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Opinion: Ignore fitspo, embrace body neutrality to counter dysmorphia

The mismatch between what is being portrayed as  “perfect” and “what one has“ leads to a distorted body image. 

By Aparna S

March 5, 2024: “My body is not yours to critique and discuss. My body is not yours for consumption. My body is my vessel. An archive of experiences. A weapon that has fought battles only I understand. 

It is “a library of love, pain, struggle, victory, and mystery. Your eyes cannot define all it has endured. Do not place value upon my body, place it upon my being,” said Sophie Lewis, German-British academic and author.

As I read Sophie’s thoughts, I reminisced about a meeting with N. Kavita, 16, at the outpatient department. She was in tears. For a multitalented girl with good academic credentials from a prestigious high school, she had a unique problem.

She felt that her cheeks were of unequal proportion, which made her ugly and inferior to others in the class. This has been a growing concern over time and has affected her grades in class.

The once class topper now hardly opens a book. Frequent fits of anger, self-harm and weeping spells complicated the picture further and her mother decided to take her to a therapist.

To me, the young girl here has a distorted concept of her physical appearance and body, which made her look down upon other achievements and focus entirely on looks. This has resulted in a negative mood state, followed by maladaptive behaviour and depression.

Body dysmorphia

Body image is a multifaceted psychological concept defining how an individual experiences his or her body and the thoughts, behaviours, and perceptions related to it. A faulty or maladaptive bodily experience is referred to as body dysmorphia – a distorted body-image concept where one’s idea of self-worth depends on physical appearance.

Body dysmorphia is a very common concern among young adults, where they worry too much about a not so prominent, or nonexistent defect in their physical appearance — like a nose that is stubby or an apparent darker complexion. This “body dissatisfaction” has long been linked with depression, poor self-esteem, eating disorders and overall poor quality of life among youth, especially young women. 

Apart from the biological perspective, socio-cultural factors play a definitive role in shaping unrealistic, unhealthy appearance ideals. “Thin ideals” “fair ideals” and “fitspos” determine a lot about how young people perceive their appearance. Fitspiration (also known as “fitspo”) aims to inspire individuals to exercise and have healthy habits, but emerging research indicates that exposure to it can hurt body image.

Fitspos promotes unrealistic body standards, as images feature extremely toned and muscular bodies. It also fosters feelings of inadequacy — when people feel they are not measuring up to ideal body standards they tend to have low self-esteem. It also encourages obsessive behaviour.

The mismatch between what is being portrayed as  “perfect” and “what one has“ leads to a distorted body image. 

Sexualisation and self-objectification portrayed in media are sure a risk factor for body dysmorphia and various other mental health issues like eating disorders. Many studies have been done on the impact of various “ fitspiration” posts across social media platforms on young viewers. It is alarming to note that such contents lead to unhealthy contemplations of fitting into societal norms of “ perfect looks.” 

Unrealistic body concerns

The peer-generated content that is “ shared”, “liked” or “ commented” increases the exposure to thin and fit ideals and disseminates unrealistic beauty concerns. Defying “ thin ideals,” the body positivity movement draws attention and acceptance to so-called ”marginalised” body types. It did make a difference, as active viewers of such Instagram posts reported higher rates of body appreciation and satisfaction; women in particular.

On the contrary, viewers of fitspiration posts had more negative moods and higher levels of body image dissatisfaction. 

There is a flip side. It has been observed by many researchers that the body positivity movement, inculcates a sense of self-objectification. While there is an overall acceptance of body diversity by this Internet sensation, it is a matter of concern that it promotes continued focus on appearance, and not functioning. 

This mixed effect raises a question. How positive is too much positive that it becomes negative? 

Taking a neutral stance towards your body is a sensible solution to deal with toxic body image ideas and overgeneralised body positivity. This is the essence of body neutrality, which simply means being at peace with your looks, no matter how good or bad it is. It is a non-judgmental attitude, prioritising functionality over appearance. This means one just needs to focus on what the body can do rather than what it cannot. 

Emphasising that appearance does not define worth, the concept of body neutrality is an answer to both “perfect ideals “ and toxic body positivity. Unlike positivity, this does not “push” one to have a positive or negative judgement about appearance, but recognises the fact that there can be both good and bad days.

Body neutrality

This fosters a sense of respect and builds up self-worth. Exercise is for health and enjoyment, clothes are meant for comfort rather than trending, and healthy eating is a necessity, no matter what the weight scale reads. 

Body neutrality is an inclusive concept that provides the individual with an insight to respect and care for his or her body, irrespective of how it looks. Having said that, though the concept intentionally downplays the importance of appearance, still exists the question of objectification and comparison to societal beauty standards. Especially in related content on social media, it would be prudent to shift the focus towards boosting functionality rather than appearance satisfaction. 

After the counselling sessions with Kavita, I am glad to report that she has recovered well. She has started ignoring social media, comments from her peers and other negative influences from her family. Regardless of what the mirror on the wall had to say, she started smiling again. 

(Dr Aparna S is a consultant psychiatrist and an Assistant Professor at the Believers Church Medical College Hospital, Tiruvalla, Kerala. Views expressed are her own and not of an organisation or company.)



1 Comment

  • Ambika March 5, 2024

    Well structured and clear presentation which brought up many wrong ideas/notions about our appearance. Very good post.

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