Listen Now: Psychologist Sarah McMahon* of BodyMatters Australasia, told Hope Media that an obsession with Photoshopped images of beauty was fuelling unhealthy body image.
If humans were composed of digital pixels, we’d be spending a heck of a long time staring at our bodily computer screens, editing.
It’s a pretty fair assumption, judging by Australia’s booming cosmetic surgery industry. Close to $1 billion a year is now being spent on plastic surgery, indicating that many of us are unhappy with our appearance, and will go to great lengths to change it.
According to experts, our image-saturated, digital age is largely to blame.
“We live in a culture now, where ‘being seen’ is taken to a completely different level,” Sarah McMahon of BodyMatters Australiasia said. “Not only are we constantly needing to keep up appearances on things like social media, but these mechanisms mean that people are constantly shown in a way that is constructed.
“It’s a very constructed idea of beauty and it’s something we’ve never seen in the past to this extent. The impact is that people are constantly surveillancing themselves.”
So How Bad Is Our Obsession With Perfection?
It’s long been known that women are more concerned than men about their appearances, but studies are now showing the extent of the problem. Around 70 percent of adolescent girls now have negative thoughts and feelings about the shape of their bodies.
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And it’s not just women who are affected, either. According to research, one in every four young people under the age of 14 affected by an eating disorder, is a boy. In fact men make up 10 percent of all people with eating disorders, regardless of age.
Whether male and female, young or old, Australians are investing vast amounts of time and money altering their appearance, and it’s making us physically and mentally sick.
The Beauty Industry’s “Profiteering From Body Hatred”
Sarah McMahon believes some sectors of the beauty and weight loss industry should be called to account.
“There’s many markets which are now profiteering off body anxiety,” she said. “I like to call them the ‘merchants of body hatred’ because they’re people who sell the idea that our bodies aren’t quite right, and offer a usually very expensive solution. The problem is, what’s really going on for people unhappy with their appearance, is at a psychological level. And you can’t really fix a psychological problem with a physical intervention, whether that is dieting products or plastic surgery.
“If somebody isn’t feeling good about themselves, about who they are as a person, then you can guarantee none of these solutions will actually be effective.”
Youtube Videos Challenge The ‘Perfect Body’ Ideal
Some commentators are using digital media to counter this unhealthy obsession with appearance. In a recent Youtube video called The Perfect Body, the svelte fitness trainer Cassey Ho depicts the true story of how she was bullied online, for supposedly not being thin enough.
Comments like “you shouldn’t give advice when you’re so fat,” “her body is so pudgy”, and “take your career seriously and lose some weight”, bombard a woman who most would consider the ‘perfect’ shape and size. Cassey then takes hold of a virtual editing tool and reshapes her body – shrinking her face, waist and thighs, inflating her boobs and bum, and changing her eye colour.
She is left looking puzzled, as if she no longer knows herself.
Another Youtube video, a Buzzfeed production called Women’s Ideal Body Types Throughout History, illustrates how the ‘ideal’ women’s body shape is a concept imposed by society. In this video, models of different sizes reveal just how dramatically the ‘perfect’ body shape has changed through the centuries – from large and curvy, to athletic, to waifish, and everything in between. With 26 million views in its first four months online, the video has clearly struck a chord.
Ms McMahon said while ‘ideal’ body shapes have changed through the centuries, today’s trend in which every body part must look perfectly proportioned, was one of the most unhealthy.
“Now it’s more dangerous than ever,” she said. “It’s the entire body that is expected to be sculpted into proportions which aren’t generally possible for most people.”
So What Is The ‘Best’ Body Type?
If we go by Sarah McMahon’s advice, there is no perfect set of body proportions. A healthy body may be small, or large, or anything in between. And it’s achieved not by working solely on our physical selves, but by addressing our emotional and spiritual needs, too.
“Generally if we are engaging in a wholistic process of health, we can be guaranteed that our weight will sit wherever it’s supposed to be,” she said. “That may not necessarily fit the current beauty ideal, but it’s where our body is most likely to be healthy.”
How To Prevent Body Obsession: 5 Tips
For those who want to avoid getting over obsessed with their appearance, Ms McMahon recommends a number of tips.
1 – Focus On Your Body’s Positives, Not Its Negatives
By focussing on what is good about our body, we will change the way we think of ourselves.
“It’s easy to focus on what our body can’t do, or how it doesn’t look, or what we don’t feel confident doing,” Ms McMahon said.“Instead, focus on what your body can do.”
2 – Find Physical Activities You Enjoy
If you hate the gym, don’t go! Instead, find an activity you love.
“Rather than exercising for weight loss or because we think we should, we should find activity we find pleasurable and that can be sustainable.”
And don’t wait until you look – quote-unquote – perfect, to start getting active. Go as you are.
3 – Feel And Acknowledge Your Emotions
This tip is founded in psychology. Ms McMahon said that those who struggle with body image issues and eating disorders, often suppress or don’t even experience their emotions.
“Quite often eating issues, or emotional eating, is around management of emotions, and there’s many more helpful ways for us to manage our emotions,” she said. “Learn to name and sit with whatever feeling we’re having, whether it’s joyfulness or happiness, or anger or jealousy or sadness.”
4 – Choose Your Viewing Wisely
Be selective about media exposure. Choose your magazines, videos and website carefully. If you don’t, you may find yourself judging yourself, and others, negatively.
“There’s a lot of research to suggest that exposure to the thin ideal or a bombardment of certain images has a drip-effect,” Ms McMahon said. “It can affect our expectations of how we should look and how others should look.”
5 – Replace Your Pop Idol With A Healthy Role Model
Find a healthy role model, instead of unrealistic, airbrushed one chosen from a celebrity webzine.
“We live in a culture filled with celebrities who are glorified and celebrated for many of the wrong reasons,” Ms McMahon said. “Often if we look around us, and even in our family home, we can find examples of people who are healthy and who have traits and qualities we can aspire to and develop.”
Sarah McMahon is director of the body image and eating disorders clinic Body Matters Australasia.