Here's Looking At You
Is body image being taken too seriously?


By Annie Bradford, UT Austin

Body image problems often rear their ugly (no pun intended) heads in college, although they are often masked, mistaken for vanity, shyness, cautiousness, or even normalcy. With widespread pressure among college students to look a certain way, to have exact amounts of muscle or body fat, or to achieve perfection, a negative body image may actually be the norm. But how can colleges and universities suffer from a looks-obsessed culture when they are training the future thinkers, doers and leaders of the world?

The stress of college life can strike blows to anyone's self-esteem, though there are other forces at work. A large part of the problem comes from our culture. Just look at the trademark bodies of the 1990's—Kate Moss' black-and-white waif in the Calvin Klein Obsession ads; the tanned, washboard-bellied Diet Coke guy; the incredible shrinking female cast of Friends. Youth and beauty seem to go hand-in-hand in mainstream culture, and many college students strive for the complete package: intelligence, looks, and status.

Unfortunately, many think those three traits are linked—an idea reinforced by our media. Heroes are also smart and beautiful; often villains are unattractive and unintelligent. We associate particular physical characteristics with beauty, glamour, style, and sex appeal, but no one ever explains why.

Linking external and internal qualities is such a powerful impulse that it affects day-to-day behavior. "Everybody loves to stereotype people," says Jessie Johnson-Tyas, a junior at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. "You look like this, so you must do this and you must act like this. Having a certain type of body affects how people interact with you."

Numerous studies indicate that people associate body type with everything from personality traits to occupation. In a study conducted by Dr. Rick Gardner and colleagues at the University of Colorado in Denver, a group of undergraduate college students were exposed to pictures of the same male and female models, though the images were distorted with a computer to vary in size. Students seeing larger versions of the models tended to assign them more undesirable personality traits compared with students who saw average- or thin-sized models. It has been shown that these perceptions are common in both genders, and that they tend to develop early in childhood—much like racial and gender stereotypes.

Although body image concerns have traditionally been considered a female concern, the problem affects many men as well. There are fewer culturally acceptable body types for men—one type championed by slick designers like Gucci or Versace, another by Abercrombie and Fitch or Ralph Lauren. More men are turning to diets, compulsive exercise, and even eating disorders to lose weight, change their body shape, and achieve the new ideal of male beauty. Although it's estimated that up to twenty percent of female college students suffer from an eating disorder, the American Anorexia Bulimia Association reports that men make up about ten percent of eating disorder sufferers. More recent data suggests that the percentage may be even higher, perhaps because of men's reluctance to seek help for a "woman's issue".

Matt Miller, a senior at Oklahoma City University, feels the heat. "Recently, you've started seeing a lot more health magazines for men. I've been influenced to exercise more to achieve a certain look." As a former dorm resident assistant, his exposure to body image problems and eating disorders helped him put things in perspective and focus more on goals than looks. Unfortunately, men suffering from an eating disorder may find it hard to find help. Many colleges house most of their body image resources in women's resource centers, a rather misleading practice. Perhaps as a result of this gender gap, men may be less likely to recognize that they have a problem, and may avoid seeking help.

These issues go far beyond asking your roommate if you look fat in your jeans. Extreme body image concerns often lead to eating disorders. Various factors contribute to bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating, although the psychology and medical communities suggest that the staggering increase in eating disorders over the past couple of decades is partly due to our culture's increasingly unrealistic definition of beauty. For example, the British Medical Association recently issued a report contending that extreme thinness among models and actresses contributes to the development of eating disorders in young women.

Ironically, athletes, typically thought to be in outstanding health, often suffer from eating disorders and exercise obsession. Much of the pressure comes from a lingering fat phobia among coaches, trainers, and even doctors, says Dr. Mary Beth Diener, a psychologist at the University of Texas who treats students with body image concerns and eating disorders. "There is a perception out there—the less body fat, the better," she says, "Athletes get a lot of pressure from coaches and people who contribute to their training to be thinner and to have more muscle." Sadly, these ideas are a dangerous myth: not only can extreme thinness impair performance, but it can also cause long-lasting health problems, particularly in women.

