There is growing concern with appearance, body shape, and weight, and it is a very costly pursuit. Still, it's possible to get out of the body trap.
By J. Rodin published January 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Sick of worrying about the way you look? Read this.
IF PYGMALION WERE WRITTEN today it would not be a story about changing Eliza Doolittle's speech, clothing, or manners, but rather about changing her face and body. Using methods from face-lifts to miracle diets to liposuction, women in increasing numbers are striving—with a degree of panic and, more often than not, to their own detriment—to match the ultimate template of beauty.
Has the situation worsened in the past few decades? The answer is undeniably yes. Since beginning this research 20 years ago, I have witnessed growing concern with appearance, body, and weight among women of all ages. Men, too, no longer seem immune.
In 1987, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY published the results of a survey of readers' feelings about appearance and weight. Only 12 percent of those polled indicated little concern about their appearance and said they didn't do much to improve it. The results of this survey are similar to those of many studies where the participants are selected at random: People feel intense pressure to look good.
An earlier survey on body image was published in PSYCHOLOGY TODAY in 1972. The 1970s respondents were considerably more satisfied with their bodies than were the 1980s respondents. The pressure to look good has intensified for both sexes in the last two decades. As the table below shows, our dissatisfaction has grown for every area of our bodies.
THE SURVEY ALSO SHOWS HOW IMPORTANT weight has become to body image; it is the focus of dissatisfaction in both studies and the area showing the greatest increase. I recently evaluated a survey for USA Today which also showed identical results. People today are far more critical of themselves for not attaining the fight weight and look.
Body preoccupation has become a societal mania. We've become a nation of appearance junkies and fitness zealots, pioneers driven to think, talk, strategize, and worry about our bodies with the same fanatical devotion we applied to putting a man on the moon. Abroad, we strive for global peace. At home, we have declared war on our bodies.
It is a mistake to think that concern with appearance and weight is simply an aberration of contemporary Western culture. Generations of ancient Chinese women hobbled themselves by binding their feet in order to match the beauty ideal of the time. And we all remember Scarlett O'Hara in search of the 17-inch waist. What Gone With The Wind did not show us was that tight corseting induced shortness of breath, constipation, and, occasionally, uterine prolapse. But if we moderns are following a tradition hallowed by our forebears, the industrialization of fitness and beauty is conspiring with other trends to raise the stakes to their highest point in history.
Of all the industrial achievements of the 20th century that influence how we feel about our bodies, none has had a more profound effect than the rise of the mass media. Through movies, magazines, and TV, we see beautiful people as often as we see our own family members; the net effect is to make exceptional beauty appear real and attainable. Narcissus was lucky: He had only to find a lake. The modem woman has television, in which she doesn't see herself reflected.
In my experience as a researcher and clinician, I have found that many women avoid the mirror altogether; those who do look may scrutinize, yet still fail to see themselves objectively. Most of us see only painful flaws in exquisite detail. Others still see the fat and blemishes that used to be there in the teenage years, even if they're no longer there.
Like a perverse Narcissus, a woman today looks at her reflection in a mirror and finds it wanting--and then is consumed by a quest to make herself fit the reflection the media has conditioned her to expect is possible. She works harder and harder to attain what is, as I will explain, most likely impossible. Ignoring the hours movie stars spend on makeup and hair, forgetting how easily and well the camera can lie, she aspires to a synthetic composite of what she thinks her reflection should be.
It is also likely that she is unaware of what other research shows: Such detailed attention has a negative influence on self-esteem. It makes us feel that many features of ourself are flawed, even those having little to do with weight or appearance.
Many of us have traveled through the looking glass with Alice into a world where what is and what might be blur and confuse us. We may be thin and think we are not.
We may be heavy and think that life isn't worth living because we do not match our culture's physical ideal. Our self-image has become far too plastic, too malleable. It depends too much on transitory moods, on what we feel is expected of us and how we feel we are lacking. It is not dependent enough upon a stable internal sense of ourself. We grow larger or smaller, in our mind's eye, in response to the image of woman modern society has encouraged us to idealize.
Unlike Alice, however, we have not resumed. We are stuck there in a world of obsessional self-criticism, where what we see is not at all what we really are. The mirror is woman's modem nemesis.
