In the Eye of the Beholder

Our body image is shaped by what we see, where we see it and who we compare ourselves to. Through the ages this image has changed from slender, to plump, to slim, to full figured, curvy, athletic, or dangerously thin.

Yet nowadays, there seems to be a lot less variation when it comes to what is considered beautiful.

Let’s take a closer look at how our self-perception is influenced by what is shown on TV, published in beauty or fitness magazines and social media channels and how we can develop a healthy relationship with our body.

Body Image and the Media

How our body image is defined has long been part of philosophical and psychological debate. Modern science considers it to be a combination of our own appearance, cultural perceptions and personal experiences. We construct our body image based on our biological, psychological, and social conditioning.

What does this mean? When we define our body image it’s not simply a questions of looking in the mirror and liking, or not liking what we see. Our self-image is also shaped by what we’re exposed to during the day: advertisements, articles, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, our friends and family. How comfortable and healthy we feel is largely influenced by what society (and most prominently: the media) communicate as being ‘ideal’. And in the absence of an objective standard, we often compare ourselves to what society defines as ‘desirable’.

We construct our body image based on our biological, psychological, and social conditioning.

The role of the media in this process has been subject to research for decades. Looking back to the 80s, television and glossy magazine began positioning celebrities with perfectly styled and shaped bodies as the ideal of health, beauty and fitness. Today, with the advent of social media, there’s an additional standard to measure ourselves against: our peers and friends. With 10 million photos being uploaded on Facebook every hour and an average of 200 friends per user, there’s an abundance of people we know who share images of themselves only looking at their best. Image-focused websites like Instagram provide an additional, seemingly perfect showcase of health and beauty.

The evolution of social media has had a remarkable influence on our body image. When we admire a celebrity, we generally realise that for these people their appearance is part of their job. We’re able to dissociate ourselves, because we understand that these images have little to do with reality. But when we see our peers, looking great – ready for a night out or demonstrating an impressive achievement, like running a marathon, there’s no such dissociation – this can put more pressure on us because we know these people and compare ourselves to what seems closer to reality.

So while the social networks we have at our fingertips connect us to others, they may also create unexpected challenges.

A balanced self-image

Between celebrities in magazines and friends on social media, the challenge then, is to develop a healthy awareness of the factors influencing our self-perception
Researchers agree that a beneficial peer group is the most important factor to develop a positive self-image. This means close friends and family who share a balanced lifestyle.

For example, take the healthiest and longest-living community in the USA. The people of Loma Linda in California support each other in staying active, eating healthily, consciously making time for family and friends and yes, abstaining from smoking and alcohol. What is most important however, is their shared understanding of the long-lasting benefits such a lifestyle holds – and the encouragement they offer one another in achieving realistic goals that reflect their own individual needs.

Spending time with people who share and support our values and goals is an important part of being content with who we are.

If we’d like to improve our health we have many options. We can change our diet, we can exercise at a level that suits our individual needs, or we can try to take a step back from our daily responsibilities – and possibly re-evaluate which are actually necessary.

Of course how we look is a part of how we feel, but if it becomes the primary focus behind our quest to find more peace of mind, it might actually prevent us from taking the first steps towards a healthier lifestyle. Having a realistic idea of what we want to achieve and why we’re setting ourselves these goals will allow us to develop a better understanding of our motivation. Is it to adhere to a media-endorsed image or is it to improve our health and our overall wellbeing?

Taking the first steps to address our physical wellbeing will have a positive effect on our state of mind as well. Feeling better about ourselves because we’ve done something beneficial for ourselves is often reflected in our outward appearance. Our self-perception is in our own hands and it’s up to us to reflect on ourselves on our own terms without allowing external influences to determine our overall sense of wellbeing.

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