
In other words, it is a simple evaluation of our bodies from the perspective of the ‘other’ or ‘the outside world’. This perspective is heavily loaded with the beliefs, expectations and stereotypes regarding the ideal body type. These are communicated to and imbibed in an individual directly as well as indirectly. Some of its major sources, such as celebrity culture, social media, cosmetics industry, overtime has developed this idea of what the perfect body should look like. Social media reinforces this idea of an ideal body heavily. Everything from height, weight, body measurements, skin colour and body shape has become an intricate part of this ideal.
These portrayals of ideal body excessively center around the ideal body shape of the women, which is why women are most commonly the targets of these. They are taught that they should aspire to be extremely thin. Many of these ideals are, “impossible for many people to realistically and healthily achieve” (Pritchard & Cramblitt 2014). Many of the individuals that the media presents as having ideal bodies are models, actresses, and celebrities. This connection between excessive media portrayal and body image connection has been confirmed by research as well. The research by Ferguson and colleagues (2013) suggest that “increased incidence of eating disorders across the early and mid-twentieth century seem to coincide with trends in the media towards emphasizing thinness in women”. Since these ideals are being associated with success and happiness, women are “more likely to report wanting to lose weight (drive for thinness)” (Pritchard & Cramblitt 2014). According to the resultant discourse, women of normal, average weight are being classified as are not thin enough and weigh too much.
A research by common sense media research, found that nearly fifty percent of teen-age girls ages between 13 and 17 "wished they were as skinny as the models they see in fashion magazines." The study was conducted in the United States, however the same trend can be seen in India. An Indian study by Ganesan, Ravishankar and Ramalingam (2018), found that 23% of the underweight people were satisfied with their BMI, and among those who were dissatisfied 7.4% wanted to reduce their weight further. Similarly, 71% of the normal BMI category was dissatisfied with their appearance of which 58.3% wanted to reduce their weight. This clearly indicated the tendency for liking toward thin body shapes. The study also reported that 64.8% of the college students had undertaken at least one weight control measure such as eating small meals, skipping meals, and avoiding certain foods. Further, negative body image also leads to low-esteem and several threatening eating disorders.
These facts can help us understand how the ‘body’ is positioned amid of the multiple discourses and getting shaped as ‘social object’. Therefore, the ideal body is a mere social construct and not an absolute in nature. Before examining oneself as well as others, our lens of examination should be critically examined and challenged to change the status quo.
Interestingly, celebrities or the media can also have a positive effect on body image, apart from the well researched negative ones. Many Indian women have openly defied body stereotypes. Some famous women who have faced body shaming but have also fought it off are Vidya Balan, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Ileana D'Cruz, Masaba Gupta, Neha Parulkar, Aashna Bhagwani, etc. They never fail to propagate the message that a plus size and dark skin (not conforming to the ideal) woman can be anything and everything she wishes to be.
These alternative discourses enable and empower women to keep a positive attitude about their actual body shape rather than becoming someone else completely. But they simply aren’t sufficient for the change as they’re not getting the coverage as well. Therefore, we all need to support such body positivity reinforcing movements and steps. By following them and even becoming a part of the same and spreading the alternate message we can do a complete overhaul of our and others attitudes toward beauty.
Let's not wait for others to support, as well as voice our opinions, rather let’s just critically analyse any social practice or ritual we do, to shape it in a healthy way. This will become a movement in itself. It is important to remember that social world is not absolute in nature rather it is open for multiple challenging interpretations.