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Fear – it most definitely exists!

Who has ever said “I can’t”, despite knowing full well that you probably could, if you just tried? This is something I have a habit of doing, and if you asked my friends, they would probably say that it is one of the most irritating things I do (and I am pretty sure that I can be quite irritating at times!).

I recently started bouldering.  For anyone that doesn’t know what this is, it’s a form of indoor climbing, but because it is more about mastering a route than height, harnesses are not required. The thing with this however, is that height and the requirement for harnesses is clearly a matter of perspective. Indeed, sure enough, when I got to the top of a route (the easiest one there, I might add!) on my first climb, there was no way on Earth that anyone was going to tell me that I wasn’t up high – or that I didn’t require a harness in case I fell!!!!

I can promise you that when I looked down, it was like I was about a thousand feet away from the floor. Clearly this is an exaggeration, but it really doesn’t matter to someone who is scared of heights (like most of us are), which is a common trait with evolutionary significance (more on this here if you are interested).

I felt dizzy, my heart was racing, my hands were sweaty, and I felt sick at the fact that I had to climb all the way back down. All this, despite the fact that my climbing partner, who is much more experienced than I am, and (unfortunately for him) was supervising me (the frozen to the spot woman at the top of the wall), had assured me that I could do it, and even if I fell, the floor is heavily padded, and people fall off all the time.

So what happened?

Well, first of all, I said (you guessed it) “I CAN’T”.

Then I reiterated, slightly louder……

“I CAN’T”

However, I soon realised that I was wasting time and energy by not doing the one thing that would get what I wanted – my feet back on the floor, as well as prove to myself that I CAN do it.

It was quite easy really, I mean, everyone around me was showing that it was possible, and they had such satisfied looks on their faces that I wanted to feel that sense of achievement too. I got to the bottom, and with my feet firmly on the floor, I could feel that I had the most ridiculous grin across my face. Then realising that there was never a “Can’t”, but an “I won’t, because I am scared right now”, I had a thought, and this is where my story (I hope) ties in with the focus of this blog site – Body image…..

How does this relate to body image?

Well, first is the obvious; my body is pretty amazing, and can do some pretty awesome things, even if my brain sometimes thinks otherwise! This goes to show that sometimes, it is easy for our judgement about our bodies to be wrong, especially when all around us, others appear to be ‘better’ in some way.

In reality, my climbing friends have all told me that everyone feels the same as I did when they first started, it just isn’t something they talk about – and this is the big one for me in regards to body image and in particular, body dissatisfaction!

If we don’t talk about it, does it still exist?

Just like if I was having negative feelings about my appearance that I hadn’t told my friends about, if I had tried to keep quiet my screeching of “I CAN’T”, they may never have known. In their minds, the fear may never have existed.

Even so,  just as the unspoken thoughts, feelings and perceptions that we may have about our bodies at times, with my sweaty palms and a racing heart, my fear of heights and falling would have definitely still been there – the unspoken feelings would still exist!

However, had I been able to hide this from my friends, not only would I have been the only one to experience this, they may also have been the only ones who had ever experienced it too. This is the same with thoughts about our bodies which are left unspoken – they exist to no one but you, but may be experienced by many.

That doesn’t make sense!

Well, you are probably right, this appeared much more straight forward in my head. What I am trying to say is that, had I not disclosed (in quite a spectacular way) that I was feeling the way I was when climbing, I wouldn’t have known that others feel the same way. In addition, as my friends pointed out:

“it just isn’t something they talk about”

This means that if I hadn’t spoken out about my fear, not only would I not have realised how common it is, my friends may never have had the discussion which normalised their own fear that they never talked about.

I am sure that you can draw the comparison here with regards to body image –

If we don’t discuss individual concerns, we might never realise how common they are!

Indeed, whilst this appears to be slowly changing, non-disclosure of concerns surrounding body image and appearance is common. As a result, it can seem like we are alone in feeling this way, reducing the likelihood of discussing any personal concerns even more.

However, with reports of up to 70% of young people being unhappy with their bodies (British Youth Council, 2017), it seems likely that any concerns are not individual, but shared with others – they exist, and they exist for other people too.

