Body Image in America: Survey Results
Plagued by body image issues? The results of a national survey show you're not alone.
By David Garner published February 1, 1997 - last reviewed on September 14, 2017
For the past three decades, women and, increasingly, men have been preoccupied with how they look. But the intense scrutiny hasn't necessarily helped us see ourselves any more clearly. While as individuals we are growing heavier, our body preferences are growing thinner. And thinness is depicted everywhere as crucial to personal happiness. Despite the concerns of feminists and other observers, body image issues seem to be only growing in importance.
When most people think of body image, they think about aspects of physical appearance, attractiveness, and beauty. But body image is so much more. It's our mental representation of ourselves; it's what allows us to contemplate ourselves. Body image isn't simply influenced by feelings, and it actively influences much of our behavior, self-esteem, and psychopathology. Our body perceptions, feelings, and beliefs govern our life plan—who we meet, who we marry, the nature of our interactions, our day-to-day comfort level. Indeed, our body is our personal billboard, providing others with first—and sometimes only—impressions.
With that in mind, Psychology Today decided it was time for another detailed reading of the state of body image. The landmark PT national surveys of 1972 and 1985 are among the most widely cited on the subject. We wanted to try to understand the growing gulf between actual and preferred shapes—and to develop the very revealing picture that can be seen only by tracking changes over time. We asked David Garner, Ph.D., to bring his vast expertise to our project. Garner, the director of the Toledo Center for Eating Disorders, is also an adjunct professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University and of women's studies at the University of Toledo. He has been researching and treating eating disorders for 20 years, heading one of the earliest studies linking them to changes in cultural expectations for thinness. From measurements of Playboy centerfold models and Miss America contestants, he documented that these "model women" had become significantly thinner from 1959 to 1979 and that advertising for weight-loss diets had grown correspondingly. A follow-up study showed the trend continuing through the late 1980s.
Garner, along with Cincinnati psychotherapist Ann Keamey Cooke, Ph.D., and editor at large Hara Estroff Marano, crafted five pages worth of questions and in our March/April 1996 issue we asked you how you see, feel, and are influenced by your bodies. The response was phenomenal: about 4,500 people returned questionnaires from every state, not to mention Europe, Israel, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, New Zealand, Peru, Australia, Japan, and China. Ten months after the questionnaire hit the newsstands, responses are still coming in. Many of you supplemented your surveys with pages pouring out heart and soul. And though you could reply with complete anonymity, a whopping two-thirds chose to include names, addresses, and phone numbers. Some of you even included pictures!
Our statistical analyses were conducted on the first 4,000 responses—3,452 women and 548 men (86 percent women, 14 percent men)—a much wider gender split than in our readership as a whole, which is 70 percent women and 30 percent men. (See "Who Responded to the Survey," below.) The predominantly female response clearly says something about the stake women have in this topic. Participants were primarily Caucasian, college-educated, in their early to mid thirties, middle-income, and heterosexual. Women who responded range in age from 13 to 90 and weigh between 77 and 365 pounds (89 women weigh 100 pounds or less; 82 women weigh more than 250 pounds). Men range in age from 14 to 82 and weigh between 115 and 350 pounds. You describe yourselves as relationship-oriented, pro-choice, intellectual, politically liberal, and spiritual. At the top of your worry list are financial matters and romantic relationships. A significant segment described health problems that vary from relatively minor ailments to cancer and AIDS.
The 1997 Psychology Today Body Image Survey shows there's more discontent with the shape of our bodies than ever before. Okay, there are some things we like about our appearance: height, hair, face, feet, and the size of our sex organs generate the most approval. In the span between face and feet, our primary sex organs are a small oasis of favor amidst a wasteland of waist land. Apparently there's little pressure to change the things that we can't see or change. Of course, these areas tend not to be repositories for the accumulation of fat, that object of abhorrence. In contrast, the negative focus remains on our visible attributes, the ones that display fat—the ones that can presumably be controlled or corrected with enough self-discipline.
Fifty-six percent of women say they are dissatisfied with their overall appearance. Their self-disparagement is specifically directed toward their abdomens (71 percent), body weight (66 percent), hips (60 percent), and muscle tone (58 percent). Men show escalating dissatisfaction with their abdomens (63 percent), weight (52 percent), muscle tone (45 percent), overall appearance (43 percent), and chest (38 percent).
