“I have to buy Cosmo every month, because I have to compare my body with the models,’’ says a patient in The Broken Mirror, written by Dr Katharine Phillips. “I always feel worse when I do it, because they always look better than me, but I can’t resist doing it.”
Another patient described in the book is so tortured by her looks that she can’t function normally in society. “I’ve missed weddings, birthday parties, and funerals because of how I look. I don’t go outside, and I’m on medical leave from college because of it. I’m an ugly duckling. I’ve been teased my whole life. What’s the point of living?”
These patients represent the more extreme end of body dissatisfaction, suffering from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Sufferers become obsessed by perceived – but in reality almost non-existent – flaws in their appearance. A specific area usually becomes the target – their nose, hair, or weight. Dieting, weight lifting, excessive exercise, tanning, measuring, camouflaging techniques, and agoraphobia are just some of the cruel behaviours associated with the disorder as sufferers try to hide or fix a flaw that doesn’t exist, or barely exists. It can ruin lives.
Anxiety Australia estimates 1-2 per cent of Australians suffer from BDD. While those sufferes represent the more extreme end of body dissatisfaction, figures reported by the Australian Psychological Society show the extent of general body dissatisfaction in our society is alarming, with more than 70 per cent of Australian girls wishing to be thinner and an equivalent number of boys wanting to be either thinner or bigger.
The causes of this dissatisfaction and BDD are varied with genetic, environmental and psychological factors all believed to play a part. And of course, social pressure, the media and the idealised way bodies are portrayed are thought to be a factor in some cases. Check out this post on Jezebel which reveals the extent that normal, healthy bodies are manipulated every day.
It is this factor – the glaring overrepresentation of certain body types by the media – that The Butterfly Foundation aims to bring to the forefront in a new competition called ‘The Body Con’*. Rather than just speaking out about the awfulness of body dissatisfaction and deadly conditions like anorexia sometimes associated with it, the Foundation wants help from society to turn the notion of an ‘ideal body’ on its head.
They’re calling for anyone – from university students to advertising agencies – to create a 30 second advertisement in any medium exposing the media’s fraudulent representation of beauty. They want help challenging misguided beliefs regarding how we are ‘supposed’ to look and be.
“This is about increasing awareness about the seriousness of negative body image,” says the Foundation’s national communications manager, Sarah Spence. “We wanted to engage people on a creative level and get them to think about their thoughts and opinions on body image and encourage them to share those thoughts with us.”
While efforts have been made by some media to be more inclusive and representative, often this feels like a token effort. Real change will come when the portrayal of a variety of bodies is seen as not cause for surprise, but a normal part of the media landscape. No-one can say there is enough representation of disabled people, of diverse body types and shapes, of certain cultures and ethnicities.
“Our perspective is very much that while we welcome efforts to promote diversity and positive body image by certain media, there is a heck of a lot more that needs to happen to ensure positivity is there for the long haul, not just five minutes,” Spence says.
Evidence suggests it is worth doing all we can to promote stronger self-esteem. A recent study published in the journal Body Image found positive body image protects women from negative, environmental appearance messages and suggests promoting positive body image may be an effective intervention strategy.
Turning thinking on its head once self-esteem and confidence has already been obliterated may be a more difficult task, but one that has to be invested in to protect against an ideal that has seen very young boys and girls hating themselves.
*Melissa Davey will be a panellist for The Body Con on March 13th at The Seymour Centre to discuss the fraud playing out on billboards and TV screens worldwide, and to celebrate the winning advertisement. Entries close January 31.
This article first appeard on ‘Daily Life’ on 5 December 2013.