Even so, body image can be a sensitive issue, with an historic tendency not to discuss feelings of unhappiness with our bodies (particularly in the male population). Thus, increasing the evidently required discussion surrounding these issues is difficult.

How do we do it then?

As I indicated above, things are slowly changing, and there does appear to be an increase in the discussion of potentially sensitive issues such as body image. There is no doubt that this has been aided by campaigns, such as the celebrity endorsed body confidence campaigns I have previously written about. However, in order to go further, more research into the specificity of body image and appearance related concerns (particularly in relation to men and boys) is required.

In the next month or so, I will be launching an online survey surrounding the topic of male body image and appearance, as part of my PhD project. The survey will invite men and boys aged 16-39 to get involved with some much needed further research, by providing anonymous responses to several questions about male appearance.

I look forward to sharing the survey, as well as the findings from this project on this site at a later date.

For now, I can highly recommend bouldering. And if you scream as loud as me – that’s okay – fear exists, it is quite normal, and I experience it too!!!!!

 

#FeedMyBodyImage

News feeds – tailored to you (perhaps)!?

There is a growing body of research which links social media use with body dissatisfaction. However, the thing with social media is that what shows up in your news feed is very cleverly influenced by things like age, gender, location, interests, and many, many other possible varying factors. It is therefore, often difficult to know what images/information is popping up on other people’s news feeds. As such, this can be an issue in which misunderstanding and misrepresentation can arise.

My age seems to imply that I require recommendations in my feed for new glasses, anti-aging cream (pictured on a celebrity that clearly has no need for anti-wrinkle cream), those black ankle boots I looked at on another website once (slightly creepy how they do that), and of course, that ‘slimming’ little black dress for the upcoming festive season. However, I would predict that your adverts/suggested pages etc., are very different to mine, and perhaps unlike mine, may even contain something that you actually want to see.

With regards to body image, this means that whilst I may identify appearance related media upon my news feed, it is unlikely that this is the same material that younger people are seeing on their own news feeds. Therefore, it would be silly for me to assume that I am aware of the media messages being consumed by this age group. Having said this, my research focuses on young people. Thus, if this information is important, as research suggests it is, there is a clear requirement that an attempt is made to find out.

What is #FeedMyBodyImage?

#FeedMyBodyImage is a simple activity, where young people aged 16-21 are invited to help create a visual representation of appearance related media content (a ‘Media Montage’), as it is experienced by them on their own news feeds. This information will be used as a discussion tool both on this blog and the EveryBODY Talk Facebook page, which anyone is invited to join in. In addition, the visual representation will be utilised within focus group sessions, and to help inform further research.

Of course, given the individuality of news feeds that I have just discussed, there will be much variation in news feed data. However, it is hoped that this will be a good discussion point in itself. Therefore, the more diverse media images collected, the better.

What does it involve?

If you are aged 16-21 and you would like to take part in this activity by submitting images for the ‘Media Montage’, there are three simple steps to follow:

1. Scroll through your chosen social networking feed.

2. Send images related to appearance to the EveryBODY Talk Facebook page via private message, or by email: C.M.Whitaker@leedsbeckett.ac.uk (only publicly available images e.g., adverts – no personal pictures of you or your friends please).*

3. A ‘Media Montage’ will be constructed from images and made publicly available for viewing and discussion on the EveryBODY Talk Blog and Facebook page.

*All personal information, such as usernames and email addresses will be permanently deleted on receipt of images.

What types of images?

As I mentioned above, we are looking for publicly available images for this activity. This means images which anyone could see online if they were looking for them, but happen to be on your news feeds – so nothing from your friend’s pages, or private accounts that you have access to. Examples of this may be adverts, inspirational quotes from public figures, or something posted by a fitness blogger perhaps.

Do I have to take part to join in the discussion?

Absolutely not! Once the Media Montage has been constructed, this will be uploaded to the EveryBODY Talk pages, where anyone can have a look and comment if they wish. However, please be advised that social discussion surrounding the Media Montage may be used for research purposes.

