Unrealistic body image expectations portrayed by media is harmful

written by Meena Azzollini

Happy man embracing wife while standing in park Credit:123RF

Media plays a big role in shaping perception and there is a large amount of research which indicates a connection between media and body image in women.

During the perinatal period – the time shortly before and after giving birth, women are particularly concerned about their appearance and are vulnerable to poor body image.

A new study from the University of Illinois examines the link between media and body image perception in pregnant women – an area with little research so far.

Data was collected through in-depth interviews with 50 pregnant or postpartum women. They were asked to describe their perception of how media depicted pregnant or postpartum women and how that affected their body image.

Interviews were audio-recorded and analysed to reveal the findings.

46 per cent of the women reported that exposure to unrealistic images and messages – especially those portrayed by celebrities – triggered a whole range of negative emotions which ranged from self-consciousness about their bodies to feeling depressed, frustrated and hopeless when they were unable to lose weight as rapidly after childbirth as portrayed in the media.

Most of the participants who were more than 20 weeks pregnant or up to nine months postpartum found media portrayal of pregnant and postpartum women unrealistic.

The researchers say that images of celebrities losing weight quickly and flaunting unrealistically toned bodies soon after child birth can be detrimental to women and their infants. Participants felt that the portrayal of women in media losing weight in a short time set unrealistic expectations and did not account for the actual realities of giving birth, change in hormones, physical healing and caring for the baby.

Social media was however, perceived as supportive by some women as the messages were coming from real people with real experiences. Also social media was a place which provided supported communication, a place to share and content with a broader array than other media.

But some women felt jeopardised by online media as they felt judged by remarks made by other people whom they did not interact with directly and selfies and photos fostered a sense of competition and even guilt if participants failed to live up to the standards set by others.

Regardless of the medium, the participants appreciated images and stories that were authentic and relatable.

Nearly all the participants believed that media outlets focussed too much on pregnant and postpartum women’s bodies and that they would like to see media explore other aspects of pregnancy such as parenting and childbirth.

While some women compared their bodies to those of women in the media, they also protected their self-esteem by limiting exposure to magazines, blogs and other media which made them feel unhappy about their bodies.

These selective consumers of media who felt it was important to seek positive images and avoid the negative ones, had emotionally supportive spouses or were aware that various body types respond differently during pregnancy and postpartum.

They were also more likely to maintain a healthy body image, regardless of the media messages they were exposed to.

When media plays such a dynamic roles in our lives, it’s almost impossible to avoid the messages they portray regarding body image and appearance.

But to preserve our self-esteem and our mental health its best to limit exposure to negative messages and look to find support amongst our family and friends and consume media which projects a more realistic and positive outlook, especially during the perinatal period.

Source: Health Communication


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Meena Azzollini

Meena is passionate about holistic wellbeing, alternative healing, health and personal power and uses words to craft engaging feature articles to convey her knowledge and passion. She is a freelance writer and content creator from Adelaide, Australia, who draws inspiration from family, travel and her love for books and reading.

A yoga practitioner and a strong believer in positive thinking, Meena is also a mum to a very active young boy. In her spare time, she loves to read and whip up delicious meals. She also loves the smell of freshly made coffee and can’t ever resist a cheesecake. And she gets tickled pink by anything funny!