What is Body Image?

Changing the Way You See Yourself
Part 1 of 2

“Saddlebags?! I’m not a horse OR a motorcycle!”

It’s never been easy for me to buy clothing that fits, particularly pants. Topping off at a very short 5’1”, with an overall small frame but not without a few robust areas, there seemed to be no pants in the world that fit my waist, thighs AND leg length. In my mid-twenties, when I was finally sick of jeans that either fell down or strangled my thighs, I decided to do some research: What cut of jeans would fit me right?

I encountered a barrage of websites dedicated to breaking down different standard female “body types” and what styles best fit and flattered them. I came across something disturbing about my own body shape – particularly, a term used to describe the way part of my body looks. Some women, myself included, have a portion of their outer thighs just below the hip joints that is wider than their hips. Those protrusions on the upper and outer sides of the thighs have been given a name, and that name is “saddlebags.”

Yes, “saddlebags.” For those of you who don’t know, saddlebags are purses strapped to the sides of a motorcycle or a horse for riders to store things in. Saddelbags are objects that are thrown over an animal or vehicle that riders stuff their belongings into. Thinking of my thighs in this way – as objects broken down into compartments, as having “extra” compartments – felt terrible. I’m not a horse OR a motorcycle; I’m a human being. My thighs are not bags; they’re part of my legs.

This is the first time I seriously started paying attention to how the way we think and talk about our bodies affects how we think and feel about ourselves overall. This is not to say that I wasn’t affected by body image issues before this time, but only that I had not been fully conscious of the extent to which I was. I hope this article helps young women and men learn to identify the sources and signs of negative body image, and to think about their bodies in a healthier way.

What is Body Image?

Body image is the way we see, think about and feel about our bodies. According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, the four components of body image are:

  • What you see when you look at your body
  • How you feel when you look at or think about your body
  • The judgments you come to concerning your body (that you should be thinner, more muscular, etc.)
  • The behaviors you adopt in response to the above perceptions, feelings and judgments (these behaviors can be positive, such as healthy eating, or negative, such as disordered eating)

At the foundation of our perceptions, feelings, judgments and behaviors concerning our bodies is an idea of what our bodies should look like and why we think that way. What is the purpose of our bodies? When do they fulfill that purpose? These are fundamental questions we’ll address throughout this series on body image.

Body image issues affect both young men and women, although women are disproportionately affected. Media studies conducted by the Kaiser Foundation revealed that 58% of female movie characters and 26% of female TV characters had their looks commented on, compared to 24% of male characters in movies and only 10% in TV shows. Also, 37% of articles in teen magazines for young women were focused on appearance. Men’s and women’s bodies are both objectified in different ways in our culture, most apparently in media. This series will deal with body image issues both men and women face, with the acknowledgement that women are disproportionately affected.

We recommend that readers examine both the sections on women and men below. It’s not only important to recognize the pressures you’re subjected to and the expectations (however unconscious) you may have concerning your own body, but to understand what members of the opposite sex are experiencing as well.

Recognizing body image issues is important because how we see ourselves affects the things we consider ourselves worthy of and the choices we make. Without a positive body image, we’re prone to low self-esteem, a lack of respect for ourselves and destructive behaviors. Below, we’ll look at current body image standards in our culture and where they come from. In Part 2, we’ll consider some common and unhealthy reactions to the “ideal” body standard, a different way of seeing and treating our bodies and, finally, steps you can take now to see and treat your body differently.

The Current Ideal: Women

Generally, our culture associates female beauty with thinness. While women’s bodies naturally take on many shapes, the body shapes represented in media – magazines, TV, movies, advertisements, online – are very few in number. Most actresses and models have small waists and moderate- to ample breasts and buttocks. They tend to be taller and weigh significantly less than the average woman today.

Young women should be aware of two important facts about the images they see in the media:

  1. Underweight or lower-than-average women are over-represented. “Underweight” is characterized by a body mass index (BMI) below 18.5. The BMI is a ratio of height and weight that the medical community uses to assess healthy or unhealthy weight. It’s not a perfect tool, but a BMI below 18.5 is rare, and the fact that many models have such low BMIs is disturbing. Many actresses on TV and in movies have a slightly higher BMI, but they are still well below average.
  2. These already-unrealistic images are literally made unreal by editing programs like Photoshop that alter them to remove any supposed “imperfections,” such as stretch marks, cellulite, skin rolls, wrinkles and pores. Actresses, even the most slender ones, are often further slimmed down in the editing room. We see sleek lines, flawless skin and very slender bodies everywhere. The likelihood that your own body looks like anything you’d see on a magazine cover is slim to none. 

