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The trouble with body comparisons

By Dr. Cris Haltom

If you have been in Abercrombie and Fitch lately you will likely find a woman's t-shirt for sale that says on the front "Do I make you look fat?" Young people know what this means. It goes like this. If your child with body image problems compares herself to a peer, especially one perceived to match the thin ideal, your child, in all likelihood, will negatively judge herself to be "fat". Needless to say, this kind of t-shirt fashion promotes painful and insensitive humor at the expense of those struggling with a negative body image.

As a parent, it is good to notice negative, body-bashing advertising. Not to dwell on Abercrombie and Fitch, but a colleague of mine recently told me that male sales clerks at a nearby A & F store were selling clothes on an average Saturday afternoon in the Mall while bare from the low-cut waist up. What is the problem with this? Men struggle with an increase in the media of near-naked exposure of skin, muscle, and pubic hair. Males models flaunt their sexuality and sensuality. Like women, their bodies have become objectified by the media. They, too, are invited to look like impossibly idealized models. Men, like women, are at risk for defining their self esteem according to the sum total of their variously valued body parts.

Research

Research findings have corroborated the negative impact of comparing one's body to both thin media images and in vivo peers. In a recent study by Krones, Stice, Batres and Orjada (2005) 119 female undergraduates were exposed to either an average-sized (5'4", 140 lbs.), real-live, previously unknown, undergraduate female or a similar undergraduate who conformed to the thin media ideal (5'8", 125 lbs.). Both confederates in the study were dressed the same. They wore jeans and a form-fitting top. Interestingly, independent raters in the study judged both the confederates in the study to be above-average in "attractiveness". Yet the thin-ideal confederate was rated significantly more attractive.

Each participant in the Krones study was led to believe that two college men would be rating her along with either the thin-ideal confederate or the average confederate on their "dating potential". Each female participant was then exposed to either the average-sized or thin-ideal confederate. They were given, along with other information, the confederate's weight. The researchers thus created an atmosphere where the social comparison process was accentuated and body-size was emphasized.

The women exposed to the thin-ideal confederate experienced significantly greater increase in dissatisfaction with their own bodies than those exposed to the average-sized confederate. These results are consistent with previous findings which show that looking at thin- ideal images in the media increases body dissatisfaction (Groesc et al, 2002) as well as negative affect, stress, and insecurity (Stice and Shaw, 1994). Similarly, another study found that adolescent girls who tried to look like media-portrayed images were more likely to be concerned about their weight (Field at al, 2001).

There is mounting evidence supporting what common sense already tells us about the impact of media images on body satisfaction. Increase in media exposure and strong socio- cultural pressures to conform to appearance ideals can easily lead to body-dissatisfaction. For women, social comparison to a thin-ideal peer can be especially demoralizing.

10 tips

Here are TEN TIPS to help you encourage body satisfaction and discourage negative social comparisons in your child:

1. If children complain about various body parts they dislike in themselves or others, ENCOURAGE THEM to value the body as a whole rather than separately evaluated parts.

2. Lay a good foundation for self-esteem not based on appearance. Help your child focus on inner beauty rather than OUTWARD APPEARANCE.

3. Ask your child to identify people they admire for their contributions to the world. Then ask them whether appearance was important to their ACCOMPLISHMENTS.

4. If your child asks you for an evaluation of her or his body, DECLINE THE REQUEST.

5. Rather than being critical of someone else's body or size, SHOW APPRECIATION for nature's gift of a wide variety of sizes and shapes in others.

6. DON'T CRITICIZE your own shape, size or appearance.

7. Talk to your sons and daughters about the UNFAIR PRESSURES of society and the media to conform to model ideals.

8. If you overhear your children engaging in diet talk, thin talk, or making appearance-based comparisons with peers, ENCOURAGE them to resist judging themselves and others based on physical characteristics.

9. When you see a TV program or commercial or a fashion magazine that promotes the thin ideal or some other narrowly-defined concept of attractiveness, SAY SOMETHING TO YOUR CHILD. Discourage buying into the media's definition of how the body should look.

10. Most young people with eating disorders anxiously compare their bodies with others. They often distort what they see in themselves and in others. They are afraid they don't measure up. Don't join your child in this activity. Avoid APPEARANCE-BASED ASSESSMENTS of others.

Summary

Despite recent public campaigns to discourage young people from conforming to media ideals about how to look, the media still dictates what kind of body or appearance is acceptable. Young people often judge themselves by comparing themselves to models in the media and to others, often peers. Those with eating disorders are especially prone to evaluating their body based on painful and obsessive comparisons with others. Parents can create an atmosphere in the family which discourages this.

Field, A. E., Camargo, C. A., Taylor, C.B., Berkey, C.S., Roberts, S.B., and Colditz, G.A. (2001) Peer, parent, and media influences on the development of weight concerns and frequent dieting among preadolescent and adolescent girls and boys. Pediatrics, 107, 54-60.

Groesz, L. M., Levine, M.P., and Murnen, S.K. (2002) The effect of experiemental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31, 1-16.

Krones, P. G., Stice, E., Batres, C., and Orjada,K. (2005) In vivo social comparison to a thin-ideal peer promotes body dissatisfaction: A randomized experiment. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 38:2, 143-142.

Stice, E. and Shaw, H. E. (1994) Adverse effects of the media portrayed thin-ideal on women and linkages to bulimic symptomology. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 13, 288-308.

Cris Haltom has a Ph.D. from Cornell University. She is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Ithaca, N. Y. Cris is an Approved Supervisor (#110) for the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals. She is available for training, presentations, and workshops. She has published articles, co-edited a text book, appeared on cable television, taught workshops, and taught academic courses as adjunct faculty at Cornell University and other colleges.

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CRIS E. HALTOM, Ph.D.

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