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A FEMINIST ANALYSIS OF THE IMPACT OF THE INTERSECTION OF BODY

IMAGE AND GENDER

The perfect illusion created by social media is nurturing severe body image issues, which add
excess pressure to adolescents development. This unwarranted pressure, coupled with the
social climate of schools, adversely impacts students personal growth and intellectual
development. In this essay, a feminist approach is employed to analyse the intersection of
body image and gender and its causal relationship with the deterioration of young peoples
mental health. To this end, this analysis will involve body politics, cultural beauty ideal,
social pressure, body dissatisfaction, strength, muscularity and faade, and end with relevant
suggestions to improve the status quo of body politics.

To gain a deep understanding of the body image issue, inquiry is necessary for the
definition of body image. Body image is a notion encompassing several aspects perception,
attitudes, emotion, function and behaviour (Abbott & Barber, 2010; Cash, 2004; Muth &
Cash, 1997). Body image literally means a mental picture of the appearance of a body,
indicating a persons visual and aective perception of their physical characteristics
(Featherstone, 2010, p. 193). These physical characteristics include commonly mentioned
weight and muscularity, as well as body surface features such as skin, hair and nails, body
movements, and garments (Flaxman, Skattebol, Bedford, & Valentine, 2012, pp. 7374).
Lennon (1992) argues that body image is not only visual, but also aural and odorous. Gleeson
and Frith (2006) propose the idea of regarding body imaging as a social activity. In a
sociological sense, body imaging comprises three processes aectively evaluating ones
own body regarding body satisfaction, placing value (result of the evaluation) on dierent
facets of their body, and behaving in ways that maintain these facets (Abbott & Barber, 2010).
As a result of this tripartite process, body image perfectly matches Bourdieus (1990) concept
of habitus, which is both socially structured and structuring.

As a sociological construct, body image is surrounded by many a social problem. The body
image issue is referred to as body politics in sociological scholarship, and in body politics,
power relationships supervise, confine, diminish, design or generate the body, and also define
and recognise how varied bodies are identified, positioned and structured (Coole, 2013, p.
165). In the body politics among young people, the top three on the power list are media, peer
groups and families (Lee & Lee, 2016; Markey, Tinsley, Ericksen, Ozer, & Markey, 2002),
followed by immediate communities and educational communities (Flaxman, Skattebol,
Bedford, & Valentine, 2012, p. 74). Furthermore, the power dynamics between the attractive
and the unattractive in body politics are analogous with the gender dichotomy in hegemonic

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masculinity. Research indicates the influence of physical attractiveness on financial well-
being (Judge, Hurst & Simon, 2009), which is comparable to the glass ceiling.

The similarity between body politics and gender issues inspires this feminist approach to
the detriment of the intersection of cultural beauty ideals and dominant gender norms to
students. The dominant gender norms promote the conventional binary notion of gender,
where the ideal female beauty is ultra-thin (Thompson & Chad, 2000) and voluptuous with a
hairless body and minimum muscles and the male ideal is muscular with minimum body fat
and extreme features such as prominent jaw lines (Keating, 1985). The dichotomy between
the two cultural beauty ideals reflects the power dynamic of gender hegemony, which
facilitates, solidifies and protects male dominance and female inferiority (Connell, 1995, p.
77). In this gender hegemony, any fluidity in gender expression is strictly forbidden and
therefore will be punished and regulated by means of social conventions (Butler, 1988, p.
527). These social conventions manifest themselves in a variety of forms. For example, the
mass media in China promote the message of gain weight to male adolescents and lose
weight to female adolescents (Kim & So, 2014; Mellor et al., 2009; Xu et al., 2010). A similar
trend is shown in social pressure. As demonstrated in previous studies, females were more
pressured to strive for a slim ideal body and to be involved in weight loss (Kim & Lee, 2010;
Liechty, 2010), whilst male adolescents were more pressured to become more muscular (Xu
et al., 2010). Despite occurring in a negative form as stress and pressure, these social
conventions enacted by the hegemonic masculinity sometimes are disguised in a positive
shell, for instance, as peer support. Research indicated that boys were more inclined to
support each other in muscle building (Jones, Vigfusdottir & Lee, 2004), and that girls were
more supportive of each other in weight loss (Griths & McCabe, 2000). The female and
male body politics have a larger gender gap than a few opposing characteristics between
them, and are too disparate to be discussed in a simple form of comparison, hence the need of
seperate study.