Weight dissatisfaction means one thing to men and something entirely different to women. The overwhelming majority of women— 89 percent—want to lose weight. How much? The average woman's weight is 140 pounds; the preferred weight is 125 pounds. Only 3 percent of the women who say they are dissatisfied with their bodies want to gain weight; 8 percent want to stay the same. By contrast, 22 percent of the men who say they are dissatisfied with their bodies want to gain weight.
The survey also shows a correlation between body dissatisfaction and body weight—those who are more dissatisfied tend to be heavier. In fact, the average weight of the most dissatisfied women is about 180 pounds; the least dissatisfied weigh in at 128 pounds. Both groups have an average ideal weight that's lower than their actual weight; however, in the former group it's fifty pounds away from reality, compared with three pounds for the least dissatisfied.
How important is it for people to be the weight they want? We put the question in stark terms and asked, "How many years of your life would you trade to achieve your weight goals?" The findings are astounding: Fifteen percent of women and 11 percent of men say they'd sacrifice more than five years of their lives; 24 percent of women and 17 percent of men say they would give up more than three years. These answers make us regret not testing the extremes and offering 10- and 20-year options. Still, we can confidently conclude that a significant minority of you believe life is worth living only if you are thin.
A rather drastic measure of weight control is cigarette smoking. Statistics reveal that smoking is on the rise among young women. Robert Klesges, Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of Memphis have repeatedly shown that smoking is used by many women for weight control. While we didn't specifically ask whether you smoke, we did ask whether you smoke to control your weight. About 50 percent of women and 30 percent of men say they puff away to control the pounds.
Body dissatisfaction has very different implications for people depending upon how heavy they are. Among those well above normal weight, body dissatisfaction is a painful expression of despair, but understandable given the cultural stigma of being fat. However, an equivalent amount of self-loathing on the part of thin people suggests a different type of problem—distortion on top of dissatisfaction. Thin women distort reality by seeing themselves as fat. Today this type of distortion is rampant and has become the norm. It explains why so many women are susceptible to eating disorders, where the pursuit of thinness is driven by faulty perceptions rather than reality. One hundred and fifty-nine women in our sample are extremely underweight -- and 40 percent of them still want to lose weight. Many have eating disorders, to be described later.
Age and Body Image
A number of national studies have shown that body weight is increasing among American adults. Moreover, epidemiologic studies find that body weight increases with age. For both men and women it tends to increase during the first five decades of life, then decline on the way to our inevitable destiny. Although the pattern of gradual weight gain during adulthood recently sparked a public health frenzy, leading to such programs as C. Everett Koop's Shape Up America, an analysis of 13 major studies of weight change by Reuben Andres, M.D., of the Gerontology Research Center in Baltimore, Maryland, found that people who put on some pounds during adulthood survive longer than those who maintain or even lose weight.
Our findings confirm that body weight usually increases with age. On average, both men and women tend to put on five to ten pounds per decade, a trend that stops between the ages of 50 and 59. Weight declines slightly after age 60.
Since satisfaction with our appearance is so closely tied to how much we weigh, particularly for women, it's logical to assume that our self-disparagement would gradually increase over a lifetime. But that's not what we found. The youngest women, ages 13 to 19, are both the thinnest and the most satisfied with their appearance, however 54 percent of them are still dissatisfied. The number barely increases to 57 percent among women ages 20 to 29. And it remains at around this level, even though women gained five to ten pounds each succeeding decade.
We can't say for sure how these young women will feel as they get older; a survey, of course, taps different women at each age, not the same women over time. Nevertheless, the magnitude of self-hatred among young women is astonishing. Despite being at a weight that most women envy, they are still plagued by feelings of inadequacy The good news is that even though women gain weight with age, they don't become more dissatisfied as they get older. In fact, there's some evidence that as they age they gain insight and appreciation of their bodies' abilities.
Induction into our culture's weight concerns is happening for women at younger ages. Girls today not only have more weight concerns when they're young, they also lack buffers to protect their psyches. Kids don't know themselves well and have not yet developed many competencies to draw on. It's easier for them to look outside themselves to discover who they are -- and find themselves lacking. While we may not be able to draw conclusions about them based on the experiences of older women, we can only hope that over time they develop the insight of this 55-year-old woman from Pennsylvania: "From age 15 to 25, I was very concerned about my body image and went on many diets. As I matured, I realized that personality and morals are more important than how you look and stopped beating myself up and accepted my body. Now I don't worry about my weight but I do eat healthfully and exercise moderately."
