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Body Image #3

Body Image and self-perception: putting appearances into perspective in a superficial world

As a young child, you probably had very little perception of your appearance, or how it differed to those of others.As we get older, though, we start to notice differences between our own appearances and other people’s. I’m sure you can remember the moral lessons of teachers in primary school. Treat others how you want to be treated; it doesn’t matter what people look like; it’s not nice to pick on people for the way we look; it’s what’s on the inside that counts. So why, despite all that, can we remember the playground taunts, many relating to superficial differences? Are we naturally inclined to focus on looks rather than personality? The reasons for such tendencies are complex, but surely at the heart of the issue is the inherent human inclination to assess people and objects visually, rather than through conversation. It is only recently, in the grand scheme of things, that civilisation has moved towards diplomacy and negotiation rather than attacking any entity that looks foreign. It is useful, then, to see our experiences as children in the context of our natural human weaknesses; children have not yet fully grasped social norms, and as such their behaviour is more representative of what we as a species are “naturally” like.

Once we hit puberty and gain some maturity, it perhaps becomes less acceptable to outwardly comment on the appearance of our peers. What changes, however, is our perception of ourselves. Again, there are many factors contributing to this change; hormones, body changes, an increased awareness of the opposite sex. Regardless, almost every adolescent has at some point been concerned with the way they look in a way they simply weren’t when they were younger. I have certainly found myself looking back at the way I used to perceive myself, and have wondered at the difference. It’s a gradual thing, but most would argue that our teenage years are the most testing when it comes to issues of body image. One usually associates this issue with teenage girls, but the pressure on boys to hide their insecurities means it’s an issue equally relevant to both genders.

As a teenager, there are pressures from many different sources, and the relative lack of experience teenagers have make them particularly vulnerable, especially to insecurities about the way they look. The media presents a distorted and idealised view of what young people might aspire to look like, and there are pressures from peer groups also. What makes this issue so serious and prevalent in young people is the balancing act they often have to perform; we are encouraged to create an identity for ourselves, but limited by the decisions of our parents; we are under pressure to achieve well in school, but encouraged to have a wide-ranging social and extracurricular life. Body image issues, then, stem from the relative lack of control young people have over their own lives. Not yet independent, our appearance becomes one of the few things we can control ourselves, and by extension judge others by.

The key to managing insecurities about body image is putting our anxieties into perspective. Earlier I discussed the natural human inclination to judge others by appearance, but overriding this is a tendency to focus on ourselves; what always helps me is the idea that you are almost certainly focusing on your flaws more than other people are. Individuals see the world from their own point of view, and so naturally they are principally interested in issues surrounding their own, limited, experience. As we grow older, a multitude of factors means that for most people, body image becomes less important; obviously, we will always have insecurities, but part of growing up is about accepting your perceived negative points, and even starting to see them as positive. In the end, once we get past our innate disposition to focus on the superficial, we can realise that what we were told at primary school was true all along; it is what’s on the inside that counts.

Martha