Thursday 18 December 2014

First Communion season highlights body image issues

Published 06/05/2014 | 02:30

Preparation for Holy Communion should not take place within schools
Seven and eight-year-old girls will already be conscious of their bodies by the time they make their First Communion

IT IS Communion season. In my last opinion piece, I wrote about the hypocrisy that some parents demonstrate in making a huge fuss about their child's First Communion, while not actually being a regularly practising Catholic.

I wrote about the need to embody our values and moral beliefs, rather than simply pay lip service to a set of religious doctrines that we don't actually believe. But, an equally interesting feature of Communion season is the effort that some parents will go to, to prettify their daughters for the big day.

That 'prettification' isn't just a parental urge either. Seven and eight-year-old girls will already have their own idea of what is pretty, what is ugly, what is fashionable and what is passé. Seven and eight-year-old girls will already be conscious of their bodies and the social pressures to conform to some idealised version of thin.

Harvard Medical School researchers carried out a really interesting study in Fiji, back at the time when television was introduced to the island. They were interested to find out what impact television might have on body satisfaction and dis-ordered eating amongst teenage girls.

Traditionally, in Fiji, big was considered beautiful and fuller figures preferred to thinner figures. Dieting was almost non-existent. In fact, losing weight was considered to be a cause for concern, not appreciation. But, in 1995, television arrived on the island and within three years this culture began to change. Three quarters of the girls who took part in the study described themselves as too big or too fat.

Dieting in teenage girls increased dramatically, such that two in every three girls dieted. About one in 10 of the girls in the study started to vomit after eating as a means of controlling their weight, a practice that had never been seen socially in Fiji prior to this time.

Self-reports from the girls made explicit reference to the body shapes of the American female TV stars that they were now watching, commenting on things like feeling fat in comparison.

In the last 20 years, there is increasing evidence that media and images from media are having a hugely destructive impact on girls and women with regard to body image and dieting. We do know that being pretty (or handsome) makes a positive difference socially and professionally.

Researchers prove to us that in many situations we automatically defer to beauty, assuming that along with beauty comes all sorts of other positive characteristics.

This is sometimes referred to as the "halo effect" in which we tend to allow global features of a person to influence our judgements of specific traits that they might have.

So, for example, we have a tendency to think beautiful people are funnier, more friendly, more intelligent, more exciting, in possession of better social skills, are sexually warmer, are more interesting, poised and even more independent.

Research demonstrates that good looking people are more likely to be hired for a job, and then tend to end up with higher salaries, than people who are not considered to be good looking.

Physical attractiveness, unsurprisingly, is a key factor in choosing boyfriends, girlfriends and potential mates.

What is surprising, however, is that the social benefits that accrue to beautiful people start in early childhood. Young children who are considered to be cute or pretty will get a more positive response to their misbehaviour than a child who is considered to be less cute.

So, their aggressive acts, for example, may be considered to be less "naughty" than a less attractive child's, meaning they get less negative attention or punishment. Even in school, teachers will assume that a less attractive child is also less intelligent.

Possibly as a consequence of getting a better deal in childhood, beautiful children tend to grow up with higher self-esteem.

This then may be what allows them the confidence to present well at interview, or to appear socially confident generally, accentuating their physical good looks. All the cards in life seem to be stacked more favourably for pretty girls and handsome boys. But, while our cognitive biases in favour of attractive people may be subconscious, our desires to be attractive are not.

Perhaps because of an instinctual reproductive urge, we are all prone to comparing ourselves to others. In evolutionary terms, we are looking for an ideal mate, but also aware that others are looking at us too. So, it made sense in communities large and small to be aware of what researchers term the "local mating pool". Men have always compared themselves to other men and women have always compared themselves to other women.

When we then try to determine our attractiveness, we will do so according to these comparisons. We feel more attractive when we are contrasted with a person less attractive and less attractive when compared with one who is deemed more attractive.

In the past, however, that comparison was with a comparatively small group of others in our local mating pool. Now, with access to television and the Internet, the potential points of comparison are infinite and all around us.

So, not only do we have multiple images of others to compare with, but we are no longer comparing like with like as the geographic and cultural boundaries that may have been present are no longer present.

We also have a bigger problem in that the kinds of women that girls see in the media are often those of the highest status. So they are pop stars, sports stars, movie stars and so on. Whatever their body shape, or perceived attractiveness, it may have greater influence on a girl's self-perception than seeing a similar 'ordinary' girl.

Beyond even this issue, the biggest problem that girls have with media presentations of other girls and women is that the images are false. Digital retouching of photographs, particularly, is so commonplace and misunderstood, that many of us don't even realise that these pictures are falsified.

Facial blemishes are routinely erased, lip and hair colour get accentuated, eyes get reshaped, limbs get lengthened and thinned.

One teenaged pop star, Lorde, recently made a public issue of images of her that had been digitally altered. She tweeted two pictures of herself, taken at the same concert.

One was unaltered, showing her very normal skin complexion.

The other had been enhanced to show an unattainably smooth skin complexion, and deeper lip and hair colour. So it is no wonder that young girls, teenage girls and women all report higher levels of body dissatisfaction now than in the past. They are comparing themselves with unachievable body shapes.

These media portrayals of women are not "normal", so is it any wonder that girls and women feel an intense, unfair and unrealistic pressure to attain some fictional body shape that society, generally, deems to be ideal.

The real difficulty is that it isn't just that girls and women are dissatisfied with their own attractiveness, but they also feel a pressure to change themselves to meet these falsely created ideals.

In 2010, the Royal College of Psychiatrists issued a statement on the influence of the media on eating disorders. One of their conclusions was that: "The media has a role in both providing a social context for the development and maintenance of eating disorders ... achieved by propagating unobtainable body ideals and the acceptability of dieting ... "

They also concluded that: "There is a lack of reality-based imagery" in the media. First Communions are not the cause of body image issues in young girls but they do highlight just how prevalent they are, and at what a young age they begin.

So, when your daughter complains of being fat as she tries on various dresses, you can, at least, be aware of the likely source of her dissatisfaction with the shape she is.

When you apply some fake tan to her skin, be conscious of why you or she thinks that her regular skin colour isn't attractive or healthy.

Do ask yourself if this is about your ideal of 'pretty', her ideal of 'pretty' or the consequence of social pressure based on media manipulation?

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