As always, if you have any questions, and/or suggestions, or just want to say hi, please do get in touch. You can do this by clicking on the ‘Contact’ tab on the Home page, or by either of the methods mentioned above.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Body Stories Pt 2

It has been a little longer than I anticipated, but today I would like to continue with my discussion of the Loose Women campaign #MyBodyMyStory; once again focusing on the public response on social media.

I have been meaning to write this post for at least the past two weeks. However, there are two reasons for the delay:

1, I have been trying to write up a study and collect data for another (which I am looking forward to sharing with you very soon).

2, I was really quite frustrated about the comments that had prompted me to write, and my emotional babbling probably wouldn’t have made for a very good read.

Anyway, as indicated in my previous post, I want to talk about objectification and body shaming; which were unfortunately, two prevalent themes among reader responses to this campaign.

Objectification

What is it?

Objectification is defined as ‘the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.’ (Google Dictionary, 2017). This means that to objectify someone is to see, speak or treat them as if they have no thoughts, feelings and rights of their own, but are for example ‘a pretty face to look at’.

Objectification has been a central concept within feminist theory, with much discussion surrounding the damaging effects of such degrading, particularly in regards to gender inequality. One of my favourite theorists surrounding this theme is Laura Mulvey (1975), who discusses this in terms of the objectification of women in film. Indeed, in their essay entitled  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Mulvey suggests that in the visual arts, objectification of the female form, for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer takes precedence. As a result, this positions women as passive, second class ‘objects’, in which only their appearance and the visual enjoyment it provides is valued.

But we are talking about a male body image campaign.

Whilst Mulvey’s essay looks at objectification in terms of the devaluing of women in film, it is important to remember that at the time of writing, there was still a much longer way to go towards gender equality than we see now. Indeed, writing in 1975, it was only in this year that the ‘Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act’ came into effect (The Guardian, 2003). Thus, the devaluation of women specifically was a very important topic of investigation. However, despite social discourses which may indicate otherwise, feminist theory is not specifically about the rights of women, but part of the movement towards gender equality.

In reading the comments on social media surrounding the male version of the Loose Women body confidence campaign, I was shocked to see so many responses in which the contributors were objectifying these men, particularly by women. Not just that, but in many cases, this was done in a negative fashion, which I can only describe as ‘Body Shaming’ these men. It was almost as if I had traveled back in time, and all the positive work towards reducing objectivity had been undone.

Don’t flaunt it then!

One argument is, that if these men did not want their bodies to be commented on, why do a photo shoot in just underwear? However, I wonder if the same women who degraded these men, would be as quick to body shame those who took part in the female version of the campaign. Of course, without asking them, I will never know. Nonetheless, my guess is – probably not!

The main problem for me is that these people probably did not see anything wrong with what they were posting in response to these pictures, and I would hope, had no intention of causing offence. Indeed, I think that this is a result of socialisation, and whilst there were also many people to point out that this body shaming was not okay, we do still need to look beyond those individuals to see what wider social influences might be contributing to continued objectification.

Habits

We all know what a habit is. I have a habit of grinding my teeth when I am concentrating, others may have the habit of biting their nails. They are all learned behaviours, which often become automatic responses, and can sometimes be quite difficult to give up.

I believe that this is the same with commenting on, or at least privately evaluating others physical attributes. Thus, whilst we are all very aware that people are not objects and that their attributes are wide ranging, through involvement with various social practices, talking about and thinking about the physical body and its properties has become the primary response for many, and perhaps, what we might call a habit!

Bodies, bodies, everywhere!

Everywhere we turn, there are pictures of bodies, discussion of bodies, celebration of bodies, and a whole host of other appearance related images and topics of discussion. From the latest fad diet advertisement on your social networking news feed, to the muscular models on the covers of glossy magazines, we are bombarded with information surrounding the physical body. This is something which has been steadily increasing over time, and does not look likely to change any time soon.

Indeed, if we take a moment to consider (for example) some popular dating apps, in which potential matches are presented in the form of a profile picture, and little else. This is vastly different from the days when no one had a personal internet connection, let alone a phone to swipe left or right, and the Friday Ad housed all the personal dating ads in the form of around 50 words (not pictures) each.

