Whether it’s hating our hair or wishing that we weren’t quite so tall, most of us have disliked something about our appearance at some point. At its worst, poor body image can be extremely dangerous – contributing to the development of eating disorders, body dysmorphia and mental health issues including depression, anxiety and suicidality.
You probably knew all that. But an American academic has found that when women have a negative or poor body image, they also tend to take part in riskier behaviours, including unsafe sex and substance abuse.
Virginia Ramseyer Winter, assistant professor of social work at the University of Missouri, has dedicated much of her professional career to studying body image in relation to women’s physical, mental and sexual health.
Her research highlights how women who are dissatisfied with their bodies tend to start having sex earlier, use condoms less frequently, and experience higher rates of unplanned pregnancies. In one study of 474 women, aged between 18 and 61, she found that women who disliked their bodies were less likely to use condoms if they had more than one regular sexual partner – putting them more at risk of unwanted pregnancy and STIs.
Dr Ramseyer Winter says that women with negative views of their body are also at greater risk of engaging in risky behaviours such as smoking.
“For many women, their views of their body are influenced by mainstream popular culture,” she told Science Daily. “This leads a majority of women, regardless of their size, to be dissatisfied with their body, even when they know they are comparing their body to unrealistic ideals.”
Women’s magazines, fashion advertising, glossy TV shows and Hollywood movies have all been criticised in the past for contributing to negative body image in women. But an increasing amount of recent research suggests that social media can also have a detrimental effect on the way that women – particularly young women – view themselves.
In 2015, researchers at the University of Melbourne found that Year 7 girls who regularly post selfies on social media are far more likely to diet, glorify thinness, and feel dissatisfied with their bodies. Another recent study, published in the journal Body Image, found that women made more negative comparisons about their face, hair and skin after spending time on Facebook.
But Dr Ramseyer Winter says that social media can also be a powerful tool for promoting body positivity. She points to celebrities such as Kate Winslet, Jennifer Lawrence and Zendaya, all of whom have used Facebook or Instagram to share un-retouched photographs of themselves and criticise magazines for using digitally altered pictures.
Dr Ramseyer Winter also says she feels encouraged by the increased diversity in toys for young girls, which she believes can help promote body positivity from a young age.
In August 2015, Mattel launched a new range of ethnically and physically diverse Barbies, with eight different skin tones and 23 hair shades. And in March this year, the iconic doll was re-launched in three new body shapes: curvy, petite and tall.
However, while media representations are important, Dr Ramseyer Winter says that parents ultimately need to teach their daughters to think critically about the images they see. “It is fine for young girls to love Disney princesses, as long as they understand that what is depicted on television and in reality are not the same thing.”
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