In contrast to women, only 41 percent of young men ages 13 to 19 say they are dissatisfied with their appearance. The figures stay about the same for men ages 20 to 29 (38 percent), then spike to 48 percent among 30- to 39-year-olds. They decline again for the 40 to 49 age group (43 percent) and increase for men ages 50 to 59 (48 percent). Again, in contrast to women, a significant proportion of dissatisfied men want to add body mass, not lose it. But the critical point is that men as a group are more satisfied with their appearance, although the number who are tormented about their weight and shape appears to be growing.
The Locus of Focus
Because we were interested in discovering what was most instrumental in creating positive and negative feelings about your bodies, we asked how your body image is influenced by certain aspects of physical appearance: gaining weight, feeling thin, looking at your face in the mirror, looking at your stomach in the mirror. Exercise was also included, because we use it to change our body weight and shape.
We assumed focusing on features like the face and the stomach—the latter the bearer of fat and of children—would produce highly-charged feelings, both good and bad. However, we were specifically interested in trying to understand the relative impact of different physical features on body feelings—the locus of focus. We also wanted to measure how physical aspects of appearance stack up against interpersonal factors, such as being rejected, receiving compliments, being teased, and sexual experiences, as well as emotional components, like feeling effective as a person and overall happiness.
When it comes to what causes negative feelings, gaining weight is at the top of the list for everyone: two-thirds of women and about a third of men say it's a very important cause of their disapproval of their bodies. And the stomach, not the face, is the prevailing locus of disapproval for both men and women. Looking at your stomach in the mirror is an extreme downer for 44 percent of women and 33 percent of men—compared to the face, which was a downer for 16 percent of women and 15 percent of men.
Women are hit with a very specific source of body antipathy: More than 75 percent say that "a certain time in the menstrual cycle" is an important cause of negative feelings about their bodies. And a fear of fatness may be perverting women's attitudes toward pregnancy and childbearing. About a third of women say that, for them, pregnancy itself is an important source of negative body feelings.
If these feelings are strong enough, it's only reasonable to assume that they may affect some women's decisions to have kids. As one 25-year-old Maryland woman offers: "I love children and would love to have one more -- but only if I didn't have to gain the weight." A 43-year-old woman from Georgia proselytizes against pregnancy: "I tell every young girl that if they like the way their body looks, don't get pregnant. It messes up a woman's body"
While interpersonal factors are the cause of negative feelings about the body for fewer people, they are highly influential for a significant minority. Forty percent of women and 29 percent of men say their partner's opinion about their appearance is very important to their body image. About a quarter of all respondents say the same goes for someone rejecting them. Thus there's a major connection between the way we feel about our body and the way we perceive others feel about it. One 54-year-old New York woman says: "Since my partner sees me as beautiful, I feel beautiful." This interpersonal connection seems to take root early, as a 17-year-old woman from New York explains: "My partner's feelings about me and my looks mean everything to me. If my mate had an unfavorable opinion, that would be devastating."
What impact does our mood have on our feelings about our body? The survey, as well as other research, suggests a potentially deadly two-way self-perpetuating process. When we feel bad about anything, our body satisfaction plummets, and when we hate our body, our mood takes a dive. A 39-year-old Connecticut woman captures the vicious cycle: "When I'm in a bad mood about anything, I get more critical of my body When I am more critical of my body, I lose confidence in my abilities." A 35-year-old woman from Pennsylvania illustrates the process: "When I am in a bad mood about something else, my focus often goes right to my body weight and I either feel fat or I obsess about food."
The connection between mood and body is critical; it suggests that body dissatisfaction is not a static entity but rather is governed, at least in part, by our general emotional state. When we feel bad about something else, our bodies get dragged down in the negative tide.
Among the many aspects of body image we looked at was the role of certain life orientations. For example, we compared women who call themselves feminists with those who view themselves more traditionally. There are no differences between the groups in average body weight. But 32 percent of feminists, compared with 49 percent of traditional women, are strongly dissatisfied with their overall appearance. When asked more specifically about their weight, 24 percent of feminists and 40 percent of traditional women are extremely dissatisfied. The differences translate directly into behavior—twice as many traditionally oriented women vomit to control their weight as women claiming to be feminists. It appears that feminist beliefs confer some behavioral protection.
