Body image. It’s such a common, nondescript term for much a complex issue. Every person on this planet sees themselves differently: differently from how they actually look, from how they appear to others, from how media feels that should look. Throughout our lives, starting from as young as the age of 5 (Grogan), we are told, directly or indirectly, that what we are is not good enough. I’ve experienced feelings of doubt and dissatisfaction with my body from a very young age, as I have always been different from my friends or the pretty girls no TV. My family was critical, my peers were critical, so I became that way too. I found that there is a big difference between being healthy and being thin, which is something I always merged. Being healthy is more than just how much weight you lose or how think you are, it’s about taking care of your body, not harming it. At 24, I still worry about all the same things I did when I was in high school, but I feel as I get older I am starting to accept my looks more and more. Research suggests that as women age, they tend to choose more age-appropriate role models or just stop caring as much about appearance once they start to age (Grogan). I find this to be true for me, but for many that is not the case. Women and men often seek out cosmetic solutions to natural aging, such as surgery, hair dyes, wrinkle creams, makeup, etc. The beauty industry is and always will be successful as long as we continue to fabricate and construct ideal bodies.
My story is not unique and I have seen it replicated throughout my years as an educator. When I started working with young girls, I never thought that at such young ages they would be feelings how they do. I teach programs to young girls in the summer on campus about body image, self-esteem, and bullying and every year I am blown away by the stories they tell. Girls as young as 9 have experienced constant bullying, low self-esteem, and media overload. Most of the girls I work with are girls of color, and their experiences are similar but strikingly different than the majority of the population. Grogan found that past research of ethnicity and body dissatisfaction showed that girls and women of color, specifically African Americans, desired fuller body shapes. Being overweight was seen as okay and African American men said they preferred women who were overweight. When I worked with the young girls though, I found the complete opposite. While they wanted to be larger in certain places, such as the bust and butt, everything else had to be thin and slender. Lighter skin was also desired over dark skin and many said they never found someone in the media who truly looked like them. Grogan also touches on this issue, as research has found that negative portrayals of black bodies in media lead to white skin becoming privileged and idealized. I’ve also seen this trend in Asian beauty products, which skin lighters and paler models/media icons. When I asked them where they got these ideas from, almost all of them said from social media, music icons, or their families.
It’s intriguing, yet not unexpected that as a society we continue to construct and deconstruct bodies of all kinds. Model Cameron Russell hosted a TEDX talk in 2012 that always speaks to me. As a model, she won the genetic lottery, one that comes with a fair amount of privilege. She touches on the fact that image is powerful, yet superficial. One can transform what others think about them with just a simple change of image and that has a huge impact on our lives. A large portion of the modeling industry is made up of slender white women and they are heavily constructed. Each image is not only photo shopped, but it is constructed to send a clear message to everyone seeing it. The person in the photo is not who they are in real life, but that is not the message we are sending to our young girls and boys. Even a model with over ten years of experience is still insecure because like everyone she has to think about what she looks like every day. My hope for the future is that more research can be done to help deter our young boys and girls from growing up in a society so obsessed with image and allow them to feel comfortable in their own bodies.
Angel Kearns is a graduate student in the Applied Sociology program at Old Dominion University. Serving as the current coordinator of the M-Power Peer Education Network, a peer education program out of the ODU Women’s Center, she is dedicated to educating others on issues related to interpersonal violence, gender roles, diversity and discrimination, and leadership development. She enjoys cats, coffee, and Netflix marathons.