Beauty and Body Dissatisfaction in Young Women

By: Aviva Ariel-Donges, M.A.

We’ve all done it: A friend loses weight, and we compliment her on how great she looks. But have you ever stopped to think about why you equate their newly acquired thinness with beauty and health?

Body image dissatisfaction – which means having negative thoughts and feelings about one’s physical appearance – is rampant among women in the United States and is especially problematic for women in college. Researchers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania found that 87% of undergraduate women are unhappy with their bodies and 40% would even undergo consider plastic surgery. While college is supposed to be a time of educational and extracurricular exploration, it seems many young women are preoccupied with their stretch marks, cellulite, and jiggly parts.

Body image dissatisfaction is the strongest predictor of the development of eating disorders in young women. Instead of preparing for a career, many young women are preparing for a lifetime of self-hatred and body shame.

How did we get here? Research indicates that thin ideal internalization (i.e., personal acceptance of thinness as the standard of beauty) plants the seed for body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, and depression. The ideal body type throughout history has often been unrealistic, but the thin ideal is actually a relatively new concept. After centuries idolizing curvaceous figures – from Rubens’ rotund nudes in the 1600s to Marilyn Monroe’s hourglass figure in the 1950s – the rise of diet pills, supermodels, and Jazzercise in the 1970s popularized thin as the preferred body type. With increasingly ubiquitous Internet access, each re-Tweet and ‘like’ further strengthens the message that women are never pretty or skinny enough. Even Beyoncé has fallen prey to the use of Photoshop to promote the thin ideal. No one is safe.

How do we fix this? Every time we compliment a person for losing weight, we promote both the unrealistic beauty standards in our culture and the stigma associated with obesity. In contrast, by publicly critiquing unhealthy norms, we become less adherent to them. Studies with high school and college women have shown that encouraging young women to tell people about the pitfalls of the thin ideal improves their body image satisfaction and reduces disordered eating. We should be screaming it from the rooftop at every chance we get: The thin standard of beauty is arbitrary and temporary! Every body is beautiful in its own way (#bodypositive). A size 12 or 16 or 24 isn’t plus-sized, it’s human-sized!

Our bodies are just one aspect of our experience and not even a fraction of what determines our worth.

The concept is easy to understand yet hard to implement. As public health professionals, we can take a leadership role in fostering a new normal. Call out your family and colleagues for complimenting weight loss and thinness. Stop reading magazines promoting tips for losing 10 pounds in 10 days. Follow body positive bloggers, Pinterest pages, and Tumblrs. Support companies that use non-Photoshopped models in their ad campaigns. Watch movies and TV programs showing the beauty in body diversity. Catch your friends when they start criticizing their bodies. Catch yourself when you start criticizing your own body. Instead, focus on all the amazing things your body allows you to do. Then wake up tomorrow and do it again until the thin ideal is a thing of the past… just like Jazzercise.

 Edited By:  Allison Myers BS, NTP

  Author Spot Light:

 Aviva Ariel-Donges, M.S., is a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida (UF) in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology. Aviva is also concurrently working on a Master’s in Public Health in UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions with a concentration in Social and Behavioral Sciences. Aviva is in the Clinical Health Psychology track, and she works as a Graduate Research Assistant in the UF Weight Management Lab under the mentorship of Dr. Michael G. Perri.


Suggested Readings:

Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women by Renee Engeln, Ph.D.
Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon, Ph.D.
Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life by Kelsey Mille