We say to not judge a book by its cover, but the prioritization of physical beauty in society has only become more prominent. Social psychology proves that people perceived as physically attractive are thought to have better personalities. Physical attraction no longer just extends to the body. Human thought is guided by the idea that the more attractive one is, the more personable they are. As time progresses, this concept is possibly leading us to focus more on how attractive we appear to be rather than working on ourselves to truly be attractive (appearance over truth). Standards of beauty are always ever-challenging, and now more than ever, thanks to fitness and social media, aesthetics garner a lot more weight, especially within our generation.
The fitness industry is the primary market where body image surpasses all else. I’ve worked for over two years now at UM’s Herbert Wellness Center, where I find myself exposed to many people who are diligently involved with fitness. One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered is that people are more invested in physical aesthetics over true fitness. Most people’s motivation to enter a gym is a future set of abs, or huge arms and a toned body. This is largely compounded in a city like Miami, where our culture is synonymous with weekends on the beach or a natural tanning session by the pool. Fitness needs to be viewed way more holistically than simple external features.
Fitness is supposed to lay an emphasis on flexibility, endurance, vitality, strength and body composition. Moreover, fit people are often always associated with muscular or toned bodies. Being fit, however, is a spectrum of body types, not just the “optimum” crème de la crème. Achieving certain body goals also requires intense dedication, and reaching those goals the right way can often be hard and stressful.
Social media also blurs realistic body aspirations. The self-fulfilling prophecy of the fitness industry lies in the fact that a larger emphasis on aesthetics causes personal trainers to sell themselves by showing off their own physical strengths, rather than the knowledge they have about fitness. Beyond that, certain diet secrets and photography can make bodies look vastly different than they are in reality. This unhealthy culture has only led to an uptick in bodily disorders. The biggest unknown, though, is how image-related issues like body dysmorphia extend to both ends of the spectrum — those who are just getting started in the gym, as well as those who have been working for years and are seen as a model physically-fit specimen.
My best friend, for example, has “washboard abs” that draw eyes toward him the whole time he’s at the gym, yet he still sees himself as small and feels dissatisfied. The goal of fitness was initially to increase the life expectancy of a human, but modern fitness standards are leading to damaging habits that could potentially take different turns. Unsafe dietary habits and lifting with high risks of injury or steroid use are a few examples.
Body image is the devil’s workshop created in the mind rather than the body. Self-validation and loving our bodies for what they are is intrinsic and thought-based. Fitness is about enjoying the process of bettering ourselves, being happy throughout the journeys and not letting our self-esteems be lessened by societal standards, directly or indirectly. The way we view ourselves and our individual figures is what really matters.
Today, social media plays a hefty role in our lives. It’s how we communicate with others, especially when trying to stay safe during a global pandemic. Social media is both a source of negative and positive reinforcement in terms of body image. Constant hype-ups from friends can help us feel better about ourselves, but those same posts may be subject to hurtful comments that make us feel otherwise. The reality is that as social animals, our identities are framed by both our personal thoughts and society’s opinion. We need to understand our worth when what people think of us fails to make us feel better about ourselves. A strong sense of personal identity alleviates an unstable social identity.
The construct of a patriarchal society can make body image less endearing for the female gender. Evolution is not only biological but also sociological. It can take time for norms and ideologies surrounding a civilization to be fully accepted and understood. As a result, our society still seems to be strained by objectification of the female body, which is the cause of higher body-related disorders in women.
The way society portrays the female body in Hollywood makes this even harder. Movies often cast female characters younger than the portrayed age in a film. Over the past 10 years, Hollywood’s top productions have displayed more than 40% of young women in “sexy attires” and 35% with some nudity, while almost 61% of female actors were thin. The representation of female bodies in the media does not align with the society we live in, but it gives off that impression due to an availability heuristic (the brain’s tendency to rely on immediate examples of a specific topic that may not reflect the truth). As children and young adults, media’s portrayal can lead to unrealistic body expectations that frame our thought processes — especially since a child’s brain is more susceptible to environmental stimulation.
The narrative surrounding the female body image and sexualization is presently changing. Historically, marketing campaigns and movies utilized women’s bodies as a method to appease the male gaze. Now, it’s about empowering them to feel comfortable in their own skin. Women enjoy showing off their bodies, dressing up and looking amazing, and they do it because they genuinely like it, not to impress some man. It makes them feel great and they are proud of the effort they put into the result. (Then again, what do I know? I’m a man.) The concern with this form of empowerment, however, is that it needs to be more inclusive of various healthy body shapes and sizes.
Body image appeal is also constructed societally, not biologically. An analysis of body images over the years has shown trends moving from “plump” and “full-bodied” to “flat stomachs” and “skinny.” Societal standards of beauty are constantly changing, so instead of pursuing these standards, personal desires should be set and accomplished.
Social groups also impact body image emphasis. Certain professions, social groups and environments create more significant requirements to care about one’s body as viewed by society. One instance would be fashion — an industry centralized around judging books by the cover. For someone who’s often located in either the gym or library, I’ve had a firsthand experience with this. When surrounded by gym enthusiasts who could spend a full day working out, all I’ll talk about is heavy lifting, looking good and eating healthy. On the other hand, when burning the midnight oil studying for a biochemistry exam, I can’t help but notice how these variables change: Sleep doesn’t matter anymore, we are all on caffeine and food is a survival tool. Social groups can influence one’s body positivity, which makes it paramount to put yourself in an environment that feels nurturing and positively influences your self-perception.
COVID-19 has slowed down life as we know it, and the takeaway from this crisis is that you never know how life is going to turn out. Our fast-paced world causes us to try to gain as much information as we can in as little possible time. We will come out of this pandemic more cognizant of how past society frames our current thinking patterns that allow us to shift toward a brighter future. Standards of beauty and aesthetics need to lay emphasis on what is “healthy” rather than what “looks good.” Beyond that, body image needs to be viewed from a personal perspective of reference and goals rather than social expectations. If one finds themself chasing a specific bodily appearance like I have, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s a personal project free from external pressure. Love yourself first.
words_devarsh desai illustration_cindy ye