5 Feb 2021

To see a perfectly fine body, just look in the mirror

Ellie Aniulus
Opinion published in the Herald Sun 10 Jan 2021
by Ellie Aniulis
PhD student at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre

For many, becoming a ‘new me’ represents the desire to finally get that body. This desire is reinforced every new year with an abundance of advertisements showcasing a variety of weight loss methods. 

These advertisements are full of slim, toned and seemingly happy individuals who represent who you could be, and even more so who you should aspire to be. These people seem to say: If I can look like this, why can’t you?

The issue here is that the repeated use of slim and toned bodies in our advertising creates a very narrow window for what is considered an acceptable body in our society; one which almost all of us will never look like without developing serious eating disorders which impact more than 1 million Australians. Sadly, less than 1 in 4 of these people will ever receive help.

There has always been a ripple of voices, increasing on social media over the past few years, pushing for the celebration of diverse body types, known as the body positivity movement. The body positivity movement has gained traction on Instagram, pushing for greater representation of all body types. But does this exposure to more diverse body types actually change the body type we strive for?

In research, conducted with my supervisor Dr Gemma Sharp, from Monash University’s Department of Psychiatry and colleague, Nicole Thomas, very recently published in the journal, Body Image, we investigated how women’s ideal body size – the body that they want – changes depending on exposure to more diverse body types. We asked women to select an ideal body from a series of line-ups of computer simulated figures of women’s bodies.

The results showed that women wanted smaller bodies when they were exposed to more lower weight bodies; and, in contrast, wanted larger bodies when they were exposed to more higher weight bodies. Another important finding was that exposure to higher weight bodies also somewhat protected against idealising unhealthy underweight bodies.

This research shows that people don’t have a fixed belief  about their ideal body - these ideals are changeable and depend on the other bodies we are seeing at the time. What this means is that if you are currently looking at slim and toned bikini clad women on Instagram, you are likely to want a slimmer body than if you are looking at a normal diversity of bodies at your local beach.

So what can we do with these findings? They give much needed research support for the body positivity movement. Celebrating a diverse range of bodies on all media platforms helps to shift our thinking away from that slim and toned ideal being the only acceptable body. On a personal level, we should try to diversify the body types we are looking at on social media as well as in real life. You don’t need a new you in 2021, just change what you’re looking at and you’ll find that your body is closer to your “ideal” than you realise. 

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