I am not saying that physical aspects of the body are not important, indeed as I have said before, maintaining your physical health is extremely important. In addition, I would not be fooling anyone by saying that physical attraction is irrelevant (although there is no objective measure of this – we have all heard someone describe their ‘particular type’). What I am saying, is that I believe we can begin to see how the habit of passing judgement on physical appearance may be socially constructed.

The Point?

body image

Body shaming is never okay, NEVER! This applies to all genders, all ages, and whether someone is wearing a swim suit, or one of those coats that looks like a sleeping bag that my mum would never let me have (but looked sooooo cozy)!

In fact, even supposedly positive comments on someone else’s body, such as “wow, you’ve gained, you look amazing!” can be extremely damaging – did they not look great before? However, I believe that commenting upon someone’s physical appearance has become a bit of a social habit, and one which will take a while to undo.

Even so, we can begin by understanding objectification, and realising that commenting on other people’s bodies (in a positive or negative way) is something that seems to have developed into a habit that we should probably try and break.

Therefore, I challenge you to write your own list of compliments that are not about physical appearance and try to use these instead of commenting on someone’s (or even your own) body.

Habits are hard to break, but not impossible! This appears to be a society wide habit, lets start providing the tools to help undo it.

References

Mulvey, L (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, p. 6.

 

 

Body Stories Pt 1

Last Monday I was procrastinating working really hard, and, as I frequently do, ran a quick Google search for ‘body image’ news.

Clearly the producers at Loose Women read my blog post about their recent #MyBodyMyStory campaign  (well probably not, but I’m using it as evidence that I made a great point!), because I discovered that they have decided to re-launch their campaign, but this time focusing on male body image issues.

Fabulous, I thought! The female focused campaign appeared to be hugely successful in promoting body confidence, and identifying some very important misconceptions surrounding body dissatisfaction.

Indeed, when the original campaign was launched back in early May this year, the associated hashtag could be seen trending on numerous social networking sites, accompanied by almost as many ‘selfies’ of women (and some men). In doing so, these individuals were contributing to the growing number of people making a stand against the idea of a ‘perfect’ body, and encouraging others to do the same.

However, this campaign has not resulted in the same response, with very few selfies or personal stories being posted in comparison to the women focused campaign. Ultimately, being a body image researcher focusing upon male discussion and disclosure, I can’t deny that less engagement was expected. Even so, it would be reasonable to suggest that any media generated discussion which highlights this social issue, should present good educational value surrounding the prevalence of male body dissatisfaction.

Unfortunately, my hopeful outlook was short lived, when I began reading social responses to the campaign on varying social network sites.

Here I draw upon just a few of the responses I came across, in relation to just WHO may experience body dissatisfaction.

Anyone can experience body dissatisfaction.

I read a few comments in which individuals stated that they had not realised that males also experience body image issues. As I have indicated previously, whilst society seems to be becoming more informed on the severity of this misconception, the idea that body image dissatisfaction is a ‘female problem’, continues to permeate social discourses.

Indeed, the feminisation of body image as a concept is arguably the greatest obstacle for researchers attempting to gain insight into male body image, which can present difficulties even accessing participants for their research.

For example, in a paper addressing methodological issues encountered in a study of schoolboys’ body image and masculine identity, within the physical educational setting, the researchers report the following exchange with those acting as gatekeepers to participants:

“Listen, there’s nothing going on in there. This is more an issue for girls, and I would certainly understand if you were examining a girl problem like anorexia.”
(Kehler and Atkinson, 2015, p. 268)

Even so, whilst a lack of understanding of the universality of body image (and thus the possibility of dissatisfaction) is somewhat worrying, the fact that there was evidence of a change in perception, can certainly be considered a positive outcome from this campaign.

Measuring up!

However, another theme among comments really stuck out for me as problematic, and no doubt requires addressing. Some comments drew upon the understanding that there is a measurable universal physical standard which is acceptable according to gender, with body dissatisfaction resulting from a failure to comply with this.

There are many reasons why this understanding is wrong, and even damaging. But for the purpose of dispelling this myth, I will draw upon the case of Robert Pattinson.