When we asked what leads to positive feelings about your bodies, the results generally mirrored the findings about negative feelings, but there are some interesting differences. Weight-related factors tended to top the list of sources of positive feelings, paralleling the results for negative feelings. Exercise generated the greatest source of positive feelings. But moderate exercise, we found, goes a long way. People who exercise a lot do not seem to feel any better than those who exercise moderately
And while both men and women identify a few circumstances that could crash their feelings about their bodies, you point out more factors that bolster it. About twice as many people judge sexual experiences as a source of good feelings rather than bad. For both sexes, interpersonal and emotional factors more often serve to reinforce, not punish. This is encouraging news; it implies that there are many avenues for us to improve our feelings about our bodies.
When we asked what shaped your body image during childhood and adolescence, most women and a significant minority of men reiterate the cultural theme that thinness is the key to happiness. But interpersonal factors also weigh heavily on most of us during development, and women rank them more important than men.
For many, teasing during childhood or adolescence had a crushing affect on body image. So much so that the extent of the damage can't be captured by a questionnaire. The narratives paint a graphic picture of the pain. As one 59-year-old Illinois man recounts: "Being teased when I was a child made me feel bad about my body for years and years." A 37-year-old woman from Ohio admits: "No matter how thin I become, I always feel like the fat kid everyone made fun of." An 18-year-old Iowa woman says: "The memories absolutely haunt me and make me feel like something is wrong with me."
By far, however, the dominant factor that regulates our feelings about our appearance is our body weight—actual body weight as well as attitudes about it. The weight of this influence is staggering compared to other factors. Body weight alone accounts for 60 percent of our overall satisfaction with our appearance; all other physical features combined add only 10 percent more to our level of satisfaction. This suggests a simple solution—just change your weight and happy times will follow. Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
Exercise: The New Holy Grail?
Virtually everyone surveyed says they exercised during the past year—97 percent of both sexes. And exercise gets high marks when it comes to breeding positive body feelings (by a narrow margin for women, a substantial majority for men). Seventy-six percent of women and 86 percent of men report exercising at least two hours a week; 20 percent of women and 27 percent of men exercise five or more times a week for at least 30 minutes. There's a modest relationship between the amount of time spent exercising and satisfaction with appearance, and this is stronger for men than women.
On the surface, it appears that exercise is an uncomplicated remedy for achieving harmony with our bodies. But a closer look at our findings tempers this conclusion. More than 60 percent of women and 40 percent of men indicate that at least half of their workout time is spent exercising to control their weight. And for a significant proportion of both sexes—18 percent of women, 12 percent of men—all exercise is aimed at weight control.
But all that exercise is not leading to body satisfaction, since 88 percent of these women and 79 percent of these men say they are dissatisfied with their appearance. By contrast, among those who exercise for weight control less than 25 percent of the time, only a third are dissatisfied with their appearance. For many women, exercise is simply one more weapon in the weight-control war, a practice that mutes its ability to boost body satisfaction.
However, heavier women say the more they exercise, the bigger the boost to body satisfaction. Among women who weigh more than average, 30 percent of those who exercise more than five times a week are satisfied, compared to 20 percent who exercise less than once a week.
Whether or not exercise is effective as a method of weight control, it does tend to make us feel better about our appearance. It also improves both health and mood.
Sex and Body Image
Sexual experiences affect our body image, and our body image affects our sexual liaisons. You describe this reciprocal relationship poignantly. Body image affects sexual experiences: "The less attractive I feel, the less I desire sex," says a 31-year-old woman from Louisiana. "If at all possible I avoid sex; however, if it should happen, I am unwilling to let go. I have the feeling I may be vulgar to my partner."
Sexual experiences affect body image: "A bad sexual experience makes me feel embarrassed about my body," admits a 19-year-old Texas woman. Sexual abuse amplifies this self-abasement: "Having been sexually assaulted brought a lot of body hatred, and a desire to not have a body," a 24-year-old woman from Illinois says.
As has been the case for so many other variables in the 1997 Survey, weight gets in the middle of the picture. One 20-year-old Missouri woman states: "I try to lose weight for boyfriends. When I am fat, I know that no one wants to be with me. I feel like unless I have a good body, no decent guy wants me!"
