Academic journal article International Journal of Child and Adolescent Health

Young Women's Perception of Body Shape/weight and Health: A Measurement Problem

Academic journal article International Journal of Child and Adolescent Health

Young Women's Perception of Body Shape/weight and Health: A Measurement Problem

Article excerpt


Culturally, body shape has been associated with health, social status and wealth, and vice versa, promoting a socially idealised body shape/weight for women to aspire to (1). Ideal body shape/weight has varied over the centuries depending on the social norms of the time and the quality of available evidence and information (2, 3). Improvements in our understanding of 'health' has led to a social dealignment where public attitudes shift from previous beliefs and images of healthy body to a new set of images purporting a healthy body (2, 3). Although, it is common to use a combination of body mass index (BMI) and weight for height as a measure of a healthy body, social norms are driven by social ideals, perceptions and expectations. One of the main feedback effects of linking body image to health is the superimposition of a thin body shape over a variety of healthy body shapes. In other words, there exists an ever widening gap between healthy body shapes and society's idealised body shape (4-6). It is this gap between information and social expectations /perceptions that may, at least in part, be responsible for some modern illnesses such as eating disorders (79). The negative and adverse effects of the idealisation of body shape has not had much impact on shifting social norms towards a 'fit' body rather than a thin body. Instead, the negativity is directed at people who do not conform to an ideal body shape.

On the other hand, the media's take on this social issue and the use of media by manufacturers' to promote their products has established in the public mindset a link between an ideal body shape (thinness) and healthiness. A trawl of the literature points to a bias towards women, due to a female-biased media, e.g., the visual portraying of healthiness with the emphasis on appearance (6). It is reasonable to assume that, on average, compared with men, women are more adversely affected by the negative feedback from the social idealisation of body shape, resulting in anxiety, eating disorders, and depression (5, 7, 10).

In this paper we look at the value of subjective psycho-social emotional measurements such as 'happy with body weight' and 'at ease with opposite sex' in informing and providing insight into understanding the link between socially idealised body weight/shape and wellbeing.


Human behaviour is a dynamic process. Over and above temporal dependencies and change over time, one of the main features of a process is the feedback effect. For example, the theory of cognitive dissonance may explain some of the variations in attitudes and perceptions over time. Cognitive dissonance explains that individuals align their attitude to their current social state upgrading the satisfaction with both positive and negative attributes of their current state and downgrading those of possible alternatives (11-13). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that years of exposure to the media's visual emphasis on body shape and healthiness will have had a major influence on shaping individuals' attitudes and perceptions of body shape/weight.

An obvious interventional approach to break the link between body shape and health is to disestablish or at least attenuate the relationship between perceptions of body image and healthiness. For example, Slater et al. (14), describe an experiment that placed warning labels on fashion and women's magazines to inform readers that the images had been digitally enhanced, in order to ameliorate the negative psycho-social effects of idealised media images. Halliwell and Diedrichs (4) reported that a cognitive dissonance intervention in young girls led to fewer girls in their sample reporting body dissatisfaction. Other researchers report similar effects using a simple intervention such as using images of healthy weight models, i.e., the respondent's body ideals were significantly larger than when the same women viewed images of very thin models (5). …

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