Who?

Robert Pattinson is perhaps better known as the “fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire” (Mayer, 2017) Edward Cullen, from the Twilight franchise. Gaining international attention for this role back in 2008, Pattinson became a ‘heart throb’ to teenagers and adults alike.

According to an article in the Guardian, during an interview with an Autrailian lifestyle magazine, Pattinson disclosed that he suffers from “Body Dysmorphic Disorder issues”, and that his insecurities surrounding his body can cause him a great deal of anxiety (Hughes, 2015).

What is it?

It is understood that around 2% of the population have Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which is defined as:

“an anxiety disorder that causes a person to have a distorted view of how they look and to spend a lot of time worrying about their appearance.”
(National Health Service, 2014)

My point?

If Robert Pattinson, who plays the “fantastically beautiful, sparkly….vampire”, can feel dissatisfied with his body, a body which has received the title ‘Sexiest Man‘, then it seems clear that just about anyone can feel dissatisfied with their body, regardless of any suggested objective measure of physicality.

It is important that this message is disseminated (as I feel the Loose Women campaign is doing), but also understood. For those who commented, who had also watched the interviews with the celebrity males taking part in the campaign, this message appears to have been acknowledged.

Certainly, there were many who were somewhat shocked to learn that these men were worried about taking their tops off, or struggle with their body image on a regular basis. But it had seemed to alter their perception of body dissatisfaction.

However, this message had clearly not reached everyone, and thus spreading this further must be a priority for future campaigns. How we do this on the scale required for a better social understanding of body image, is unclear.

Even so, it is important that we try to do so, in order that the discussion of body image is normalised, resulting in a more informed and supportive culture, which does not see body dissatisfaction as a result of individual objective physical deficit, but for the social issue it really is.

~

 

There were many comments that caught my attention whilst looking through the social engagement with this campaign. However, writing about more than this one theme would turn this blog post into an essay!! Therefore, my next post ‘Body Stories Pt2’ will continue by looking at the theme of objectification and body shaming resulting from engagement.

Reference:

KEHLER, M. & ATKINSON, M. (2015). The Space Between: Negotiating Male Subjectivities in Physical Education Research. International Journal of Men’s Health, 14, 259-272.

Fit!

As I mentioned in my last post, I feel it is time that I address the word FIT!

Actually, in doing so I will mostly be referring to the noun ‘fitness’- the condition of being ‘fit’, questioning if we really even know what this word means, or whether it has become a flexible and ever changing concept? In addition, I will look at the possible detrimental effects this could pose to individual agency in personal wellbeing.

Talking to a friend of mine a few weeks ago, they asked me about my research. I got really excited, as I often do when discussing the subject of body image, and we got on to the topic of fitness after they spotted a copy of a popular male orientated glossy ‘fitness’ magazine I was carrying with me.

Looking at the cover and contents of this magazine, it would be easy to assume that fitness is equivalent to completing strenuous workouts with the use of heavy weights, eating a high protein diet and having bulging biceps. In addition to this, it would also seem that having (or at least working towards) a built torso and abdomen to rival even Ben Affleck in the latest version of his Batsuit, are also part and parcel of what ‘fitness’ is all about!

So what is fitness?

I would like you to take a moment to close your eyes and think about how you would define ‘fitness’……

Does a simple definition immediately come to mind, or were you perhaps met with several words and/or visual images relating to what fitness means to you?

Concepts

It is likely that in thinking about fitness, you experienced the latter of the above – this is called a concept. In psychology, concepts are understood as the way in which we organise similar or relatable information into categories. In doing so, this allows us to bring to mind several connected pieces of information at the same time, and works as a mental shortcut to retrieve rich and detailed information.

To explain this, take the word ‘school’ as a concept. When you think of school, does a dictionary definition come to mind, or do you think of several different things which relate to school? For me, when I think of school I think of my friends, the uniform I used to wear, the walk to the train station every day, the drama studio, and many other things.