The connection between sexual experiences and body image is affirmed in our overall findings. More than a third of all men (40 percent) and women (36 percent) say that unpleasant sexual experiences are moderately to very important in causing negative feelings of their body. But an even greater percentage -- 70 percent of men and 67 percent of women -- feel that good sexual experiences contribute to satisfactory feelings about their bodies. Few believe they are irrelevant (6 percent of men and 7 percent of women).
Twenty-three percent of women consider sexual abuse moderately to very important in having shaped their body image in childhood or adolescence. That's twice the number of men -- 10 percent -- who think so, perhaps reflecting the difference in rates of abuse between men and women. But the vast majority of men (85 percent) and women (74 percent) declare that it's almost or completely irrelevant, no doubt indicating their lack of personal experience.
The personal accounts of some respondents leave no doubt as to the devastating effects of sexual abuse. An 18-year-old woman says: "As a young child, I was sexually abused by my father. I grew up feeling as though there was something inherently dirty and evil about my body." Abuse is clearly a dominant factor in body image for members of both sexes, but it's not ubiquitous, unlike such factors as teasing by others (73 percent of women and 57 of percent men) and personal feelings about weight (79 percent of women and 56 percent of men).
Intriguingly, those who are dissatisfied with their bodies are much more inclined to view negative sexual experiences as important than those who are body-satisfied. Only 15 percent of women who are extremely satisfied with their bodies say that negative sexual experiences are very important in determining their body image (42 percent say that negative sexual experiences are completely irrelevant). In contrast, 41 percent of body-dissatisfied women regard negative sexual experiences as very important (only 16 percent say they are completely irrelevant). The same is true for men.
Sexual and physical abuse are important contributors to body dissatisfaction but again primarily it's women who have been sexually abused who think so. Sexual abuse is judged very important by 30 percent of women who are extremely body-dissatisfied, versus 13 percent of the extremely body-satisfied group. Women who feel good about their bodies and have not been victims of abuse just don't grasp the damage abuse can do to feelings about the body
Extreme Weight Control
Eating disorders occur when a person's intense preoccupation with their "fatness" leads them to extreme measures to control their weight. Considerable research indicates that anorexia and bulimia are outgrowths of a negative body image and, further, that today's epidemic increase in eating disorders is related to the intense pressure put on women to conform to ultraslender role models of feminine beauty.
A remarkable 84 percent of women and 58 percent of men report having dieted to lose weight. A sizable proportion of respondents say they have resorted to extreme and dangerous weight-control methods in the last year: 445 women (13 percent) and 22 men (4 percent) say they induce vomiting; more than a third of each of these groups vomit once a week or more. Fourteen percent of women (480) and 3 percent of men (16) say they have actually been diagnosed with eating disorders. Among the very underweight women in our survey, 31 percent (49) indicate they have been diagnosed with an eating disorder. And 11.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men say they have an eating disorder but have never received treatment, although the type of eating disorder was not specified.
Vomiting was more common among those who say they have been diagnosed (23 percent), less common among those who identify themselves as having untreated eating disorders (11 percent). Perhaps most surprising is that 1.5 percent of women (38) vomit for weight control and don't feel they have an eating disorder!
Laxative abuse for weight control is common among those diagnosed with eating disorders (17 percent) and those self-identified (9 percent). It is also reported by 3 percent of women (72) who don't feel they have eating disorders.
Vomiting and laxative abuse seem to be increasingly accepted as "normal" methods of weight control. And eating disorders themselves have become the object of envy, gaining celebrity status with each new high-profile victim. There's even evidence that eating disorders acquire a positive patina with media exposure -- even if it's negative -- and that actually helps spread them by social contagion. This was driven home by a patient I recently saw. When told she really didn't meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, she burst into tears. "I tried so hard to get an eating disorder, to be like [a high profile gymnast]," she lamented, "but I guess I can't even get this right."
Not surprisingly, one of the keys to helping people overcome eating disorders is fostering the development of a positive body image. Unfortunately, this means swimming against the cultural stream, as it's extremely hard to avoid ubiquitous thin-is-beautiful messages. Studies of prime-time television indicate that programs are dominated by people with thin body types and thinness is consistently associated with favorable personality traits. But one of the most interesting aspects of the psychology of appearance is that not everyone succumbs to the same pressures.
