Influences on Female Body Image

Women are often bombarded by fictitious media images about their lives and bodies, and find themselves subscribing to a lifestyle which only relates to a small minority. Most women are aware of these impossibilities yet they feel the pressure to continue to strive for the image of the “top model” and oh…… a size 0.

Society shapes our body image. In some societies, a robust woman is viewed as being fertile and therefore admired. In the North American culture, however there exists an obsession to be thin and fit. Thinness is associated with high social class, with success, and with the ability to attract a man. The standard of white female beauty has become more narrowly defined and restrictive, making it nearly impossible to be thin enough, fit enough, or young enough. Society sets such high and unrealistic standards that no one can really fit the mould of the ideal beauty.

The ironic reality to our society is that the majority of women on the covers of high fashion magazines are white, but still the average white North American woman yet alone women of other American cultures, can never truly attain this “ideal” image of beauty without anguish, frustration, and/or disappointment. These “media standards of beauty” are rarely obtained and should continue to receive criticism of how they are manipulating body image for many women who probably are experiencing transitions and changes to their lifestyles for various reasons.

Numerous research studies on body image have shown that girls that are from ethnic backgrounds such as Afro-American and Chinese-Americans, for example showed to have a higher self-esteem relating to their body image compared to those of young white American girls in the same age group. The reason was that few of the girls from these ethnic backgrounds rarely compared themselves to the images displayed in the magazines or television; they did not view these figures as realistic role models. The media is doing great damage to the way that our young girls view beauty as well as themselves, but this image could be reversed by positive affirmations by older women who inspire their young lives. Positive affirmation should be given to young girls in regards to their body image when ever possible.

Studies conducted by the Melpomene Institute for Women’s Health have also shown that women who were 50 years and older also felt underrepresented in the media. In a study a few years ago by the institute, it was found that the suggested weight for a woman 5’4” in height and under 19 years was 113 lbs and 120-122 lbs. for women 19 and older. This is hardly realistic and healthy for older women. The problem for mature women is the lack of positive representation for their age group. Another study by the Melpomene Institute conducted in 1985 found the following: 39% of women aged 20-29 believed they looked better than most women compared to 87% of women over the age of 50 choosing the same response. The results of these studies are quite amazing; they suggest that satisfaction with body image increases with age.

Curious to see how accurate these results were, I decided to conduct a simple survey of my senior women’s fitness class to see how they would fair in regards to age and body image, this questionnaire was created for women of 50 years and older.

The following are a few random replies from the survey:

One participant said how she felt unsatisfied because she was underdeveloped compared to other women her age when she was in her 20s-30s. She also said that what had the greatest effect on her body image were other women, she constantly compared herself to others. Satisfied was the way she described her body perception today; “I am happy that I have my health and excellent use of both my arms and legs, this is what is most important to me now”.

Another female participant stated that she always felt good about her body in her 20s and 30s; she was always secure and confident in herself and abilities. She also said that she never had negative feelings; she always knew what she liked and never changed anything about her appearance. In regards to exercise, she says that she never did it regularly, but she always liked to walk and run wherever she was going, if it was not too far. She shared how she would walk three miles to school each day, and three miles home after school, this was her exercise. About the media, she felt that the media was changing its concept of what is beautiful in America. Finally when asked about her perception of her body image now, she responds that, “Yes, I am guilty of eating too much and gaining more weight than I should have. My skin is still very good, beauty comes from the inside not just the physical appearance”.

In short, the various research studies have shown that in general a woman’s perception about her body image and value increases with age. The results of my short survey were no exception; all women stated that they felt more confident about their bodies as they matured. Beauty is not just on the outside.

Women come in various shapes and sizes; this should be celebrated. By maintaining a healthy lifestyle with fitness, exercise and a good diet, you not only help protect yourself against diseases and increase your quality of life but it will also make you feel good about yourself.