David Holt, a sophomore at the University of Tennessee, realized the severity of body image problems after watching several friends suffer from eating disorders. "I [realized] how big a problem it was, and I became more and more disgusted with the fact that . . . this could be elevated to being more important than intelligence, aptitude, [or] any of the things that actually matter." Since coming to college, his feelings have become more intense. "In high school, we were told that it . . . would go away," he says. "Then when you get to college, you see people who are twenty-five or twenty-six who still haven't gotten over it, and you wonder if it's ever going to happen."

Some progress is being made. University health centers and other campus organizations give more attention to eating disorders, drug abuse, depression, and other consequences of poor body image. Outreach programs target groups at a high risk for body image problems and eating disorders, such as dormitories, athletic groups, and Greek organizations. And organizations like About-Face, a San Francisco-based group dedicated to exposing unrealistic depictions of women in the media, attack negative, demeaning, and stereotypical images of women head-on. Unfortunately, the campaign towards positive body image has yet to eliminate the problem.

Kirstin Ralston, a non-traditional, second-degree-seeking student at the University of Texas at Austin, has noticed that even on her activist-friendly campus, no one steps forward to promote body acceptance and awareness of negative messages in the media. "I think that the biggest problem is that . . . you are dealing with people who have just come from home . . . they still believe in a very 'traditional' point of view. I think it isn't until they really start to develop their own [sense] of who they are that they start to realize just how bad the media . . . is. By that time, most of these traditional students have already left the campus." Other factors also influence students, says Ralson. "I am sure a number of these students struggle with body image issues everyday and they think, 'If I stop this charade, no one will like me, no one will want to be with me, and—good grief—who would want to marry me?'"

Many people suffering from a poor body image cite the media as one source of concern. While the motives of advertisers aren't exactly complex (sell, sell, sell!), it's interesting to wonder why we have internalized their 'ideal body image'. Why does a non-existent—or barely existent—standard created on a runway or on Madison Avenue attract us? Maybe it's not just a matter of worshipping a human mannequin. Dr. Hue-Sun Ahn, a psychologist at the Princeton University Counseling Center, theorizes that "with the advancements in technology—whether it's the ability to create a computer-refined . . . unrealistic but 'perfect' image, or whether it's the increase of communication through electronic means—we [have fewer] opportunities to get to know people on a . . . personal level. [We don't see] the non-visible qualities of a person, such as compassion, spiritedness, sense of humor, loyalty, along with all the human flaws, shortcomings, and imperfections." Could it be, in our culture of Instant Messages and cell phones, that we forget what people are really like, both internally and externally? More importantly, how many of us would like to remember?

Despite these obstacles, some people are optimistic. Holt and Miller look to the future for change, both from the media tycoons who decide what we are exposed to, and from society finally shunning looks obsession—in the same way the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and other social movements changed the way we live together. Imagine living in a world where we revere human bodies for what they can do, rather than for an arbitrary set of physical features.

Fortunately, the medical profession has also been shifting its views, recognizing that proper nutrition, regular exercise, and healthy lifestyles are far more significant indicators of overall health than weight or body size alone. Some ideas, though, have been painfully slow to develop. For example, few people recognize the influence of our fat-phobic culture on the growing rate of obesity in America. It's likely that many people taught to hate their bodies do not care for them as a result. Though our style-over-substance, form-over-function culture influences even highly trained professionals, more people are realizing that good health is not synonymous with the type of body idolized in fitness magazines.

Drawing attention to the problem is crucial. The thin, tanned, sculpted celebrities promoting causes like animal rights or AIDS awareness seem ill suited to hold benefit concerts or media events to promote body acceptance. Even among students, it's much more stylish to act on behalf of starving children in Africa than starving young middle-class women in America. However, unlike many of the causes that have been furthered by student activists, this is our battle. A poor body image silences far too many in our generation—are we ready to talk back?