What does Body Image mean to you?

14 Jan

Catherine Collins

“Body image”: Say it, and it’s received controversially. Surrounded as we are by images of bodies, pictures of half-dressed models and seductive actors/actresses pasted up at the bus station or hanging from billboards, or even on advertisements on our phones, the phrase is still treated with suspicion.  You will almost certainly get a scared look, and the person that you are talking to will ask you to repeat what you said, or challenge you on it.

Body image? courtesy of Nowfoundation.org

Is there a kind of fear connected with this term? A social stigma of some kind? Why? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase simply means: “the subjective picture or mental image of one’s own body”. Why then, does it instigate panic and strange looks?

Students and teenagers, the youth of Ireland today, are those most likely to be affected by the media’s portrayal of  “body image”. By the very nature of our age, we are more tuned in to how we look, and how the people around us look, and how we look compared to them. How do we fit in? Where do we fit in?

We went out to Dublin university campuses to find out what the students, aged between 18 and 24, felt the phrase “body image” meant to them.

Reactions on the street generally fell into two camps. On one side there were the confident ones, all too quick to give me their opinions. Then there were the ones who laughed nervously, and blustered over their words, followed lastly by the ones who informed me that they wouldn’t know, it didn’t mean too much to them, before they strode off. But by most people, my question was answered initially with a reaction of surprise.

Is it important that we look good, and care about our appearance? I think most people would agree that it is. It could be argued that there is too much emphasis placed on appearance these days, and that the media has a large role to play in that. Certainly that is how some of the students surveyed here seemed to feel.

Students that we talked to said that they felt less pressure on them to conform to a specific look now than they would have felt as teenagers. College seems to be a place where people feel more accepted and more secure about their looks than they did in secondary school. This is to be expected, perhaps, as secondary school is a time when your body is going through  high levels of change and transformation, and your mind has to adjust and adapt to this. You become very conscious of your body, and are more critical of it, and of others’. But it still is clear that it is a very important issue as we get older. “It underpins everything,” says one student. Another commented on how it was really a “grey area”.

Even icons of modern Ireland have not been spared from the harsh self-scrutiny that is associated with high ideals of body image today. Miriam O’Callaghan spoke to The Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, Bodywhys, in which she outlined her own insecurities about her body as a teenager.

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