Body Image Studies

In recent years, a large number of research studies on body image have taken place. A brief summary of the outcomes are outlined below.

Age Differences

Children: In females, dissatisfaction with their body begins at about 5-6 years.  A US survey found     that 81% of 10 year olds had been on at least one diet.  A survey in Sweden found that 25% of 7 year olds had a distorted view of their body image (viewing themselves larger than reality) and were dieting in a bid to lose weight.  Boys were found to be less concerned about their weight.

Adolescents. Boys have a short period of increased dissatisfaction associated with how they look during their adolescent years.  This soon fades as their bodies grow taller and broader, thus taking on  ‘manly’ physique.

The changes associated with adolescence in girls … increased weight, body fact, fuller hips etc, only serves to increase the level of

dissatisfaction with their appearance. Harvard University found that the numbers of adolescent females that thought they were too fat:-

  • 66% :12 year olds.
  • 50% : 13 year olds.
  • over 50%: 14 year olds focused on specific areas e.g. hips
  • 70%: 17 years olds have been on a diet & 80% unhappy with their image.

Adults: Over 80% of adult women are unhappy with their appearance, many of them have a distorted image of themselves. Surprisingly,   these women are psychologically sound, attractive, of normal/healthy weight, yet they perceive themselves as fat and unattractive. The   focus for adult women is the shape and size of their bodies, particularly the hips, thighs, waist and abdomen.

Recent studies have indicated a rise in body dissatisfaction in males, peaking in the 45-55 age group. They are mainly concerned with hair   loss, followed by their stomach, chest and height.
Animal Kingdom
Unlike human’s and many great apes (chimps, gorillas and orang-utans), animals do not perceive their reflections as an image of themselves, but as another animal of their kind. When given a mirror, great apes will often groom themselves in a similar way to us.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BBD)

BDD is defined as a preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in appearance. This preoccupation causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of a person’s life. Facial areas, including skin, hair and  nose, are the most common area of concern.

Individuals who do not accept the culture ‘norm’ of thinness and beauty, tend to have a more positive body-image than those who do. (see the ethnicity section below).

Eating Disorders
Individuals who suffer from eating disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia, tend to have a higher level of dissatisfaction with their body image and a heightened degree of body distortion when viewing their reflection. These individuals also perceived an increase in their body size after then had consumed a high calorie snack or meal.

Generally speaking, Black and Asian women have a more positive body image then their Caucasian counterparts. This statement needs to be qualified, as it is dependent on how much of the alternative, usually dominant culture has been accepted. A study of Mexican immigrants to the US, has concluded that the depth of cultural acceptance is itself dependent on the age at which an individual entered the culture…those arriving after 17 years old are less affected.

Further US studies have revealed that Black women with a high levels of self confidence and racial identify (even those who were moderately or severely overweight) rated their bodies more attractive than how the culture in which they lived rated it. Clearly they had a more relaxed, flexible approach to what they saw as a desirable body shape. On other hand, Caucasian women were more unhappy, because they were trying to conform to the inflexible cultural ‘ideal’. Similar UK studies have shown that UK Black and Asian women rated fuller even obese bodies more highly that Caucasian women did.
Research clearly shows that women are more disapproving of their bodies and reflections than men. Over 50% have a distorted image of themselves. A survey (Real Magazine in November 2002) of 5,000 women in the UK found that 91% of women were unhappy with their hips and thighs and 60% were depressed by their body image. 84% of those who were at normal weight, still wished they were lighter. Only 3% of women were happy with their bodies.
Men’s more positive image, can be attributed to the fact that they are not judged on appearance as rigidly as women i.e. there is less pressure to confirm to an ‘Official Body’ (Naomi Woolf ) as defined by society and the media. Interestedly, today’s adolescence are subjected to more images of ‘beauty’ in 24 hours than their mothers saw in throughout their adolescent years.
In the last few years the ‘perfect’ women has deviated more and more from the norm. 25 years ago Ms Average weighed 8% more than the models and celebrities of the day, today she weights 23% more. It is estimated that taking all factors not just weight into account e.g. facial beauty, only 1% of females conform.
Interestingly, in regards to appearance, studies have shown that gay man are less happy and conversely, lesbian women are happier that than their heterosexual counterparts. This fact is likely to be due to the focus on appearance that is prevalent in gay culture.

Mass Media
Evidence suggests that an Individual’s level of body dissatisfaction increases when they come into contact with mass media images of ‘perfection’. Certain clinics treating eating disorders have banned certain magazines e.g. Vogue and Elle, because of the adverse effects that they have on their patients body image and self esteem.

In 2004 Dove launched a ‘Real Women’ advertising campaign, that went against the normal cultural images of perfection.

Women tend to have a lower body image during the pre-menstrual phase of their menstrual cycle.

Mental Disposition
Studies have shown that that women in a bad/low mood, then to experience a greater degree of dissatisfaction with their appearances. It should be noted that these studies have largely been conducted on women who are known to have a poor/distorted body image.

Similar to the Mass Media studies above, the sight of others who comply to the accepted standards of body size e.g. communal changing rooms and swimming pools, also results in increased levels of dissatisfaction with one’s appearance.

Overweight individuals in Britain especially women often face widespread prejudice. It is not therefore surprising that overweight people tend to suffer from severe body dissatisfaction and depression. In countries where the culture does not associate thinness with acceptance, success and beauty; overweight individuals do not suffer from the same levels of negativity.

Past Experiences
Children and adolescence often experience a distorted body image in later life if they:-

  • were teased about their weight/size or some other factor of their


  • lack of physical contact e.g. hugging / cuddles

During pregnancy women tend to have a higher body image.

When someone looks at their reflection, what they see and their resulting reaction is determined my a multitude of factors including their age, gender, marital status, level of sporting activity and the influence mass media has had on them.

Individuals who are in a long term stable relationship have been shown to have a better body image than single individuals.
Sporting Activity
Male body builders have a lower body satisfaction level than other men. This contradicts popular belief that generally views them as vain. In reality, they are perfectionist and often suffer from low self esteem. In contrast female body builders and sportswomen tend to have higher levels of satisfaction than other women. This fact has resulted in some therapist using exercise and sporting activity in their treatment of individuals suffering from body image distortion. Generally speaking,  sportsmen and women have a higher level of satisfaction than others.

  • Reference: Fox Kate 1997 [Social Issues Research Centre] Mirror, Mirror: A summary of research findings on body image.
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