Different cultures’ perceptions of body image

As a documentary fanatic, I came across one that explored how people in different cultures view body image in detail. I was taken back by the breadth and depths to which people will go in order to acquire the ideal body image that society has set for them.

The one that intrigued me the most and was completely beyond my grasp was Mauritania’s culture. When it comes to Mauritania culture, the size of a female signifies how much of her husband’s heart she occupies. Every year, girls as young as five were exposed to the ritual of leblouh. Older women or the children’s aunts or grandmothers provide pounded millet, camel milk, and water in quantities that make them ill at “fattening farms” for girls from rural families. A regular typical diet for a 6year old will consist of two kilograms of pounded millet mixed with two cups of butter and twenty liters of camel’s milk.

Unknown to her, the girl is taken away from her family. In spite of her pain, she is advised that becoming obese will bring about happiness in the long run. Matrons utilize rolling sticks on the girls’ thighs to break down tissue and expedite the procedure. Sticks are used to punish children who refuse to eat or drink, inflicting tremendous discomfort on them. A 12-year-old who has been successfully fattened will weigh 80 kilograms. If she vomits, she must ingest the liquid. She’ll look like she’s 30 by the time she’s 15. While viewing this documentary, I was amazed at the extremes that people will go to in order to conform to society’s expectations. Currently, my mind is in “wtf mode” as I write this.

Another interesting aspect of body image is the “cult of thinness,” which has been cited as a major factor in the rise in the incidence of eating disorders and in the prevalence of obesity. As Hesse-Biber succinctly states in her book, the majority of westernized women share one desire: they want to be thin–or thinner. And they are willing to go to extreme lengths, even to the point of starvation, to achieve that goal. Why are American women so obsessed with their weight? What has caused an unprecedented number of young women–even before they reach their adolescent years–to develop an obsession with weight, a negative body image, and disordered eating? Why are some young women able to resist cultural demands to lose weight while others are unable to do so? Are there societal elements at play in the current outbreaks of anorexia and bulimia in America? Hesse-Biber goes beyond conventional psychiatric explanations of eating disorders to critique the social, political, and economic pressures women confront in a weight-obsessed society–a culture that, strangely, is becoming increasingly obese while worshiping an increasingly thin ideal.

Americans place too much emphasis on being skinny, according to Glenn Gaesser, a professor at Arizona State University and the author of “Big Fat Lies.” “We have had a fixation with weight loss and how to get skinny for decades now,” he declared. A skinny body is a desirable body, and a thick body is undesirable. This is a false dichotomy, and it has permeated our culture, from fashion to fitness, to health and wellbeing.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought that a healthy body may come in a variety of forms. This suggests that being fit is more essential than being slim, according to Gaesser’s findings: persons who are thick and in shape have superior health outcomes. “I believe that America as a whole is still not ready to embrace the notion that fitness comes in a variety of forms and sizes,” he explained.

Traditional African beauty highlights a woman’s curved and voluptuous shape, which is considered curvaceous among African heritage cultures. Many young people from ethnic minorities don’t look like the white women depicted in popular media since they don’t share their phenotype or culture. To avoid comparing themselves to White media representations, some girls of color may instead strive for standards of beauty that are more appropriate to their own cultural contexts. African American women, in particular, have provided some evidence to back up this claim in research. African American females and girls perceive mainstream media images to be less appealing and personable than their Caucasian counterparts.

Nonetheless, some individuals are under pressure to adhere to popular beauty norms and may feel self-conscious about their own bodies when compared to media depictions. In summary, while girls and women of color who identify strongly with their ethnic/racial group may avoid comparisons to Caucasian media images, girls and women of color who identify less strongly with their ethnic/racial group may compare themselves to Caucasian women in media. As a result, it is reasonable to speculate that ethnic identification may similarly protect young people of color from body image challenges. Indeed, research with African American women suggests that ethnic identification may perform a protective role.

Unlike the prevailing slim body image, Latina women have defined a “feminine curves” body ideal. It is possible that Latino culture values a “buen cuerpo,” or a “thick” ideal, which includes a slim waist, huge breasts, and hips as well as around behind, as opposed to the thin ideal of a thin body. In contrast, increasing acculturation into mainstream American society may drive Latinas to consider the overly thin body ideal depicted in mainstream media.

Asian cultures continue to integrate into a globalized and Westernized world that promotes cultural ideals of slimness but also maintains a non-Western traditional society – particularly the younger generation – which receives ideals of beauty from both the Western and their own culture and traditions. Young people may face significant conflict as a result of these disparate cultural ideals. Japan by far has the highest rate of body dissatisfaction. Japanese female teenagers ages 6-13 and 16-18 have a poor impression of their bodies and a strong desire to be skinny, regardless of their actual weight. Due to the fact that both sets of standards encourage people to be thin in distinct ways and for distinct reasons, the detrimental impact on Japanese adolescents’ body image may be greater than in other nations.

Greene, S. B. (2011). Body Image: Perceptions, Interpretations and Attitudes. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy, and Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber. The Cult of Thinness. Oxford Unviersity Press, 2007.

