Body Image, Part 4: Gender and Internalized Body Image Ideals

Disturbances in body image affect large numbers of people. In the United States alone, there are an estimated 10 million females and 1 million males who experience anorexia or bulimia. Objectification theory has helped researchers come to understand and study this phenomenon. Basically, the theory states that women live in a culture that objectifies their bodies and that to the extent that women internalize this message, a host of psychological and physical consequences result. Womens’ internalized self-objectification results in their valuing their bodies more for appearance than performance. As discussed on this week’s Family Anatomy show, achieving this media-created ideal is impossible for the vast majority of women. This impossible situation results in an increase in body shame and dissatisfaction, sexual dysfunction, depression, and symptoms of eating disorders.

Some have speculated that having more realistically sized models may help reverse the disturbing consequences of distorted body image ideals. In July of this year, researchers in the Netherlands studied the effects of watching thin versus larger models in t.v. commercials on womens’ mood and food intake. They found that exposing women to larger model’s in t.v. commercials can actually increase negative mood and lead women to eat less.  The study appears to suggest that  changing a few commercials to come more in line with the reality of women bodies will not have the intended effect. The study underscores the power and pervasiveness of idealized body images. It also points to the extent to which these images have become internalized. Barring large-scale education campaigns and a significant change in the media culture that promotes these images, parents’ main defense is talking to their kids, in a critical manner, about the images they are exposed to.

While objectification theory was originally applied to females, researchers have started to examine how this phenomenon may be affecting males. First, it is important to note that girls and women experience higher levels of self-objectification than men. In other words, females have stronger messages given to them about what they should look like and they internalize these messages more than males do. Also, as mentioned above, the negative consequences of this affect 10 times as many women as men. Nevertheless, there are a growing number of men affected by a culturally defined ideal of the masculine form. Men are also internalizing an ideal. This phenomenon has been particularly apparent in gay men and male body builders. That is, body builders and gay men have high levels of internalized body image ideals along with high levels of dissatisfaction about their ability to reach those ideals. In addition, for males in general, some researchers believe that men deal with competing ideals of muscularity and thinness.

Do these studies on body image ring true in your life? Tell us about your experience in this area.

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