I recently attended the International Society of Critical Health Psychology’s 8th Biennial Conference in Bradford, England. At the conference, I had the pleasure of attending many talks that challenged the way we approach health psychology. Luckily for me, there were several sessions that touched on issues of disordered eating and body image.
One such talk, a panel presentation with Hannah Frith, Sarah Riley, Martine Robson and Peter Branney, challenged attendees to re-think the way we approach body image. When I returned home, I immediately downloaded an article by Kate Gleeson and Hannah Frith (2006) that discusses this same idea and essentially begs the question: Is the concept of “body image,” as it is currently articulated, actually useful?
This might come off as a controversial question; after all, body image is central to many studies (and treatment programs) related to eating disorders. We’re told repeatedly that by improving our body image, we can achieve peace with food, with ourselves, with exercise, and with others. Good body image is upheld as the panacea of recovery and positive body relations.
I want to make it clear that I think that the sentiment and intentions behind the “good body image” rhetoric is well intended, perhaps even admirable. However, I am intrigued by the way that Frith and others make explicit the assumptions that underpin current conceptualizations “body image” that may limit our understanding of how individuals relate to, act with, and on their bodies.
WHAT ARE THE ASSUMPTIONS THAT UNDERPIN THE CONCEPT OF “BODY IMAGE”?
1. ASSUMPTION: BODY IMAGE “EXISTS”
Hear me out; this isn’t actually as strange as it sounds. As body image is understood and studied, it is assumed to be a “thing” that all individuals possess and relate to. Whether or not this “image” is accurate, researchers assume that individuals have “it.” Otherwise, what use would measuring body image be?
Traditionally, body image was understood to be “the picture of our own body which we form in our mind, that is to say, the way in which the body appears to ourselves” (Schilder, 1950, p. 11). Rudd & Lennon (2000) expanded this definition to incorporate perceptions and attitudes held toward one’s body.
Much like other constructs, this assumption (i.e., the existence of body image) makes body image measurable, and would ideally enable us to explain why people engage in behaviours related to the body. For example, a researcher could hypothesize that an inaccurate body image could be behind a drive for thinness in anorexia nervosa, regardless of actual body size.
2. ASSUMPTION: BODY IMAGE IS A (SOCIALLY MEDIATED) PRODUCT OF PERCEPTION
Understanding that body image is a “thing” within the human mind leads us to believe that it is created through perception. Older eating disorder research in particular was enamoured with body image discrepancy. The authors cite Bruch’s (1962) and Slade & Russell’s (1973) research about the overestimation of body size in anorexia nervosa as examples of the way in which psychology has focused (perhaps unduly) on body image perception.
Despite this focus, studies are generally unable to find statistically significant associations between size estimation and body dissatisfaction. The perceptual focus also places an emphasis on the things that “distort” perception, such as cultural and psychological pressures. More recent research has focused on discrepancies in body image perception, for example, by asking women to choose which body among several examples would be their “ideal,” often finding that women choose bodies thinner than their own but not accounting for the “why” or for the impact that this has on thoughts, behaviours, and relationships.
3. ASSUMPTION: IT IS INTERNAL
Body image is generally articulated as something that “belongs” to individuals. Individuals, of course, exist in and are impacted by society. However, at the end of the day, these forces are seen as acting on individuals, changing their internal image of their body. Despite a barrage of research looking at the influence of socio-cultural factors on body image, we actually know relatively little about how exactly media images, for example, impact body image.
4. ASSUMPTION: IT CAN BE TREATED AS REAL AND MEASURED ACCURATELY
This assumption floats alongside assumption number one, and brings up a number of critiques about the ways in which body image is measured:
- Body image needs to be pared down in order to be measured: for example, studies asking participants to choose an ideal body out of a number of silhouettes may offer 9 different body shapes, which may or may not include the “ideal” body image held by participants
- Different responses are assumed to be representative of “real” perceptual differences
- These different responses are treated as inherently meaningful: any discrepancy is treated as dissatisfaction
5. ASSUMPTION: PEOPLE PROVIDE NEUTRAL ANSWERS ABOUT AN IMAGE INSIDE THEIR HEADS
Individuals are generally aware of their existence in a particular cultural milieu. While an individual might reply to a questionnaire stating that their ideal body image is thinner than their actual body, this says very little about where this falls on the individual’s priority list. They may just be re-articulating a societal imperative.
