The current socially accepted ideal body, emerged in the last decades, has been promoted by the fashion industry and the media, providing the population with the unrealistic ultrathin body type, a kind of female beauty and perfection that only belongs to 0 size models and Barbie dolls (Angood, Dwyer, Hamilton, Jacobs & Turner, 2002; Dittmar, Halliwell, Ive, 2006). Therefore, it is not surprising to find out that the aforementioned fashion industry and media are two of the main causes of women’s body issues nowadays, as suggested by the investigation of professors Angood, Dwyer, Hamilton, Jacobs and Turner.
Furthermore, the United States are now facing the consequences of the paradox generated by the coexistence of the thin ideal and the increasing consumption of foods high in fat and calories (Deanne, ?). As a consequence, the most vulnerable individuals to external influences, youths, and especially girls, struggle to fit into impossible body shapes, through every possible means, like inappropriate and unbalanced diets, that often have as an outcome anorexia, bulimia nervosa and binge eating (Neumark-Sztainer, ?).
What should be seriously considered is that throughout the whole life span, every person is affected by self-esteem related issues, whose influence can lead some people to eating disorders and serious mental illnesses (O’Dea, 2012). In fact, psychological health largely depends on one’s level of self-satisfaction, known as self-esteem, that is influenced by social and academic self-concept, sporting ability and body image (O’Dea, 2012). In the study carried out by professor O’Dea, body image is defined as the perception and the behaviour everyone has towards his/her own body.
This image can be both positive or negative, depending on the impact of diverse factors as media, gender, peer pressure and family, and it can change, thanks to age, interventions and other internal and external influences (Wertheim, Paxton, 2012). Furthermore, the distance between one’s ideal body size and the actual or perceived size might create body-related concerns, like body dissatisfaction, and consequently disordered eating patterns (O’Dea, 2012). Body dissatisfaction can be a mere preference for a specific body part instead of another or a serious disturbance that induce the person affected to extreme actions in order to change his/her own body (Wertheim, Paxton, 2012).
It seems to be proven by many studies that obese and overweight girls are more likely to have poorer self-concept and more body image disturbances (Neumark-Sztainer). In fact, as suggested by professor van den Berg, body dissatisfaction is strongly influenced by weight status, because those who do not meet the Western sociocultural model of attractiveness are usually stigmatized and teased. In order to explain how body image and body dissatisfaction are developed, focusing on adolescent girls, it is interesting to analyse the biopsychosocial model, a multifactorial model that shows how different characteristics connect and interact. This model, considered by Wertheim and Paxton, proposes three main groups in which numerous factors are listed and that influences body image and, at the same time, each other. The three areas of influence are psychological, biophysical and sociocultural.
Under psychological, there can be found all the internal influences, such as personality, temperament and cognitive factors. These characteristics, according to the authors, are crucial, since every person, and in this case every girl, reacts differently to the same external influences, making general interventions on body image so difficult to be successful. In fact, many variables in the individuals, like depressed mood, perfectionism or tendency to compare one’s own body to others’ bodies, could produce a worsening of body image disturbances, if not taken in consideration while trying to fix them (Wertheim, Paxton, 2012). However, once they have been identified, particular personality traits can be neutralized and appearance-related cognitive schemas can be changed (Wertheim, Paxton, 2012).
The development of body image begins in early childhood when, at the same time, the desire for thinness is internalized, strengthening as the child grows (van den Berg, 2012). The survey conducted by Dittmar and colleagues demonstrated that girls’ body dissatisfaction due to thin ideal starts to appear from 5 years onward. Along with aging, pubertal changes are fundamental in body image evolution, since females’ body fat, breast and hair increases moving their bodies away from the infantile thinness, making puberty a difficult life period (O’Dea, 2012). In fact, all these changes, if not explained or understood, lead to a wrong perception of the process, as if they were losing control (Wertheim, Paxton, 2012). Therefore, in order to regain that control, some girls may turn to weight loss methods. According to Wertheim and Paxton, 12% of adolescent girls in Western countries assess to use extreme ways to do that, such as laxative assumption, self-induced vomit, fasting and crash diet. Furthermore, it is also to be considered that body discomfort may be due to biological characteristics genetically inherited and physical diseases, that altogether might show a body shape or structure that differs from the socially accepted ideal (Wertheim, Paxton, 2012).
In Wertheim’s and Paxton’s analysis it emerges that sociocultural influence is probably the most wide area of risk factors, since it involves every type of community, such as family, peers and ethnic community, including also mass media communications. While family and ethnicity contribute to shape girls’ body image in a domestic environment, teachers and peers represent the confrontation with the outside (Wertheim, Paxton, 2012). Physical critical comments from family members can have a negative outcome on body image as much as weight-based teasing, bullying and cyberbullying. And if school professional figures should be model roles, it is also true that they have the responsibility of forming youths’ minds and should use their influence carefully, because they might cause unwanted negative effects (Wertheim, Paxton, 2012; O’Dea, 2012; van den Berg, 2012).
As explained in the former chapter, it is in this context that the Body Positivity Movement inserts, trying to destroy the thin ideal that causes so many weight concerns (The Body Positive, n. d.). Nevertheless, the significant impact that, as said before, social media can have on people’s and girls’ minds could have a very negative outcome as much as a positive one. Certainly, the desire of promoting a more realistic body image in order to prevent the further spread of eating disorders across the U. S. is a positive purpose. However, there should be a deeper reflection on the means adopted to change people’s mind, since everyone reacts differently to the same influences and non-prepared professionals could accidentally produce harmful consequences (Wertheim, Paxton, 2012; O’Dea, 2012). Furthermore, it is crucial to avoid misinterpretations of BoPo’s message of self-acceptance with obesity celebration, because it could lead some people affected by a serious illness like obesity to a worsening of their actual condition (Andropoulos, 2017). This topic will be discussed more extensively in the following chapter.