Fujioka, Y., Ryan, E., Agle, M., Legaspi, M., & Toohey, R. (2009). The role of racial identity in responses to thin media ideals: Differences between White and Black college women. Communication Research, 36, 451-474. doi: 10.1177/0093650209333031

Poran, M. A. (2006). The politics of protection: Body image, social pressures, and the
misrepresentation of young Black women. Sex Roles, 55, 739-755. doi: 10.1007/s11199-006-9129-5

de Casanova, E. M. (2004). ‘No ugly woman’: Concepts of race and beauty among adolescent women in Ecuador. Gender & Society, 18, 287-308. doi: 10.1177/0891243204263351

Schooler, Deborah, and Elizabeth A. Daniels. “‘I Am Not a Skinny Toothpick and Proud of It’: Latina Adolescents’ Ethnic Identity and Responses to Mainstream Media Images.” Body Image, vol. 11, no. 1, 2014, pp. 11–18., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2013.09.001.


Body Image

Throughout our childhoods, we are exposed to a wide range of absurdities, and these experiences shape our views of what is and isn’t acceptable. We take up on what society has essentially established as right or wrong. We are subconsciously influenced by society’s standards and norms. Body image differs according to society. Many of us internalize messages about body image beginning in childhood, which can result in either a favorable or negative body image.

Concerns over one’s body image frequently begin at an early age and could last a lifetime. By age 6, girls begin to show concerns about their personal weight and shape–expressing anxiety about their weight or risk of becoming obese. Additionally, nearly half of adolescent females and nearly a third of adolescent males engage in hazardous weight-loss habits such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives. It’s crucial to remember that each person’s experience with body image issues is unique, thus the onset age might vary widely.

What does body image mean?

The term “body image” refers to the collection of ideas and emotions about one’s body. Body image experiences can range from favorable to negative, and an individual may feel positive, negative, or a combination of the two at various times. Internal and external elements both influence body image. Your perceptual body image is how you perceive your body. This is not necessarily an accurate depiction of your true appearance. Your affective body image is how you feel about your body. While feelings can range from delight to disgust, they are sometimes summarized as your level of contentment or discontent with your shape, weight, and individual body parts. A person’s mental representation of their body is known as their cognitive body image. This might result in an obsession with one’s body shape and weight. Behavioral body image refers to the actions that you take because of your body image. When a person is unhappy with their looks, they may isolate themselves or engage in unhealthy behaviors in order to alter their appearance.

Positive body image means having a clear, accurate view of your shape; perceiving the various aspects of your body for what they truly are. Accepting one’s natural body shape and size and realizing that appearances have little bearing on one’s character or value as a person are all components of body positivity (or body pleasure). In contrast, having a skewed view of one’s body shape is indicative of having a negative body image. Feelings of shame, anxiety and self-consciousness accompany negative body image (or body dissatisfaction). Negative body image can also arise as a result of weight stigma, muscularity, sexual functionality, scars, noticeable face or physical differences, handicap, or changes in the body as a result of medical treatments or disease.

Individuals who have a high level of dissatisfaction with their bodies believe their bodies are imperfect in contrast to others, and these individuals are more likely to experience depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia aren’t caused by a single thing, but research has shown that body dissatisfaction is the most common factor in the development of both.

Body dissatisfaction

When a person has chronic negative thoughts and feelings about their body, this is referred to as body dissatisfaction. Although dissatisfaction with one’s looks is an internal emotional and cognitive process, it is influenced by external influences such as pressure to conform to a particular appearance ideal. Dissatisfaction with one’s appearance can motivate individuals to engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviors, most notably disordered eating. As a result, they are at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. It is worth noting, however, that the majority of people who have body image problems or dissatisfaction do not have eating disorders, and some people who do have eating disorders do not have body image concerns.

In Westernized countries, body image dissatisfaction has become a major concern for adolescent health. More than 60 percent of females and 30 percent of males in the United States suffer from body dissatisfaction, which is a particular focus for adolescent health practitioners. In the 1980s, researchers around the world began studying the impact of a negative body image on eating disorders. Since then, the amount of research on body image has expanded tremendously. Many of these studies reveal that the type and degree of body image problems vary according to characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, peers, family, personal experiences, and socio-cultural influences. These studies provide a good starting point for further research. Women in Western cultures appear to be at the greatest danger, while those in non-Western cultures appear to be at the lowest risk, albeit this is more owing to a lack of relevant studies than a scientific conclusion.

A person is said to have a positive body image if they can accept, enjoy, and respect their physical appearance. You can feel unsatisfied with some elements of your body, but still, be able to accept it for what it is. This is not body contentment. In order to maintain a healthy body image, it is important to recognize and avoid the artificial and unattainable ideals of beauty and thinness depicted in the media. A healthy body image does not ensure good mental or physical health, but it can provide a protective barrier against poor self-esteem, disordered eating behaviors or yo-yo dieting, and, perhaps, other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphic disorder.

It’s becoming more and more common for people of various sexes, ages, genders, ethnicities, abilities, etc., to embrace their bodies as they are. Body variety must be embraced and all bodies recognized as valuable. In order to cultivate a healthy body image, it is important to understand and respect one’s natural shape, and then replace negative thoughts with positive ones that are affirming and accepting.

Greene, S. B. (2011). Body Image: Perceptions, Interpretations and Attitudes. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

“Body Image & Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorders Association, 22 Feb. 2018, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/body-image-eating-disorders.

Body Image. (n.d.). Body Image. https://nedc.com.au/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-explained/body-image/.