Scrolling through your Instagram is often not an easy task. Each day your feed is bombarded by seemingly perfect mirror selfies or poolside pictures, and you can’t help but wonder “why can’t I look like that?”
People often compare themselves to what they see online, at school, or in their own homes. In fact, a recent study done by psychiatrists at UCLA reports that people today feel worse about their appearance compared to statistics from the 1970s. Similarly, in a schoolwide survey, 64% of respondents feel like they too struggle with body image.
Body image is defined as one’s perception of his or her aesthetic body. This being said, one can have either a positive or negative body image.
A person who expresses positive body image, body satisfaction, is able to appreciate his or her natural shape and recognize that physical appearance in no way correlates to one’s character or value. On the other hand, body dissatisfaction causes a person to develop a distorted vision of oneself.
According to The National Eating Disorders Association, people who feel frustrated with their bodies are more likely to suffer from feelings of isolation, low self-esteem, and depression. Even though there is no single explanation of why eating disorders develop, research identifies body dissatisfaction as the best-known contributor to conditions such as anorexia and bulimia.
In a survey of 100 Brentwood School students, 90% reported that social media was a cause of body image issues, 75% reported that it comes from their peers, 35% from sports, 33% from parents, 20% from their siblings, and 9% named other sources such as stereotypes, magazines, and celebrities.
Upper School counseling department member and psychologist Denise Mahdesian has worked with patients, both inside and outside of Brentwood School, on issues relating to body dissatisfaction.
“Restricting food intake is a way people seek to gain control in their lives,” Mahdesian said.
Mahdesian also speaks on the genetics of eating disorders.
“It’s psychology, biology and social factors,” Mahdesian said. “It’s all combined. People with these diseases tend to have family members who struggle with alcoholism or mood disorders.”
With women, in particular, body dissatisfaction is deeply rooted in our historical view of the female body. Since the beginning of time, women have been valued for their bodies dating back centuries. Such a strong emphasis has allowed for the cultural norm to become a sexualized view of a woman’s body, rather than understanding it as an outlet in which humans sustain life and function.
Even in the present day, these ideals are still apparent. NEDA reported that 40% to 60% of girls who are six to 12 years old already begin expressing concerns about their shape or weight.
Negative body image is an equally serious issue for men.
Subclinical eating disordered behaviors, such as binge eating, laxative abuse, and fasting, are about as common in males as they are in females. A more recent pattern among men is the development of Orthorexia — the obsessive behavior when seeking a healthier diet.
“The hyperfocus on health can easily tip into something very unhealthy as fitness is becoming extremely compulsive,” said Director of Upper School Counseling Bryan Anderson.
A major contributor to this rise in body dissatisfaction in men is the movie industry, especially superhero films. For instance, Healthline.com points to the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe — which tops the list for highest-grossing film franchises — portrays men with “ideal” bodies.
In order to be a hero in these movies, men must be muscular. By projecting this message, society is essentially encouraging men to prioritize their physical bodies over their character or mind.
Nearly 70% of Brentwood students surveyed said that they think there is an ideal body type that they should look like.
However, everyone has a different shape based upon their genetic makeup, and that is perfectly alright.
In addition to school counselors, there are multiple resources for students to hold important conversations. One resource is B-Well, Brentwood’s first student-run mental health initiative that officially launched this year. In November, B-Well focused on body image. B-Well also provides resources in Schoology regarding body image and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.
Other peer-led resources for students include Girl Impact, which can provide a safe space for all students, male or female, to discuss either body satisfaction or dissatisfaction.
Lastly, the Gender Studies course, taught by Upper School Assistant Director Dana Gonzalez, delves into gender-charged topics such as body image. In particular, Gonzalez encourages her students to tackle the language from the best-selling novel, “The Beauty Myth,” which supports women and young girls’ perception of their bodies, a profoundly eye-opening experience for her classes.
“No matter if you fit the perfect image or not, we should be open to talking about it and… get rid of the stigma by making it a part of our everyday conversations,” Gonzalez said.
by Hailey Esses and Ruby Chorches