Is It Getting Better?
Body image differs for men and women across time, but improvement is possible.
Posted Jul 11, 2019
This article was co-authored by Kristina Holmqvist Gattario.*
In the age of social media and endless photoshopped images of beautiful people, is body image for the average person improving or getting worse? Are people today more satisfied or dissatisfied with their bodies than they were decades ago?
A recent study published in Psychological Bulletin tried to answer these questions. They examined over 300 body image studies published over the last few decades, examining both men’s and women’s dissatisfaction with the size and shape of their bodies (i.e., thinness and muscularity).
First, the good news: Body dissatisfaction among girls and women appears to be decreasing! This change may be a result of societal changes. For example, a growing body acceptance movement and the increasing number of fashion models challenging the thin ideal may be broadening girls’ and women’s ideas about beauty.
What about boys and men? The findings are less clear. The study found no positive (or negative) change in boys' and men’s body dissatisfaction. Instead, their dissatisfaction had remained stable throughout the decades. As you’d expect, boys and men experienced less body dissatisfaction than girls and women. However, they reported more concerns about their muscularity (or lack thereof) than girls and women.
How can boys and girls, men and women all come to appreciate their bodies?
What does the latest science suggest about ways to improve body image?
In a study just published in the journal Body Image, researchers interviewed 31 young adults (16 men and 15 women) who went from having a negative body image earlier in life to now having a positive body image. How? Three things were identified as “turning points” in the young adults’ lives.
First, they had changed how they thought about their bodies. For example, they started to accept their bodies as they are and focused on non-appearance-related interests.
Second, they changed what they did with their bodies. For example, they started activities that made them feel joy and connection with their bodies (e.g., sports, yoga, singing).
Finally, they had changed who they spent time with, by finding and surrounding themselves with people who accepted them as they are. Importantly, these changes were similar across genders – both men and women benefitted from them.
Taken together, we think that these studies present a hopeful picture. Girls and women show improvements in body image across time, and science suggests ways for all of us to improve our positive feelings about our bodies. It is our hope that future body image research will reveal how people can conceptualize their bodies as tools for interacting in meaningful ways with others in the world around them, more often than they think of them as mere objects for admiration.
*Kristina Holmqvist Gattario is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Her research focuses on the development of body image.
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