The Body Image Project

By Greig, Jean | Teach, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Body Image Project


Greig, Jean, Teach


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Rare is the person who hasn't looked in the mirror at some point in their life and disliked what they saw. For some it may be minor dissatisfaction: a less-than-firm abdomen, thinning hair, an imperfect nose. For others, body dissatisfaction can become so extreme that it expresses itself in self-hatred and self-destruction.

Millions of women and men across Canada battle to some extent with body dissatisfaction. It is a battle that often begins early in life. Children as young as two or three already internalize messages about how bodies are supposed to look from their toys, television, and movies, and the adult conversations they overhear.

But "body wars" (as author Margo Maine terms it) are truly declared during the pre-teen and adolescent years, when susceptibility to outside opinions and peer acceptance are at a peak. Particularly for girls, the carefree androgyny of childhood gets replaced by a set of rigid expectations about how an adolescent girl should act and appear. A relentless bombardment of images from television, magazines, movies, fashion magazines, and countless other sources reinforces the expectations that were introduced back in early childhood by Barbie and Power Rangers: females should be thin and beautiful, males should be strong and powerful.

The battle is taking its toll on our children. A 1992 Health and Welfare Canada study found that 37 percent of 11 year-olds, 42 percent of 13 year-olds, and 48 percent of 15 year-olds said they needed to lose weight. A 1986 US study found that 46 percent of 9 year-olds and 81 percent of 10 year-olds restricted eating through diets. And in 2001, researcher Jennifer Jones and her colleagues reported that 27 percent of Ontario girls 12-19 years old had disordered attitudes and behaviours around eating, and 15 percent were predicted to develop a full-fledged eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa.

It is not only girls who are struggling with body image. Health Canada reports that 21 percent of 13 year-old male students and 25 percent of 15 year-old male students feel they need to gain weight. Steroid use has skyrocketed. In a recent survey, about 83,000 young Canadians, overwhelmingly males, reported using steroids at least once. Almost half of them were using steroids primarily to "improve" their physical appearance. And while females still make up 90-95 percent of eating disorder sufferers, the number of young men with eating problems is growing.

Adolescence never has and never will be an easy time of life. But in this era of supposed enlightenment about sexuality and gender issues, preoccupation with body image is getting worse, not better. One piece of evidence: the incidence of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia - perhaps the most extreme manifestation of body dissatisfaction - has increased 200 percent over the past 20 years.

Carla Rice and Vanessa Russell, co-authors of a recently published educators' handbook on the issue, define body image as "... the mental picture a person has of her body as well as her associated thoughts, feelings, awareness and behaviour." Body image is influenced by the messages we receive about our bodies from families, friends, social networks, institutions, and the larger culture.

And those messages are everywhere. On television, in movies, magazines, advertising, music videos, images of the ideal body besiege us. For girls, it is thin, small-breasted, and waif-like - "a boy's body with breasts", as one fashion observer wrote. For boys, it is tanned, cut, and powerful. Just try to find an average woman's body in a fashion magazine, or a normal guy in a copy of GQ. Surrounded on all sides by images of the ideal, it is not surprising that many of our kids become obsessed with trying to achieve it.

The school environment also plays an important role in the development of body image. For pre-teens and adolescents, the school environment is the day-to-day world where ideas are tested and lessons learned.

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