We function in a society of ideals, most of which are unattainable, ingrained in us by the rise of social media and the world of celebrity. The conversation about this issue has thankfully become more apparent recently, headed by public figures such as Jameela Jamil, Elton John, and Lady Gaga, who have all struggled with health issues stemming from a negative body image. But have things changed? And does having a negative body image impact a person’s future success?
Focussing on ‘body image’, we should understand that this phrase is much more complicated than it outwardly seems. It is a psychological phenomenon, rather than physical, meaning people with a diverse range of appearances can develop a negative body image, even those who look ‘healthy’ or ‘attractive’.
Body image is about how a person thinks they look, not how they look. When talking about this issue we mustn’t allow the one-size-fits-all view of the mainstream media to mar our understanding.
Worryingly, statistics suggest that more and more people are exhibiting signs of having a negative body image, arguably because of our increasing investment in social media, and the ideals espoused on platforms like Instagram, and more recently TikTok. Nevertheless, this could also be a sign that people are more inclined to admit their negative feelings towards their bodies, as conversations are had more widely, which would suggest a step in the right direction.
Getting to the question: ‘do our bodies hold political economy?’, there is a two-way answer. Firstly, we still exist in a society where public facing jobs are more likely to be given to the most conventionally attractive people, especially when capital comes into play. Think health magazines, make-up and fragrance advertisements, and the stereotypical ways bodies are associated with personalities in film and TV (worryingly this also includes children’s TV). Most of these cases demonstrate how in our society, conventional attractiveness is interwoven with sex appeal.
Conventionally attractive people are ostensibly much more likely to earn more money and become more ‘successful’, if we view success from a consumerist perspective.
On the other side, our bodies can hold political economy in a way that many people may fail to notice, and this is where body image as a psychological issue takes centre stage.
A person with a negative body image is more likely to develop an eating disorder, self-harm and suffer from poor mental health than the average person, the link here has been proven many a time. The Children’s Society highlights other consequences, that are often overlooked, such as ‘lower aspirations in school, contribute to risky behaviours such as drug and alcohol misuse or unsafe sex’. The self-directed frustration generated by a negative body image contributes to a person making poor life choices, making ‘success’ a less likely outcome for them.
The mental challenges that come hand in hand with a negative body image and these consequential life choices will not stand individuals in good stead when applying for higher education and careers. More importantly though it impacts their ability to establish friendships, support families, and take on the responsibility of other issues of personal health, mindfulness and creativity. We cannot forget that these are also measures of success, proven to increase a person’s happiness far more than a respected career.
It is clear to see that our bodies do hold political economy, but how do we counter this?
It is easy to say that the media needs to change and shift their focus. Claiming this is not wrong, greater representation of body types is always a fantastic step in the right direction, but it would be unwise to say that this is where the sole solution lies.
We all need to be better educated on how we contribute to people developing a negative body image, through our words and actions. Casual references to a person’s body can have a lasting impact.
Furthermore, we could reduce our social media consumption ourselves. A 2015 study found that using social media for as little as half an hour per day can change the way we see our bodies . Scarier still, a recent Ofcom study that found that in the UK, we spend on average 24 hours per week online. There is clearly much room for reduction.
If we all challenged ourselves to reduce our social media consumption and made a conscious effort to reduce the importance of body image in our daily interactions, more positive body images would thrive, helping everyone lead healthier, happier and successful lives.
By Harrison Newsham
Illustration by Hannah Imafidon