The media play an important role as a cultural gatekeeper, framing standards of beauty for all of us by the models they choose. Many observers, including eating-disorder specialists, have encouraged producers and editors to widen the range of beauty standards by including models more representative of real women. But often they respond by saying that more diversity will weaken sales; recently Vogue magazine acknowledged the outrage toward gaunt fashion models—but denied there's any evidence linking images of models to eating disorders.
The 1997 Body Image Survey gathered direct information on this issue and more generally on the media's impact on self-perception. The results are nothing short of fascinating. Forty-three percent of women report that "very thin or muscular models" make them feel insecure about their weight. This is true for only 28 percent of men. Just under half of women (48 percent) indicate very thin models make them want to lose weight to look like them; 34 percent of men agree. Though drawn to and driven by the image of fashion models, 34 percent of women declare they are angry and resentful at these presumed paragons of beauty, as are 15 percent of men.
The impact of the media, however, is somewhat selective, affecting most strongly those who are dissatisfied with their shape, and who are generally heavier and farther away from the cultural ideal. Women who are extremely satisfied with their weight compare themselves to and study the shapes of models less than half as often as women who are body-dissatisfied.
Even more striking, 67 percent of the women who are dissatisfied with their bodies say that very thin or muscular models make them feel insecure about their weight very often or always (versus 12 percent of body-satisfied women). Sixty-seven percent also say models make them want to lose weight (versus 13 percent of body-satisfied women), and 45 percent say models make them angry or resentful (versus 9 percent of body-satisfied women).
Similarly, those who say they've been diagnosed with an eating disorder report being highly influenced by fashion models. Forty-three percent compare themselves to models in magazines; 45 percent scrutinize the shapes of models. Forty-nine percent say very thin models make them feel insecure about themselves, and 48 percent say they "make me want to lose weight to be like them."
Clearly, body satisfaction, a rather rare commodity, confers relative immunity to media influence. But the existence of a large number of women who are drawn to media imagery but resent the unreality of those images is cause for concern. It suggests they are experiencing an uncomfortable level of entrapment. We wonder how long it will take for their resentment to be unleashed full force on the fashion industry and/or the media—and in what form.
Women and, to a lesser degree, men are not only affected by images in the media, they also want to see themselves represented differently. They're clamoring for change and willing to put their money on their predilections. The overwhelming majority of all respondents—93 percent of women, 89 percent of men—want models in magazines to represent the natural range of body shapes; 82 percent of women assert they are willing to buy magazines containing heavier models, as do 53 percent of men, even though most still believe that clothes look better on thin models.
One 30-year-old woman captures the feeling: "The media portray an image of the perfect woman that is unattainable for somewhere between 98 to 99 percent of the female population. How are we supposed to live up to that standard that is shoved in our faces constantly—I hate it."
The Shape of Things to Come
More than ever before, women are dissatisfied with their weight and are fighting it with relentless dieting and exercise. Thinness has become the preeminent yardstick for success or failure, a constant against which every woman can be measured, a gauge that has slowly permeated the male mentality. Yet the actual body weight of women in the U.S. has increased over the last 30 years, and consumer pressure for weight-loss products is surging.
Research shows that dieting to lose weight and fear of fatness are now common in girls as young as nine years old—and escalate dramatically during adolescence, particularly among those at the heavier end of the spectrum. The risk of developing an eating disorder is eight times higher in dieting 15-year-old girls than in nondieting 15-year-old girls.
The 1997 Body Image Survey results and cumulative clinical experience suggest there is merit to becoming comfortable with yourself even if you don't conform to current cultural body-size ideals. Some people are naturally fatter, just as others are naturally thinner. Despite a $50 billion-a-year diet industry; conventional treatments for obesity are an abysmal failure. Traditional dietary and behavioral treatments may have an effect in the short term, but they do not produce lasting and clinically significant amounts of weight loss. They are no match for the genetic and biological factors that regulate body weight. They certainly reinforce the myth that weight loss is the preferred route to improve self-esteem. Perhaps the wisest course is to get plenty of exercise—and accept yourself the way you are rather than try to mold yourself into a narrowly defined and arbitrary ideal, no matter how widely pictured it is.
