Body dissatisfaction has become so prevalent among girls that it is now being described as a "normative discontent". And it is appearing at increasingly younger ages. Nearly half of the three- to six-year-old girls in a study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology said that they worried about being fat.
Females appear neurologically hard-wired for body dissatisfaction if the media environment is right. A 2002 meta-analysis of 25 studies concluded that "body image was significantly more negative after viewing thin media images".
This effect is both strong and immediate and researchers are now analysing brain activation patterns to illuminate the underlying mechanisms. Increased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain can suggest extreme unhappiness and, in some cases, self-loathing.
In one recent study, healthy women with a high degree of body confidence looked at images of computer-generated models in skimpy bikinis. The women were told to imagine that someone else was saying each model looked like her.
When presented with overweight images, the medial prefrontal cortex showed increased activation in all of the women. Merely imagining that they might be overweight seemed to lead women to question their sense of self, even though they claimed afterwards that the test was boring or meaningless. Men showed no significant medial prefrontal cortex activation while processing equivalent male images. The researchers concluded that there are "sub-clinical" issues with body image among healthy women and a much finer line between women with and without eating disorders than previously thought.
Even the printed word elicits similar neurological reactions. The amygdala is implicated in processing emotional reactions such as fear, threat, anxiety and emotional responses to pain. A 2005 study found that, in women, words such as "obesity", "corpulence" or "heavy" were accompanied by increased activation in the amygdala, while the areas associated with decision making and rational thought became inactive. In men, the response was the reverse.
Exposure to images depicting attractive females is found to alter women's perception of their own attractiveness through a cognitive comparison process referred to as the contrast effect. In evaluating one's own attractiveness, one appears more attractive when contrasted with someone less attractive and less attractive when contrasted with someone of greater attractiveness.
Until recently, these self-evaluations involved a relatively small number of women. Today, the sheer number of "beautiful" images young children are exposed to daily has skyrocketed, deceiving this cognitive and neurological comparison process. A child is starting life with endless unrealistic points of comparison, resulting in widespread body image distortion.
Media literacy consultants have been quick to offer schools help in developing pupils' skills to manage media influences. By demonstrating, for example, how photos of celebrities are airbrushed, pupils are encouraged to think more critically about media messages and images that promote unrealistic body shapes. But there are profound limits to how far we can redress, through rational explanation, what is a cumulative, subconscious, emotional effect.
Children's self-evaluation needs to involve more non-virtual points of comparison - that is, real people. It is therefore important to encourage pupils to spend more time in the real world and less in the virtual one so they are able to compare themselves within a healthy arena.
Parents must be involved in protecting pupils' body image by listening and responding with reassurance to their child's concerns. Mothers in particular should not openly lament their own body shapeweight in front of their daughters.
Body image should be linked with discussions of puberty, reassuring pupils that changes in body shape are good and necessary and that everyone develops at different times and rates.
Teachers can encourage pupils to question narrow, media-defined beauty ideals and ask how they feel about the fact that body shapes are usually computer-manipulated. And encouraging children to recognise and pursue their own talents, skills and other strengths and achievements helps to inoculate against body dissatisfaction by boosting confidence in other areas.
Preventing body dissatisfaction is often less a case of actively doing and saying positive things and more a case of reducing negative things. The concept of "celebrating our bodies" is an adult one; children's bodies should not be objectified. If anything, bodies should be thought about less, talked about less and merely taken for granted.
Dr Aric Sigman is a PSHE lecturer. His paper on body image was the scientific article for a June 2012 Edexcel A-level biology paper (ref: 6BI0501). www.aricsigman.com
Sigman A. "Time For a View on Screen Time" (forthcoming). Archives of Disease in Childhood
Sigman A. "A Source of Thinspiration?" (2010). The Biologist, 57 (3), 117-121.
Groesz, L.M. et al. "The Effect of Experimental Presentation of Thin Media Images on Body Satisfaction" (2002). International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31 (1), 1-16
Shirao, N. et al. "Gender Differences in Brain Activity Generated by Unpleasant Word Stimuli Concerning Body Image" (2005). The British Journal of Psychiatry, 186, 48-53.