“You look great in that! Sooo skinny!”
I’m sure you’ve heard that type of comment in any situation where two or more women are present. The ultimate compliment — so skinny! When I hear this, it’s usually tinged with just a little bit of envy, like a green sliver peeking through the cloud of admiration. I call it the “jealous compliment.” Weird thing, comparing ourselves to the people around us. Without even realizing it, we scan the room and decide how to feel about ourselves based on how everyone else looks on the outside.
Social psychologists have a name for this. In the 1954, Leon Festinger called it the social comparison theory. According to him, it’s human nature to base our own self worth on how the people around us are doing. If they seem slightly better than us (i.e. smarter or wealthier) we try to match those standards in true "keeping up with the Joneses" fashion. If the people we associate with seem unattainably above our standards (i.e. billionaires or geniuses) we tend to stop the comparison.
The strange exception to this rule is women and body image. When we compare ourselves to unrealistic beauty ideals that we see in magazines or in person, we keep trying to meet those ideals, even if deep down we know it’s impossible. Think about the millions of dollars we spend on makeup, plastic surgery, Botox, and diet products each year, in an effort to make ourselves thinner and more model-like. It’s beyond what seems rational.
My theory is that Festinger could never have predicted this, because he lived before the age of streaming Internet and color screen TVs. There would have been no way for him to imagine exactly how harmful those influences would be. Many of us are numb to the subtle messages we watch and see each day, and we don’t even begin to realize that they are slowly seeping into our minds. The good citizens of Nadroga, Fiji, were completely naïve to our American media in 1995. That’s when the first television sets were brought into the region. Some researchers (Becker, Burwell, Herzog, Hamburg, & Gilman, 2002) took a look at what happened next, and it was frightening. Before the introduction of TV, the native Fijians thought that robust and curvy women were beautiful, and they saw no need for dieting. The rate of bulimia? Zero. Three years later, most of the population had TVs, and 74 percent of the people surveyed said they felt “too big or fat” at least some of the time. And 11.3 percent of those said they vomited in order to lose weight. A total of 77 percent of those who were surveyed stated that television had influenced their body image, and many articulated that they wanted to look more like Western television characters.
1995 — BEFORE TV
1998 — AFTER TV
The citizens of Nadroga had learned to feel shame and disgust at the very bodies that they found acceptable before the media images infiltrated their minds. In our current culture, we can’t always control the images that flash before our eyes. We can, however, control whether we choose to let the media and advertisers tell us which characteristics are attractive. And we can help our friends, family, and our children by calling attention to things other than how they look on the outside. Next time you feel like commenting on someone’s dress size, try looking a little bit deeper, and saying something that is truly meaningful.
“You look radiant with joy!”
“You seem so confident right now.”
“Your smile just lights up this room!”
We are so much more than the sum of our physical parts. This Independence Day, let’s give ourselves a break from the cycle of comparison, and relax in our skin, cellulite and all.
Becker, A., Burwell, R., Herzog, D., Hamburg, P., & Gilman, S. (2002). Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 180, 509-514.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.