I would imagine that your list varied from mine in some ways. In fact, I am sure that it did, because none of you will have had the same friends as me, you probably didn’t have the same uniform, walk my same route to the same train station, have the same drama studio (or perhaps even like drama), and so on. My point is, whilst concepts are often useful to us, they are subjectively constructed. This means that they are created within your own head, influenced by our own perceptions and interpretations, as well as access to experiences. As a result, concepts will vary between people and our understanding of things will differ.

If we return to fitness – the state of being ‘fit’; defined as ‘Of a suitable quality, standard, or type to meet the required purpose.’ (English Oxford Living Dictionaries, 2017), and baring in mind that depending upon our age, ambitions, location, and a whole host of other things (for example, whether or not we have a long term health condition), it would make sense that the concept ‘fitness’ will vary accordingly.

For example, as I discussed in this previous post, if it is your job to be a body double in superhero action movies and your income relies upon this, the state of being fit for purpose will vary dramatically to that of an individual who works in some other industry. Indeed, if we take a pilot as an example, whilst there would be nothing wrong with a muscular build, I would prefer whoever was flying me to have excellent vision.

This is not to say that the pilot should only have good vision, forsaking all other factors related to their health. Certainly, there is ample evidence that a general fitness is achieved holistically, involving good health both physically and mentally, and should be something which we aim for. However, this does not necessarily require a muscular physique in proportion to that of those adorning the covers of glossy magazines. In fact, for many people this is entirely unobtainable for varying reasons (of which I will discuss in a future post).

So why is it that the gym and these images of hyper muscularity appear to construct so many of our concepts of fitness, despite our varying purposes and required fitness levels?

Something to buy!

Within the UK the total market value of the fitness industry boasts an impressive £4.7 billion, with around 9.7 million members attending the almost 7,000 fitness facilities (LeisureDB, 2017). In addition to this, we have a thriving health food business (Armstrong, 2016), sportswear stores, fitness food cookbooks, the aforementioned glossy magazines, and a whole host of other ‘health-related’ businesses which rely upon sales and making money.

What all of these have in common is not that they relate to fitness (as discussed, they may or may not – I am fit, but I do not, nor do I need to go to a fitness facility in order to remain this way), but that sales rely on the ability to sell an idea. An idea (or concept), as I have previously explained, will be largely influenced by our individual perceptions and interpretations. However, that is not to say that these internal mental processes work independently to the external world. Indeed, these are informed by internalised representations of meaning which are available to us in the social world. This means that our personal understanding is reliant upon what is ‘out there’, with representations (such as an ideal body shape) which are presented favourably and most frequently, likely to become the standard upon which we build our own concepts.

Therefore, by continually relating ‘fitness’ to pictures of a specific body type, gym membership, food diet, and so on, our concepts and the way in which we construct them, are influenced by these, without us even realising it. Particularly harmful in relation to fitness, is that in order to continue to sell products and services, these industries rely on us not yet meeting the ideals we have come to see as representational of ‘fitness’ – hence hyper muscular, hard to achieve front covers. This is also why we see fitness ‘trends’ come and go, as well as changing ideal body shapes. Worse still is that whilst fitness requires both physical and mental health, it is rare that the concept is represented in this way.

Of course, as I have already said, it is important to pertain to achieve and maintain ‘fitness’, but I say this in the medical sense, in which an individual is healthy. This does not necessarily require the diet and fitness regime of a superhero stunt double, and it may not require the gym. For example, before I returned to education, I was a performer. Sometimes I was in dance classes all day and then performing at night. There was no way that I needed to do any extra physical activity outside of this, in fact there was probably no way that I could have. However, I did need to take time to look after my mental health and ensure that I was ‘fit’ in that respect. Now that I spend a lot of time at a desk, I do need to exercise outside of my working hours, but I don’t go to the gym, I find other ways to ensure my fitness – like dance classes, which I really enjoy.

The point that I am trying to make is that there appears to be a concept of ‘fitness’ that is being sold to us, some of it may be beneficial, some of it may not. It is up to us to challenge this concept and build our own, remembering that the magazines and advertisements are presenting an image they wish to sell for financial gain.

Fitness is individual, lets remember that and take care of ourselves both physically and mentally, using the most reliable information – impartial health advice (e.g, the doctor) and listening to our own bodies!