Some call such obsession with appearance vanity—but that misses the point. We are responding to the deep psychological significance of the body. Appearance does indeed affect our sense of self and how people respond to us; it always has, always will. What's different today is that the body and how it looks has become a significant component of our self-worth.
WHY DO WEIGHT AND APPEARANCE MATTER so much? And why now? What is occurring at this particular moment in time?
Our society has changed dramatically in this century. There are few remaining hierarchies or social structures based on religion, parentage, money, or education. Society has become more egalitarian, but intrinsic to human nature is the desire to judge, evaluate, and compare ourselves to others. If class and lineage no longer provide the tools for measuring ourselves against our neighbors, what are the new social standards? It is my premise that they are the more visible, tangible, observable aspects—first among these, the physical self.
Our bodies have become the premier coin of the realm. Appearance, good looks, and fitness are now the measure of one's social worth. How closely we can approximate a perfect body has also unfortunately become a sign of how well we're doing in life.
Not only is how we look suddenly of the utmost importance, but we have also come to accept and idealize a single image of beauty—slim but fit. The media now expose us to this single "right" look, and the beauty industry promises it is attainable by all. When the prescription for how we should look is so well-defined, deviations are all the more noticeable.
What's more, our culture holds out the lure of an easy fix for all corporeal dissatisfactions. The goal of looking good is attainable by anyone, as long as he or she works out hard enough, exercises long enough, and eats little enough.
Beauty, health, diet, and fitness have become very big businesses. But they weren't always. During the late 1950s and early '60s—when models and Miss Americas wore girdles, did a little exercise just for their thighs and hips, and wore a size 10—only overweight women dieted. A survey of Ladies Home Journal issues from the 1960s showed an average of only one diet article every six months. But by the mid-'70s almost every woman in America had tried some kind of diet, and losing weight was a national obsession. Because we sincerely believe that the perfect body is attainable by anyone, Americans spend more on beauty and fitness aids than they do on social services or education. Such distribution of a primary resource is a shocking revelation of our true priorities.
Yet another reason appearance is everything today hinges on the blurring of traditional definitions of female and male. Our view of the differences between the sexes is in flux, as women move into such traditionally male domains as the office and men become more involved in the household. In many ways our bodies remain our most visible means of expressing the differences between the sexes. Having the right body may be a way for women who have moved into male occupations to declare their feminine identity without compromising their professional persona.
Asked to make it in a man's world, they are, like the rest of society, still confused about women's roles. Internalizing society's ambivalence, they succeed in one domain and fall back in the other, reverting to the traditionally feminine arena of competition over thinness and beauty.
In addition, the fitness movement, taken to extremes, has fostered the notion that a "good" physique not only equals a healthy body but a healthy soul. Getting in shape has become the new moral imperative-an alluring substitute for altruism and good work, the desire to look good replacing the desire to do good. In this new secular morality, values and ideals of beauty and appearance supplement moral and religious standards.
Today's moral transgressions involve eating something we feel we shouldn't have or feeling we don't look good enough or haven't tried hard enough to look good.
If our current self-absorption has its reasons, it also has its comforts. The quest for physical perfection is the up-to-date way we barter with the uncertainty of life. Like a set of worry beads, we always have our calories to count, our minutes of aerobics to execute. If everything else in our lives seems out of control, we at least have our diet and exercise regimens. In the chaos called modem life, ordering the body to do what we want it to may give us a much-needed illusion of control.
Where we differ, too, from our forebears is that the body today is no longer considered a finished product, a fait accompli. It is strictly a work in progress. And we devote ourselves to perfecting it with the dedication of the tree artist. According to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, "aesthetic" surgeries are up 61 percent over the past decade. A marketing research firm in New York calculates that Americans spent $33 billion on diets and diet-related services in 1990, up from $29 billion in 1989. By the turn of the century we will be spending $77 billion to lose weight—just slightly less than the entire gross national product of Belgium.
The Limits of the Body
THERE IS AN OVERRIDING FALLACY IN THIS view of ourselves. The body is not infinitely malleable in the way that advertisers with a product to sell would have us believe. Despite wide dissemination of news about great advances in science and medicine, the individual American remains virtually unaware of the role that physiology plays in body weight, in determining how quickly we lose or gain weight and in how our general health and appearance respond to exercise and diet. Most of us are exposed to and accept a staggering amount of misinformation.
