The human body does wondrous things — it allows us to dance to our favourite songs, jump off waterfalls in the summer, and communicate with loved ones. Yet, many young people feel uncomfortable when they think, under the influence of media-driven stereotypes, that their bodies don’t look like the ideal. Girls, boys and people from many different cultures suffer the burden of negative body image.

Gabourey Sidibe

Gabourey Sidibe

No one is born with poor body image, it is created. The interactions people have with their families, friends, and others have a powerful effect on how they view their bodies. For example, when the media labels women: doing things such as commenting on Frozen star Kristen Bell’s thick calves, labelling Keira Knightley as too thin, or body-shaming Precious actress Gabourey Sidibe by likening her to Barney after wearing purple.

The discussion of celebrity body image may seem to only relate to them, but has serious repercussions for young women by generating standards of an ideal body and encouraging negative body talk. Although women receive the larger share of negative attention, men too can be body-shamed. Sean O’Brien was labelled obese after images of him dancing went viral on the internet.

Historically, women’s bodies were not scrutinised in the way they are now. In fact, they were worshipped and women were considered goddesses due to their ability to create life. Criticisms surfaced after the patriarchal, or male-driven, ideology that women are inferior to men, that women’s bodies were then considered objects for men and designed for men’s enjoyment. As discussed by Leeds University communications researcher, Miriam Rachel Lowe, female objectification is evident in MTV commercials where women have less screen time than men, and when women appear, they wear revealing clothing and are constantly the subject of men’s attention.

The mythic construction of the so-called ideal woman’s body also works to oppress women. Lowe also discusses that prior to the industrial revolution, women were unable to participate in society due to religious ideologies, repressive laws, and “reproductive enslavement”. Feminist movements later battled against these preconceptions, however, women continue to be controlled by images of what they should look like. This routinely occurs on Hollywood red carpets, where women are questioned about beauty routines, while their male counterparts receive more thoughtful questions.

Even brilliant human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, is in magazines which mock her thin body rather than acknowledge her feats. Instances like this, where a high-achieving woman’s worth is discussed as a judgement of her body, clearly limits women’s ability to be recognised for their accomplishments.

Patriarchal culture doesn’t just hurt women, it hurts everyone. Within patriarchy, men are placed as the protectors and considered powerful, therefore, muscular physiques are often valued. As a result, men also have to deal with body image issues. Patriarchy is also detrimental to transgender people. For example, former olympian and reality TV star, Caitlyn Jenner who recently came out as a trans-woman after spending decades as a man, is frequently bullied because her body does not conform to the traditional ideals associated with either the male or female sex.

Amandla Stenberg

Amandla Stenberg

Gender and race also intersect under the umbrella of body image discussions. For example, Hunger Games actress and activist Amandla Stenberg said society “is built upon eurocentric beauty standards” and therefore ignores black women.

She says that bodies which look white are more often considered beautiful. In New Zealand, research in this area is scarce, however, work published in 2012 by academics at Canterbury University, Ruchika Talwar, Janet Carter and David Gleaves suggests that Maori women are no longer valuing larger bodies because they are adopting the white ideals of thinness.

More striking examples of white privilege in body image are seen in Hollywood where there is a serious lack of non-white representation, with previous magazine covers of Beyonce and Kerry Washington edited to look whiter and thinner.

Even commentary on white and non-white women’s bodies is different, as recently seen between tennis athletes Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Williams’ endorsement deals are reportedly almost half the value of those of Sharapova because her body is considered “unmarketable” by companies, despite being arguably the greatest athlete ever. In fact, Williams’ body is often ridiculed: she is regularly labelled as scary and manly whereas Sharapova is labelled as a “tennis beauty”.

However, shaming black bodies is not new. In the 19th century, Saartjie Baartman, a woman who — due to her buttocks being larger than European standards — was kidnapped from South America and brought to Europe, to appear in sideshow-alley freak shows — she was even looked after by an animal trainer. Saartjie later died in France of smallpox. In modern society, racist actions towards non-white bodies don’t appear as explicit, but as implicit racist actions combine they can create a deeper, ingrained and embedded perception of right and wrong bodies, like the proverbial death by a thousand cuts.

Body standards have been socially constructed over time, yet continue to impact all individuals in many areas of life. But society doesn’t have to be this way — there are plenty of actions that everyone can take to stop this. These range from advocating for more diverse bodies in magazines, intervening when someone is body-shamed, acknowledging the differential treatment of white and non-white bodies, and realising that you are more than your body. Together, we can create a more positive world that is inclusive of all bodies.