Individuals with and without eating disorders, for example, might respond to a body image questionnaire in this way, but not all individuals will engage in practices to bring about a smaller body size. There are many other factors that lead to behaviours (such as disordered eating) to “correct” body image discrepancies.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
At this point, you might be shaking your head and wondering why bother making a case against something that has brought such attention to the sphere of body studies and disordered eating. Essentially, the authors acknowledge that such work has indeed led to a great deal of recognition for the reality of body issues. However, if we understand these issues, we can work toward a broadened, and hopefully more useful, conceptualization of body image that can help us to move forward with “body image” work.
1. Narrowed researcher focus
Body image is complex and diverse. By understanding it only as a mediator between thought and action, or something that drives behaviour, we forget to ask other important questions, such as:
- What is the experience of being in one’s body like for diverse individuals?
- How does one’s understanding of their body influence their everyday life and interactions?
- Are there other ways of understanding problematized behaviour (i.e., eating disorders, body dysmorphia)
2. Downplaying context
As previously mentioned, bodies exist in a socio-cultural context. Prior research on body image has located socio-cultural discourses and investigated the uni-directional influence of these discourses on individuals’ body image.
However, relatively little research has probed the ongoing and relational nature of body image, and how individuals interact with and negotiate these messages. People may experience their bodies differently depending on where they are, and who they are around, not just which messages they are exposed to.
3. De-emphasizing the discursive production of body image
When we treat body image as a “real thing,” we may forget to look at the social construction of body image itself and it’s cultural utility. I know that sounds a bit high-handed, but bear with me: there are many messages that use body image in instrumental ways to feed into various interests (i.e., big business, etc.); body image itself, and “ideal” body image is continually modified and re-articulated, rather than fixed and static.
4. Ignoring the social nature of perception
Perception of bodies, particularly our own bodies, may be evaluated in comparison to others, and also to ourselves. Rather than being a unified whole, body image may focus on particular body parts, for example.
Within a “body image schema,” individuals may privilege certain features, which are likely not the same for each person. The authors use the example of a woman who might accept larger hips, the authors suggest, if it meant that her breasts were also larger, if this is something she prefers in her own body.
5. Distraction from the dialogic nature of body image
The influence of media on body image is generally assumed (in health psychology, at least) to be uni-directional. This understanding significantly under-emphasizes individuals’ ability to be critical of the media messages that surround them.
The authors cite a study by Currie (1997; 1999), which discusses the ways in which young girls may both enjoy magazines and engage in comparison with the images within magazines while simultaneously critiquing the “thin ideal” represented in these cultural artifacts.
6. Individualization of body concerns
Once again, we’re brought face to face with the fact that we interact with others. We are not just acted upon, as passive bodies; we engage in interactions and think about what people are thinking about us.
Further, the ways in which people deal with body image discrepancies evidently differ from person to person. Not everyone consumes media messages in a uniform way, a fact that might be implicitly understood but remains relatively unexamined.
So, with all of that said, how can we come to grips with body image, and make the construct more useful? The authors suggest, in line with Cash (2002), that body image might best be understood as an active, continually re-created, process. They prefer the use of the term “body imaging,” which captures the fluid and on-going nature of individuals’ body experiences.
To conceptualize body image in this way is to understand it as
an active process which the individual engages in to modify, ameliorate, and come to terms with their body in specific temporal and cultural locations.
Instead of being a “product,” body image can be understood as an “activity,” a distinction that the authors suggest may help to capture the complex and reflexive experience of being in one’s body.
I must say I was very intrigued by this re-articulation of body image. What I think is particularly interesting about this approach is that despite the rhetoric of “good body image,” we seem to be making little progress in actually improving the ways in which individuals relate to their bodies. This leads me to believe that we might be missing something in terms of our understanding about how individuals experience their bodies, and whether, indeed, “body image” is a concept that is universally and uniformly relevant to all.