Genes play a major role in setting metabolism as well as body shape and size; they determine how much fat we burn, how much we can store easily, and where it's distributed on our bodies. One of our clinic patients came from a family where everyone had thick, solid legs and big thighs. For years she tried every diet that became popular. No matter how much she lost, no matter how thin she became, she couldn't change the size of her legs and thighs nearly as much as the rest of her body. "My greatest goal in life," she admitted, "is to have thin legs .... I know why women have liposuction. It's the ultimate solution. I used to dream about a big vacuum cleaner sucking out the fat--it was my constant childhood wish-but I just can't afford it yet."
The Pursuit Is Costly
THE QUEST FOR THE PERFECT BODY IS, LIKE most wars, a costly one—emotionally and physically, to say nothing of financially. It leaves most of us feeling frustrated, ashamed, and defeated. Yet we keep at it, wearing down our bodies and our optimism while narrowing the focus of our lives.
In addition, as a society obsessed with a set standard of beauty, we have become intolerant of and sometimes cruel to those who do not meet it, especially the overweight. We learn early in life that there is something shameful about obesity. And the obese are painfully stigmatized. Even children with a life-threatening chronic illness would rather be sick than fat.
We learn these antifat attitudes in childhood, and they figure strongly into why normal-weight people greatly fear becoming overweight. In our research, we hear many people state that they would kill themselves if they were fat. While this is just a figure of speech, some overweight people are so unhappy about their appearance that they do contemplate suicide. A few follow through.
The accompanying test will give you an idea of how much you subscribe to society's standards of beauty.
The vast majority of American women have accepted at face value the message we have been continually exposed to: that beauty and physical perfection are merely a matter of personal effort and that failure to attain those goals is the result of not doing enough. Consequently, we are now subjecting ourselves and even our children to an ever more complicated regimen of diet, exercise, and beauty. We have come to believe in what I see as the "techno-body," shaped by dieting and surgical techniques.
Humans appear to be the only animals who decline to eat when hungry, who willingly starve the body. Occasionally they do it to feed the soul. Many religions have institutionalized fasting as a way of asking for redemption. But in the more modem version of these self-denial rituals, people fast and starve; purge and renew in search of a better self.
It has become fashionable, even politically correct, to worry about the environment. We rally to plant trees to save the Earth without even realizing that at the very same moment in history we are defacing and dehumanizing our bodies by using chemical peels, dermabrasion, hair dye, synthetic diet foods, and fake fats and sweeteners. Where is our concern for the human part of our environment?
What Is the Problem?
MY STUDIES SHOW THAT SURGERY, DIET, and exercise are only symptoms of the real problem: body preoccupation and an obsessive concern with body image. In accepting the quick fix as a solution, we are overlooking the depth and complexity of the problem we are facing. Shedding pounds, counting calories, and pumping iron--manifestations of body preoccupation-are only a reflection of the fact that we now believe the body is the window to the self, perhaps even the soul.
The psychological self is fundamental to our preoccupation with the physical self. Of all the ways we experience ourselves, none is so primal as the sense of our own bodies. Our body image is at the very core of our identity. Our feelings about our bodies are woven into practically every aspect of our behavior. Our bodies shape our identity because they are the form and substance of our persona to the outside world. Appearance will always be important because we are social beings. How we look sends messages, whether we want it to or not, and people respond to us accordingly.
The old saw cites death and taxes, but in fact we have one other nonnegotiable contract in life.: to live in and with our bodies for the duration. People must learn to treat the issue of body image seriously and validate their concerns about their bodies. In my clinical experience, people find that hard to do because admitting how deeply we anguish about our bodies often leads to a profound sense of shame.
In an era of acid rain, AIDS, nuclear disaster, and poverty, we are embarrassed by our body preoccupation--but that, of course, does not stop it.
Getting Out of the Body Trap
RECOGNIZING THE PROBLEM IS THE FIRST step to solving it. Our work has shown that people do better when they are nonjudgmental about their concerns with body, diet, and exercise patterns. These are not trivial worries and complaints, but painful experiences and issues deserving attention. It is crucial to acknowledge the scope and depth of what you are feeling. No one is alone in their body concerns. All women share them to some extent-as do many men these days, as well.
