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Body image is a person's perception of his or her physical appearance. A person with a poor body image will perceive his or her own body as being unattractive or even repulsive to others, while a person with a good body image will see him or herself as attractive to others, or will at least accept his or her body in its current form. Perceived body image is not necessarily related to any objective measure or the average opinion of other people; a person who has a poor body image may be rated as beautiful by others, and a person with a good body image may be rated as unattractive by others. Body image is most strongly affected during puberty.
As a medical term, it is often used in the context of describing a patient's cognitive perception of their own body. The medical concept began with the work of the Austrian neuropsychiatrist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder whose masterpiece The Image and Appearance of the Human Body was first published in 1935.
In psychology, it typically refers to one's perceptions, beliefs, and emotional attitudes towards one's body. The concept is used to discuss various pathologies and disorder, such as anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, body integrity identity disorder and various post-stroke conditions like somatoparaphrenia, and unilateral neglect.
Body image problems may also manifest themselves in psychopathologies like schizophrenia and the Cotard delusion. Although it is often confused with the term 'body schema', which concerns postural and motor control, 'body image' is distinct from the former phenomena.
Research: measuring body image
Body image is often measured by asking the subject to rate his or her current and ideal body shape using a series of depictions. The difference between these two values is the amount of body satisfaction. Unfortunately, this method does not take into account the fact that a person might be aware of being under- or overweight and also satisfied with that circumstance. Consequently, an obese person, whose obesity causes him or her no psychological distress, might be rated as "having a poor body image" simply because he or she is aware of being obese.
Numerous studies have been undertaken to study body dissatisfaction in recent years. Typically, the research indicates that 33% of men and 70% of women rate their current figure as at least slightly larger than ideal and that body dissatisfaction among women is much larger than for men. These numbers suggest that U.S. women are more aware of what a healthy body weight is, since about two-thirds of Americans are at least somewhat above their healthiest weight. Subsequent studies on this issue have justified this idea, as men whose body mass index puts them in the overweight category often think their weight is in the ideal range, and that those who are clinically obese often believe themselves to be merely overweight.
Some research has been undertaken to determine generational differences in body shape preferences by analyzing body size dissatisfaction for children, adolescents, and adults; significant differences between the age groups have been found. The ideal body mass increases as women get older, which in turn decreases the degree of body dissatisfaction. These cohort differences are a confirmation of the recent increase in body dissatisfaction and eating disorders among young women.
Causes and influences
As clearly evidenced by literature around the world, poor body images have existed at least since the widespread availability of mirrors, but one of the reasons most often cited for this continuing body dissatisfaction among young women is modern media influence, including that from movies, television, and magazines. Media representatives often reply that they are merely reflecting the ideals of the current generation or using whatever image best sells their products. However, research has shown that the media play a large role in reinforcing, if not actually shaping, rather than simply reflecting, perceptions of the human body. The circular logic introduced by this phenomenon illustrates the difficulty of placing the blame of negative body image on a single source.
The pre-occupation with skinniness is largely, although not entirely, a development of the latter part of the twentieth century, as the perception of women's body shapes has changed significantly over the past decades. In the early 1940's it was found that people with thin, ectomorphic bodies were perceived by others as nervous, submissive and socially withdrawn. At that time, the ideal female body was curvy or hourglass-shaped. Before that, in the 1920s, being flat-chested and straight-hipped (a "boyish" figure), although not necessarily particularly thin, was fashionable. By the late 1980's, this perception had changed, and thin people were considered to be the most appealing. Several researchers have found that the female body depicted in the media has become increasingly thin. Research using bust and hip measurements of Playboy models has shown that between 1960 and 1979, there was a trend towards non-curvaceousness. Fashion in body shape also tracks closely with attitudes about child-bearing: it is less desirable during 'thin' eras and more desirable during 'curvy' eras.
As the ideal body shape for women became thinner, the dissatisfaction that women have with their body shape increased. In recent years, a number of researchers have found that females are more likely to judge themselves overweight than males. This tendency was strongest in adolescent and young adult women.
Relationship to psychological disorders
Poor body images can often contribute to the onset of a variety of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Other possible effects of the cultural obsession with looking slender include excessive exercising, fad diets, and lawsuits involving fast food chains.
Concerns with body image have been linked to a decrease in self esteem and an increase in dieting among young women. This latter trend has been identified as an indicator of the onset of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Great body dissatisfaction can also lead to Body dysmorphic disorders, which cover a range of personality disorders where a person is dissatisfied with one's own body.
On the other hand, having a good body image can be a source of satisfaction to an individual.
Some researchers also found that men judge the female figure they found most attractive as heavier than women's ratings of the ideal body shape. In contrast, that most women, including overweight women, desire men with a very low percentage of body fat, whether they be thin or muscular. This suggests that, contrary to the media focus, men are far more likely to be attracted to larger woman than women are to be attracted to larger men.
Additionally, men are also more likely to be unsatisfied with their height, due to a perceived preference in women for men above average height. Men, on the other hand, don't tend to factor height in when choosing a mate; they're attracted to short, tall, and everything in between. According to a study "Gender Differences in Body Dysmorphic Disorder" by Katharine A. Phillips and S. Diaz (1997), the most common body areas that cause the most distress among men with body image disorders include skin (58%), head hair (57%), nose (38%), body build (25%), eyes (18%), genitals (15%), legs (14%), chest (12%), and stomach/abs (11%).
Information on specific minority populations
Most empirical research and statistical data are orientated and tailored toward Caucasian audiences, and some studies have been designed to exclude racially diverse populations. Nonetheless, no race or socioeconomic group should be considered impervious to eating disorders.
There is another technical use of the term "body image," which refers to the association of areas of the motor cortex with the voluntary movement of body members. This is often shown as the motor homunculus depicted by Dr. Wilder Penfield. This image distorts the body according to the areas of the motor cortex associatied with its movements. For example, it shows the thumb as larger than the thigh because the thumb's movement is much more complex than that of the thigh and thus occupies a larger area of the cortex. The motor homunculus plays a central role in proprioception. This body image is involved in phantom limb phenomena as well as their opposite, as in the case of brain damage resulting in the disappearance of parts of the body from conscious perception.
- Chase, Cheryl. (1998). "Affronting Reason" in Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity as Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Communities, edited by Dawn Atkins, pages 205-219. (Publishing 1998 Haworth Press).
- Eating Disorder Referral
- Body image survey: Monash University online research into body image.
- Body image survey: Differences in body image between men and women.
- AnyBody.org not-for profit organisation
- [University of Wisconsin-Madison student researh guide]
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