Friday, 14 February 2014

Women's Body Image: Unrealistic, yet Idealistic

“Only girls who want fat legs take the elevator”. “You don’t know what a perogi is? It’s basically a carb wrapped in a carb”. These are just a few statements from conversations overhead by researchers at a women’s college in the United States, which raises an important question: how do beliefs about the ‘ideal’ body affect the well-being of young women in North America?

     Where does this ‘ideal’ come from? During the renaissance era, women with voluptuous curves were desired by men, but now the media leads us to believe that this is not what we want. Even across various cultures, the ‘ideal’ body changes, some cultures praise dark or tan skin, and others light skin. Here in North America, our media puts out an unrealistic (often computer generated) image of the ‘ideal’ women, pressuring young North American women to make themselves look the same. However, it’s unclear if young women are more likely to be influenced by the media, or by comparing themselves to their female peers.

     We all know how the stereotypical Western girl looks (Canada Goose jacket, TNA pants, Sorel boots, straight blonde hair, etc.), but how do body image ideals differ between Brescia and King’s? As a woman attending Brescia, you would quickly realize the large number of other women that make up your peer group. You may find yourself more likely to compare yourself to other women simply because there are so many around you. A woman attending King’s may be less likely to compare themselves to other women, simply because their peers consist of fewer women and more men.

     Researchers at a small U.S. women’s college sought to investigate how women’s body image ideals may differ between all-girls and mixed-sex colleges. Female students were shown a range of images consisting of nine different female body types. They were then asked which image looked most like themselves, which image they most wanted to look like, and which image women and men at their own college would find most attractive. The researchers had several predictions about the women at the women’s college. They predicted that, compared to the mixed-sex college, the women at the women’s college would:

        -  Be more likely to believe in a thinner ‘ideal’ body image, and think their peers would believe the
        -  Be more likely to objectify themselves and their bodies
        -  Be more likely to compare themselves to other women

The researchers also thought that women entered post-secondary with similar body image beliefs, and that the choice of school (single-sex or mixed-sex) would change these beliefs over time. Therefore, the researchers believed that women in the 4th year of their education would show the largest differences in body image beliefs.

     What would this mean for Brescia? The researchers thought that an environment filled with only women would increase the likelihood of them comparing themselves to each other, and as a result, make women more likely to believe in a thinner ‘ideal’ body image.

     Contrary to their predictions, the researchers were almost completely wrong! Compared to the mixed-sex college, women at the women’s college:

        -  Believed in a larger ‘ideal’ body image than the mixed-sex college, and thought their peers would
       believe the same
        -  Were equally likely to compare themselves to other women, or to objectify themselves

     So the researchers were wrong, but not completely wrong. These differences between the single-sex and mixed-sex colleges were most prominent among 4th year women, suggesting that these beliefs develop over the course of their post-secondary experience.

     So Brescia can relax, but King’s has some questions to ponder. Does the King’s population really endorse a thinner body ‘ideal’ than Brescia? If so, is this body ‘ideal’ at King’s unrealistic? Where do these beliefs come from? And what are the ramifications of these beliefs? The American researchers may have a few explanations.

     There’s always the easy answer: the media. Television, magazines and social media are all full of images of edited and ‘photo-shopped’ women, which undoubtedly affect the perception that young women have about themselves. Of course, this does not explain why King’s may endorse a thinner body image than Brescia, as students at both schools are exposed to similar media influences.

     Another possibility is that women at Brescia are surrounded by peers who do not fit the stereotype, which may make them less likely to focus on the unrealistic images that the media portrays.

     Of course, the presence of men at mixed-sex colleges may account for these differences in body image beliefs. Men may be indirectly (or directly) criticizing women’ appearances, creating the belief in a thinner ‘ideal’ body image among women. Or perhaps the mere presence of men is enough to create competition between girls, leading to this belief in a thinner body image.

     This leaves us with a difficult question; what can be done to create more realistic perceptions of women’s body image?

     Men could be more mindful about how they interact with women, taking into account differences in confidence among women. It’s a simple concept, and it could help make all women more comfortable with themselves, and shift their belief in what the ‘ideal’ woman looks like. However, regardless of where a student attends school, their appearance plays an important role in how they feel, how they behave, and how they are treated by others. Unfortunately, our society seems to judge people on the basis of appearance. Genuine people who see you for your personality, talents, or values, are not too common, and there is no clear way to change that aside from spreading messages like this one.

-Myles Maillet


Spencer, B., Barrett, C., Storti, G., & Cole, M. (2013). “Only girls who want fat legs take the elevator”: Body image in single-sex and mixed-sex colleges. Sex Roles, 69(7), 469-479. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0189-4

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