Preoccupation with body image is undoubtedly not good for our mental health, but it also seems to be a metaphor for something larger in the culture—if we could only figure out what. Over a decade ago, the late social critic Christopher Lasch argued that our culture of mass consumption encourages narcissism, a new kind of self-consciousness or vanity through which people have learned to judge themselves not merely against others but through others' eyes. The "image" projected by possessions, physical attractiveness, clothes, and "personality" replace experience, skills, and character as gauges of personal identity, health, and happiness. We are thrown into a chronic state of unease, perfect prey for an array of commercial "solutions."
Psychiatrists and psychologists have also weighed in on the meaning of body image issues. At the 1996 meeting of the American Psychological Association, Yale psychiatrist Alan Feingold, M.D, received an award for detailing differences in body-image pressures on men and women. Dr. Feingold contends that pressure on women to look good is not only growing but reflects intensified competition for dwindling resources; after all, looks confer a kind of status to women. Others point to role conflicts for women; power issues; a mother-daughter generational rift; and the possibility that in a world of rapidly shifting realities, we seize on the body as an island of certainty— numbers on a scale represent quantifiable accomplishment. Perhaps it's all of these; the body is a big screen on which we now project all of our anxieties.
A Very Revealing Picture: Psychology Today'S 1997 Body Image Survey Findings
Many of our survey results astounded even us veteran observers of the body wars. Among the most important findings:
o Body image is more complex than previous research suggests. It's influenced by many factors, including interpersonal factors, individual factors such as mood, and physical factors like body weight. Cultural pressures also play their part. Which factors are most important vary from person to person.
o Body dissatisfaction is soaring among both women and men -- increasing at a faster rate than ever before. This is the great paradox of body preoccupation -- instead of insight, it seems to breed only discontent. But a revolution in the way women see themselves -- or, more accurately, want to see themselves -- may be brewing.
o How important is it for people to be the weight they want? Fifteen percent of women and 11 percent of men say they would sacrifice more than five years of their lives to be the weight they want. Twenty-four percent of women and 17 percent of men say they would give up more than three years.
o Among young women ages 13 to 19, a whopping 62 percent say they are dissatisfied with their weight. And it gets a bit worse with age: Sixty-seven percent of women over age 30 also say they are unhappy with how much they weigh.
o While body hatred tends to stay at about the same level as women age, today's young women may be more vulnerable to self-disparagement as they get older. They are being initiated into feelings of body dissatisfaction at a tender age, and this early programming may be difficult to undo.
o Body dissatisfaction afflicts those women who describe themselves as feminists (32 percent) as well as those who say they are more traditional (49 percent). Nevertheless, feminist beliefs seem to confer some behavioral protection: Feminists say they are less willing to use drastic measures like vomiting to control their weight.
o Physical factors, such as gaining weight, are the most common cause of negative feelings about the body. Nevertheless, relationships also have an impact. If your mate doesn't think you look great, you're likely to feel devastated.
o Pregnancy is increasingly being seen not as a normal body function but as an encumbrance to body image. And some women say they are choosing not to have children for this reason.
o More than 75 percent of women surveyed say that menstruation, another normal body function, causes them to have negative feelings about their bodies.
o Bad moods wreak havoc on women's feelings about their bodies. Women get caught in a vicious spiral: emotional distress causes body loathing; disgust with their body causes emotional distress.
o Teasing during childhood or adolescence has an indelible effect on women's feelings about their bodies. Women say that the negative fallout can last for decades -- no matter what shape they're currently in.
o What's a quick way to feel good about your body? Good sex. The survey found that in general, good sexual experiences breed high levels of body satisfaction.
o Sexual abuse is an important contributor to body dissatisfaction -- but only women who have been sexually abused think so. Other women don't grasp the damage abuse can do to feelings about the body. The experience of sexual abuse seems to create a divide that mirrors the general cultural debate over the validity of allegations of sexual abuse.
o What's the most reliable way to develop positive feelings about your body -- to say nothing of boosting your health? Respondents say it's exercising -- just for the pleasure of it.
o Curiously, most people say that when it comes to weight control, exercising does not boost body satisfaction. Only women who are very heavy disagree.
o It's no longer possible to deny the fact that images of models in the media have a terrible effect on the way women see themselves. Women who have eating disorders are most influenced by fashion models.
o A model backlash has already begun. Although images of fashion models are intended to inspire identification and emulation, more than three out of ten women say they make them feel angry and resentful. They make more than four out of ten women feel insecure. Women say they are dying to see models that are more representative of the natural range of body types.