The supposed “imperfections” wiped out by digital editing are often totally normal and in no way unhealthy. Most teens develop stretch marks because they are rapidly growing, for example. Teen girls generally develop them on the breasts, thighs and buttocks. Young women often develop cellulite – lumpy skin caused by normal fat beneath the skin that pushes on connective tissues. While people who are overweight may have more cellulite, thin and average-weight women tend to have it, too. And even a small amount of body fat can result in creases and rolls when women sit or bend.

So, not only are the women’s bodies we regularly see in various media rare to begin with, but nearly every image we see is made even less realistic and attainable by the use of digital editing. It’s extremely difficult not to set these images up as ideals and look at one’s own body as imperfect in comparison. The University of Washington’s Teen Health and the Media webpage reports that 53% of girls surveyed were unhappy with their bodies, a number that rises to 78% by the age of 17. The effects of media images on women’s mental, emotional and physical well-being is so great that, in 2011, the American Medical Association put out a call to ad agencies to stop altering photos.

The immense amount of emphasis placed on a woman’s appearance, and the level of scrutiny used when editing images of female bodies, gives women (and men, too) the following message: Women’s bodies are objects to be beheld. It’s this type of object-thinking that allows for a term like “saddlebags” to exist for a body part. The emphasis on appearance shifts the focus of the body outside the individual whose body it is to the person looking at it. It says that the purpose of a woman’s body is for another, not herself. And the establishment of an unrealistic “ideal” as what her body should look like tells her that she’s never good enough.

The Current Ideal: Men

Talk of body image issues usually revolves around girls and women, but an increasing amount of research shows that boys and men are not immune to such problems. The organization Media Smarts points out two particular body image pressures young men are subjected to. The first is a desire for a muscular build, which is culturally seen as a sign of masculinity. The second is a concern both with being too big and too small – wanting to be a perceived “average weight” and not stand out.

A study released in 2014 showed results from surveys given to over 5,500 boys aged 12-18; almost 1 in 5 were highly concerned about their weight and physique. Half of those were only concerned about gaining more muscle, while a third were concerned with both thinness and muscular build. Generally, research has found men to perceive themselves as underweight even if they are an average weight. This is likely at least partly due to the plethora of images boys and men see in the media of male actors with bulging muscles.

Body image issues may be particularly hard to deal with for young men – and more prevalent among them than research suggests – because, culturally, they’re expected to be aloof about their appearance (unlike women, who are encouraged to hyper-focus on it). In addition to being encouraged not to care too much about their appearance, boys are generally taught not to talk about their feelings. The first body image problem for boys, then, is simply to allow themselves to acknowledge when they’re affected by a negative body image. The next challenge is to talk about it and to seek out resources for coping.

Men’s bodies aren’t treated so much as objects like women’s bodies; they’re rather symbols of masculinity. They are supposed to reflect something about the man – his strength or his competence, for example. While a different kind of pressure than that faced by women, it’s still a significant pressure that we should take seriously, and that young men should pay attention to within themselves.

Dealing with Our Body Image

The information above shows where we get our ideas about what our bodies should look like and what purpose they should serve. “Ideal” standards influence how we see, feel about and judge our bodies, as well as the behaviors we’ll adopt. As we’ll see in the next section, these behaviors can be quite destructive.

Fortunately, we don’t have to limit ourselves to those standards. There are better ways of thinking about our bodies that promote self-respect, appreciation and healthy choices. While societal pressures are significant, you have the critical thinking skills to challenge them, and the information and ideas presented in this series are one resource you can use to improve how you see, feel about and judge your body, along with the actions you take concerning your body and your physical health. Your body is yours. Reclaiming it for yourself will take some work, but we’ll discuss some ways to go about it in Part 2, so keep reading!  

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at two opposite unhealthy responses to societal body image standards, then consider a middle ground that promotes healthy behaviors. Finally, we’ll develop an action plan for changing how we see and treat our bodies.

Written by Amée LaTour


Part 2:
How to Boost Your Body Image
Changing the Way You See Yourself

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“Saddlebags?! I’m not a horse OR a motorcycle!” Amee LaTour