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Do idealised body images cause mental health problems?

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Published on 13 May 2019

Is the media damaging our mental health?
Is the media damaging our mental health?

The issue of body Image is at the centre of this week’s Mental Health Awareness campaign.

Traditional and social media is often blamed for their portrayal of unrealistic body images, which, some believe, can have a detrimental impact on mental health and wellbeing.

But just how detrimental?

As part of the University of Sunderland’s podcast series, Sunderland Talks, evolutionary psychologist Dr Helen Driscoll, Principal Lecturer in Psychology, discusses that while the media may play a role in exacerbating the problem, they are not necessarily the primary cause.

Dr Driscoll said: “People think body image ideals come from the media because of the way they portray a certain type of shape. But it’s more the case the media is reflecting, or maybe even amplifying, something that is already there.

“Over time we have evolved in ways which allow us to reproduce. If we think about the female body and idealised images of that, there tends to be quite a preference for a curvaceous shape, an hour glass figure.

“A slim waist represents an absence of pregnancy, it possibly suggests someone hasn’t had children before, or hasn’t had many children. People often think the preference for wide hips is due to them being childbearing, but it is a little bit more complicated than that.

“One of the attractive things about wide hips is that there is a particular kind of fat on the buttocks and the thighs that is stored there, and it is used in developing the brain of a foetus. There is some evidence that women with a certain hip-waist ratio have children with better cognitive ability. So the idea that beauty is only skin deep is blown away when you look at evidence like that.”

Dr Driscoll claims that, while slimness is associated with better health and fertility, it is not as straightforward as people think. Evidence suggests that extreme thinness is not the most attractive body-shape as the thinner you get the less fertile the body becomes.

She added: “What women look for in a male body is a little bit different. There tends not to be a really strong preference for slimness. The ideal male shape seems to revolve around having a triangular torso, with wide shoulders and a narrower waist. It is also about muscularity. In terms of evolution, that kind of body shape would have signalised strength and ability to protect.

“These preferences for the male and female body developed when we lived in small groups, we did not have many people to compare ourselves to.

“Today we live in a globalised world where we have access to millions of people at the push of a button. We are bombarded with images every day whether it be in the newspapers or on Instagram, or whatever social media platform it might be.

“If we compare ourselves and make some kind of negative comparison with the bodies we see on a daily basis then it can affect self-esteem. That’s not to say it results in mental health problems; it can, but it is a little bit more complex than that.

“For example, the idea that media images cause eating disorders – yes, it can play a role – but the cause of eating disorders are really complex and if the media were solely responsible then everyone would have an eating disorder.

“People might follow on Instagram a specific person who has a really extreme body shape. Again, this can have an impact but I think it is an exacerbation rather than a cause.

“Media simply plays into body images that we already have a preference for. If you look at video games for example, the image of Lara Croft is very idealised; it is an extreme form of the preferences we have. Sometimes to strive for these extremely idealised images could lead to problems.

“However, we don’t want to say that looking at images of healthy, fit bodies is necessarily a bad thing.”

The awareness week is part of a national campaign, organised by the Mental Health Foundation.

According to the charity’s research, one in five of the 4,505 adults surveyed (20 per cent) felt shame over their body image.

Just over one third (34 per cent) felt down or low about the way they looked, while 19 per cent felt disgusted because of their body image in the last year.

And concerningly, one in eight adults said they felt suicidal because they were so unhappy with how they looked.

The issue is an even bigger concern for teenagers.

Over a third of teenagers from the UK’s most digital generation (37 per cent) felt upset about their body image, while 31 per cent felt ashamed of their body image.

Dr Driscoll added: “As well as body shape, we also have preference for facial shape as well. Symmetrical faces are attractive to both men and women.

“Filters that are available now on social media which change the shape of our faces, can make them more symmetrical. They can also give us smoother skin which, again, is an indicator of health and good genes.

“In females we tend to look for big eyes and large lips, in men it is a square jaw which indicates quite high levels of testosterone.”