Altering Your Image: Strategies From The Trenches
One of the major goals of the 1997 Body Image Survey was to learn more about how people have remade their image. Though we anticipated receiving a few brief suggestions, we were inundated with your personal accounts of change. We have summarized your suggestions but kept your words. Try and discover what factors play a role in your struggle with your body. And be deliberate about creating a lifestyle that increases your chances for ending the war with your body.
1. Develop criteria for self-esteem that go beyond appearance. One way to make appearance less important is to develop other benchmarks for self-evaluation. A 51-year-old woman from California summarizes the approach: "By achieving in other areas, balancing successes and failures, searching where positives are possible." A 53-year-old Washington man says, "focusing on succeeding at work, participating in sports, and friendships have helped me overcome my negative body feelings."
2. Cultivate the ability to appreciate your body, especially how it functions. One middle-aged women writes: "I have often wanted to write an article called 'I Have a Beautiful Body.' No. I don't look like Jane Fonda. I look like a normal 46-year-old woman who has had three children. But my body is beautiful because of all it does for me. I have two eyes that can see, a large nose for smelling, a large mouth for eating and smiling, two hands that can hold and hug, two breasts that have nursed three sons, an abdomen that was home to three babies, two legs that can walk everywhere I want to go, and two feet to take me there."
"I have extremely red hair and as a child I hated it because it was so different," says a 20-year-old woman from California. "I have come to realize that my hair is a beautiful and exotic part of me. Now I cherish it."
3. Engage in behavior that makes you feel good about yourself. "When I have negative thoughts and feelings about my physical appearance, I try to behave in a way that turns them around, like exercise and buying a piece of clothing that enhances my appearance," says a 30-year-old Missouri woman.
"Although Rubenesque at age 54, I currently model nude for a local university art school, meditate daily to focus inward, and enjoy dancing, swimming, archery, art, and my writing projects," says a Georgia woman.
4. Reduce your exposure to noxious images. "I stopped buying fashion magazines completely when I was about 24," says a 30-year-old woman from Michigan. "Comparing myself to the models had a very strong and negative impact."
"One of the things that helped me become more accepting of my body was the realization that it was okay to be female," says a 67-year-old woman from Ohio. "It sounds hokey, but watching old movies starring Sophia Loren and Ava Gardner helped. These women had shoulders, and breasts, and hips, and are some of the sexiest women I have ever seen."
5. Exercise for strength, fitness, and health, not just weight control. "When I was able to stop focusing on how my body looked and began experiencing what it could help me accomplish -- climbing, swimming, cycling, surviving in the wilderness -- it made me feel extremely satisfied," says a 28-year-old woman from Louisiana.
"About a year ago I started walking every day for about an hour," says a 22-year-old woman from New York. "Because I was walking I felt so good. I also lost 10 pounds, but that didn't matter. My attitude changed because I cared about my health."
6. Seek out others who respect and care about your body; teach them how to talk about and touch your body. "The most recent experience that has helped has been a lover," says a 67-year-old Ohio woman. "He makes me glad to be in this body with this shape and these dimensions."
7. Get out abusive relationships. "If my partner didn't like my appearance, he would no longer be my partner," says a 31-year-old woman from Alabama. "I eliminate the negative."
8. Identify and change habitual negative thoughts about your body. "I constructed a tape of positive self-talk with personal goals and feelings I want to achieve," says a 25-year-old Washington woman. "When I have a bad attitude about my body, I pop in my tape. It really helps improve my self-image."
"When I look in the mirror at my body I always try to say nice things rather than cringe," continues the wise-beyond-her-years 25-year-old.
9. Decode more complicated thoughts about the body. Are negative thoughts and feelings about your body distracting you from other issues that are really bothering you? A 60-year-old woman writes: "A factor that has helped me come to terms with my body was recognizing that much of my relationship problems had more to do with shyness and lack of social skills than physical appearance. Once I worked on my people skills, found that I worried less about my appearance."
10. If you can't get over your bad body image, consider seeking professional help.
"I was bulimic for 12 years," says a 36-year-old woman from Oregon. "My recovery was based on individual counseling, support from friends, and a hell of a lot of hard work on my part."
11. Control what you can, forget about what you can't. "As far as negativity about my physical appearance," says a 33-year-old woman from Michigan, "I've had one simple rule: work on improving what you can realistically change, and don't spend time worrying about the rest."