The body image ideal is failing our young women

It’s January. The winter holiday cheer has slowly melted into worries about body weight, diets, fitness and health. Our increasing concerns about the way we look have significant economic and psychological implications, and it can start as early as school. The problem is that mainstream mass media and the beauty industry have a limited understanding (or care) about the impact of our body worries on our future.

Recent research conducted by the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England indicates that body dissatisfaction and the perception that one is too large (even if this is not the case) undermine adolescent girls’ academic achievement. It does not necessarily mean that the young women will fail, but it certainly can mean that their performance will decrease.

The research included 25 empirical studies with a total sample of over 49,000 girls and women aged 10-60 years across the studies. Findings show that beauty ideals which are present all around us – on billboards, magazines, social media, music videos create anxiety around body image and personal appearance.

The industries behind these images are portraying none other than the “ideal” woman – with precise breast and buttock size and shape, hair, color, and length, and it becomes increasingly difficult for young women to feel like they belong and fit in. This leads to an inability to thrive and anxiety, which in turn have a significant impact on the achievements, aspirations and ultimately the future of our young women.

The mass media has a big role to play. Open any women’s magazine in January, and it is full of images of slimming women, shiny bodies, and healthy looking smiles – women who have achieved the body image “ideal”. Never mind that most of the times this very ideal is only reachable with the help of Photoshop. This trend is only beginning, as throughout the next few months we will be reminded of the ways in which we need to shape up our bodies for the dreaded summer beach.

A few years ago I co-ordinated several girls groups across Bristol. Young women, between the ages of 12 and 15 were referred to our groups because of so called “low-aspirations”, and low attainment in class. Through games and discussions, intense debates and often tears, it always came down to the same thing: body image. After several sessions on confidence building, de-constructing perceptions about body ideals, the girls would feel more confident, and in turn report better engagement with the curricula in school. But there is only that much we could do during our short term-time only sessions. Joanna, a lively 14 year old with a bubbly personality concluded it perfectly: “It’s all great while I am here and I can talk about my fears and concerns, but once I leave the room and go into a shop, or the GP surgery, I am surrounded by images of women that are nothing like me, and I start to doubt myself again.”

For as long as young women will continue to exist in this toxic environment which attacks their ambitions and goals, creating anxiety and distress, we create a world of economic and psychological deprivation. Both for them and for us. It’s time we take confident measures underpin girl’s capability.

Are you affected by body image issues? Let us know how you feel about this!

Sources: Halliwell, E.Diedrichs, P. C. and Orbach, S. (2014) Costing the invisible: A review of the evidence examining the links between body image, aspirations, education and workplace confidence. Discussion Paper. Centre for Appearance Research, University of the West of England, Bristol.

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