Female Body Politics: Cultural Beauty Ideal, Social Pressure and Body Dissatisfaction

The sociocultural pressure on body image that girls and women are faced with throughout
their lives is significantly intense. Girls body fat increases during puberty, distancing them
further from the ultra-slim cultural female ideal, while boys experience an adolescent shift
towards the cultural male ideal (Thompson & Chad, 2000). This paradox of physiology and
cultural pressure underpins the unhealthy situation of female body politics. Another
damaging aspect of the dominant discourse about the female stereotype is at the core of male
dominance, which treats females as only an object of male lust (Szymanski, Mott & Carr,
2011). This objectification of females distorts females self perception of their bodies, making
it always based on others observation, and thus females are socially structured to adopt an
observers view on their somatic selves, to primarily focus on their pursuit of beauty (Rodin,
Silberstein & Striegel-Moore, 1984), and to have a tendency of body shame and eating
disorders (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Furthermore, because hegemonic masculinity
regulates that girls and women are obliged to conform to the cultural beauty ideal, more
supervision is placed on them to enhance their appearance than boys and men. Evidence
supports that females who do not adhere to beauty ideals receive more negative judgement
and discrimination than their male counterparts (Leavy, Gnong & Ross, 2009; Taylor, 2011).
Joness (2004) longitudinal analysis found that female adolescents body dissatisfaction was
mainly brought by peer conversation and social comparison related to looks.

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The result of internalising multitudinous sociocultural pressure in terms of body image is
the more severe situation of body dissatisfaction in girls than boys. This severity in
comparison exists in two aspects: firstly, body dissatisfaction is more common in females
than in males; and secondly, girls are reported to have experience greater levels of body
dissatisfaction than boys (Griths et al., 2017). Body dissatisfaction adversely aects girls
and womens emotional well-being, placing a substantially heavier health burden on females
than males (Griths et al., 2017). The health burden is not only psychological. Under the
social pressure to obey the prescribed beauty ideal, females tend to falsely perceive
themselves as over-weight and to employ unhealthy methods to control their weight (Lee &
Lee, 2016, p. 9). These unhealthy methods could increase the risk of anaemia, brittle bone
disease and dehydration (Sagar, 2005) and cause eating disorders (Forman-Homan, 2004).
In fact, eating disorders are highly dierentiated in sexes, with a female predominance in risk
(Klump, Culbert & Disk, 2017, p. 184). According to American Psychiatric Association (2013),
rates of female-male dierence in anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder vary between
2:1 and 10:1.

Male Body Politics: Strength, Muscularity and Faade

Despite the female preponderance in body dissatisfaction issues, both the ubiquity and
detriment of male body dissatisfaction are rising (Mitchison & Mond, 2015). It is indeed
yesterdays news as Labre discovered in 2005 great levels of internalisation of media male
beauty standards and extremely high levels of body dissatisfaction in American young men.
The increasing awareness of male beauty is a consequence of the feminist movement, which
improved the power imbalance in gender dynamics and stopped females from being the only
victim of objectification. Nonetheless, the improvement, if not slight, is certainly not
satisfactory, as muscularity is still strongly associated with masculinity. This association
exemplifies hegemonic masculinity and male dominance, and in hegemonic masculinity, the
ideal male beauty riddled with supreme strength and premium power is rewarded with
exposure and popularity in media. This rewarding system incentivises boys and men to
achieve this glorified muscled figure, and its ecacy is obvious in mens common expression
of a desire to achieve muscular upper bodies (McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2001), and a
corresponding rapid growth in steroid use (Iversen & Maher, 2015). Statistics have shown
that the percentage of steroid users in all injection users rose from 2% in 2010 to 7% in 2014,
and that steroids have been the most injected drug among new injection drug users since
2011 (Iversen & Maher, 2015). Research also indicates that a focus on muscle instead of body
fat may increase males risk of muscle dysmorphia (Griths, Murray & Touyz, 2015; Murray,
Rieger, Karlov, & Touyz, 2013).