If you treat your body with more respect, you will like it better. What your body really needs is moderate exercise, healthy foods, sensual pleasures, and relaxation. Give it those, and it will respond by treating you better. Not everyone can afford expensive trinkets or clothes, but everyone can afford small indulgences-a long, warm bath, a half-hour of time off, a new haircut. Some of you will be amazed at how hard it is to do something nice for yourself. But treating your body better will make you feel better about yourself.
To break the body-image barrier, we must bring self-image into focus. When people worry about how they look, they are worrying about who they are. That's not necessarily good, but we need to acknowledge that there is a deep connection between the two. In my work with patients, I strive to help them overcome the feeling that their happiness rises or falls depending on what the scale said that rooming.
We must also look at what we really want and need from our lives and pursue those goals; it is not wise to continue expending so much of our creative energy on thinness and appearance. Since our bodies are not infinitely plastic, it may be easier to add other joys to life than to subtract pounds. Increasing and nurturing self-complexity by expanding the number of roles we value may boost health in many ways. Current research suggests that multiple roles are typically health enhancing. Varying our routines and adding new interests to our lives will help broaden our horizons so that how we look is not the sum of what we are.
As a character in Henry Jaglom's movie Eating says, "Twenty or thirty years ago, sex was the secret subject of women. Now it's food." In fact, sex and food have become interchangeable. "I like the feel of food. I don't like knives and forks because I like to touch it all over," says one woman. Another: "I think it is erotic. It's the safest sex you can have, eating." Food. It is comfort, balm for a trying day in a trying world, sometimes even more. Moderation is the best advice. It is the key to body sanity.
Whether we want to value, accept, or change our bodies, we need first to change our minds. We have to relearn how we observe ourselves. Instead of searching for flaws, we must attempt to see ourselves objectively. We must scrutinize our appearance less.
Caring about our bodies is normal, but how we look has become far too significant. Women have become martyrs to their appearance, slaves of that impossible master, perfection. Men go through life judged mostly on their achievements; women bear the burden of society's image. Although the effort is exhausting and painful, the deep, psychological significance of the body has made it seem worthwhile.
The burden of maintaining a perfect body image is far too costly. Women are crippled by a tragic degree of self-consciousness that limits other aspects of their lives--friendships, careers, even families.
One of the most important steps toward changing your body image is to have compassion for the millions of women struggling with their own body-image problems-especially for yourself. It is time to face the person you see in the mirror with profound new insight: She hasn't been worrying about nothing. In fact, she hasn't been taking the real problem, body preoccupation, seriously enough. Neither has society. It's time to understand the price she has been paying and help her shed that burden.
People Dissatisfied With Body Areas of Dimensions
1972 Men Women
Height 13% 13%
Weight 35 48
Muscle Tone 25 30
Overall Face 8 11
Breast/Chest 18 26
Abdomen 36 50
Hips and 12 49
Overall 15 25
1987 Men Women
Height 20% 17%
Weight 41 55
MuscleTone 32 45
Face 20 20
Upper Torso 28 32
Mid Torso 50 57
Lower Torso 21 50
"Looks As 34 38
Social Attitudes Scale
Please read the following statements and indicate how strongly
you agree or disagree with each.
A = Strongly agree
B = Agree Somewhat
C = Agree
D = Neither Agree Nor Disagree
E = Disagree
F = Disagree Somewhat
G = Strongly Disagree
1. A man would always prefer to go out with a thin woman than
one who is heavy.
A B C D E F G
2. Clothes are made today so that only thin people
can look good.
A B C D E F G
3. Fat people are often unhappy.
A B C D E F G
4. It is not true that attractive people are more interesting,
poised, and socially outgoing than unattractive people.
A B C D E F G
5. A pretty face will not get you very far without a slim body.
A B C D E F G
6. It is more important that a woman be attractive than a man.
A B C D E F G
7. Attractive people lead more fulfilling lives than
A B C D E F G
8. The thinner a woman is, the more attractive she is.
A B C D E F G
9. Atractiveness decreases the likelihood of
A B C D E F G
These items test how much you believe that appearance matters.
Score your responses as follows:
For items 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 8, give yourself a zero if you said
a 2 for "disagree";
up to a 6 for "strongly agree."
Items 4, 6, and 9 are scored in reverse. In other words, give
yourself a zero for "strongly agree" and a 6 for
Add together your points for all nine questions. A score of
46 or higher means that you are vulnerable to being influenced
by the great importance that current society places on