The prevalence of steroids is not the only deterioration brought by hegemonic


masculinity upon mens health issues. While muscularity is the physical embodiment of
strength, the mental embodiment of strength is willpower, in the notion of hegemonic
masculinity. One faade men maintain to showcase their willpower is the silent mask
underneath which all the pain and insecurity is buried. This faade is evident in mens
attitude towards body dissatisfaction, which is on the list of insecurity that is forbidden to
express under the law of hegemonic masculinity. In Hargreaves and Tiggemanns (2006)
quantitative study, body dissatisfaction was only claimed by few adolescent male
Australian participants, but some participants confessed that the importance of their body
image is greater to them than they had admitted. In fact, Mellor, Fuller-Tyszkiewicz,

3 A Feminist Analysis of the Impact of the Intersection of Body Image and Gender Zhengzhi Chen
McCabe and Ricciardelli (2010) found that, male Australians considered their body image
as more important compared with their female peers. Because body dissatisfaction is not
so common in males as in females, significant male body dissatisfaction is more inclined to
be cause mental health issues than that of females (Griffiths et al., 2016). Evidence
indicates that males might showcase more co-morbidity than females when it comes to
eating disorders (Weltzin et al., 2012), such as more compulsive exercise (Murray,
Griffiths, Rieger, & Touyz, 2013) and anxiety (Gadalla, 2008).

Dealing with Body Image Issues: Suggestions and Policies

Diverse suggestions, philosophic, sociological, medical and educational, have been made to
improve the status quo of body image issues in children and young adults. One category of
suggestions was made from a philosophic perspective. Dr. Griths (as cited in Trounson,
2017) stresses the philosophy of function over form, and encourages people and society to
shift their focus from a persons appearance to their competence and abilities. This
philosophy was the theoretic base of all the policies of the restrictions of school uniforms,
such as School Uniforms in New South Wales Government Schools (New South Wales
Department of Education and Training Student Welfare Directorate, 2004). Another
category of suggestions is rather sociological. For instance, Murnen and Smolak (2009)
praised the protective role of feminist beliefs against female body dissatisfaction and eating
disorders. The third category of advice was from a medical viewpoint, such as the proposal to
establish body dissatisfaction as a public health concern. According to Griths et al.s (2017)
research, body dissatisfaction should not only be regarded as a risk factor for clinical
psychopathology (p. 78). Hargreaves and Tiggemann (2006) reckoned that health
professionals should research and even treat body dissatisfaction, and especially for boys,
due to their reluctance to admit their body dissatisfaction. The fourth kind of advice is on an
educational level. Mitchison, Hay, Slewa-Younan and Mond (2014) advocate the inclusion of
boys in curricula and interventions targeted at body dissatisfaction and eating disorders,
which can be added to the syllabus of Building Positive Body Image (Board of Studies,
Teaching & Educational Standards NSW, 2016). The concept of nutritional intervention is
briefly included in the policies of the Department of Health (2011) for sta and carers of early
childhood education and care. Other educational suggestions include teaching adolescents
critical evaluation of media and facilitating parents and peers influence on adolescents
perception of body image (Lee & Lee, 2016, p. 8). National Advisory Groups (2009) project A
Proposed National Strategy on Body Image, and Oce for Youths (2011) project Sizing Up Body
Image are basically expanded and systematic versions of all the above suggestions.

Conclusion

The intersection of body politics and gender issues prevails in various social settings, and
has undeniable damage to young peoples health and personal growth. However, gender is
not the only social construct that can be analysed parallel with body image. As a social issue
that intersects with almost every other issue, body politics still have not yet inspired a
relevant sociological theory, which would be considerably useful considering the rise of the
body image issue.

4 A Feminist Analysis of the Impact of the Intersection of Body Image and Gender Zhengzhi Chen
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