The Psychology Behind Perceptions of Body Image

Despite the hustle and bustle of everyday college life, body image still seems to take up much of a student's physical and mental energy. In addition to the high academic standards students are expected to uphold while being enrolled in an elite university, as well as involvement in various extracurricular activities, there is enormous pressure on women to adhere to a certain standard of beauty on campus. It is simply not enough to be a high-achieving student or the leader of a club. Instead, college-aged women are supposed to be thin, fit, put-together, and fashionable individuals on top of everything else they are striving to be, and do, in and out of the classroom. But where does this drive to maintain these high standards of beauty and body image come from? Why is a trend in negative body image running rampant on college campuses nationwide? By looking into the psychology behind the ideals of body image, answers to such questions can begin to surface.

When bridging the gap between adolescence and adulthood, many individuals experience a significant amount of personal growth and development. Unfortunately, along with the development of one’s identity during early adulthood also often comes the manifestation of poor body image perceptions in college-aged women. Austrian psychiatrist Paul Schilder first explained body image as a psychological concept in the mid 1930’s (Goswami, Sachdeva & Sachdeva, 2012). According to Schilder, one’s mental perception of their body and outer appearance is established by unconscious senses, feelings and ideas (Goswami, Sachdeva & Sachdeva, 2012). In this way, body image is an idea that is influenced by social and cultural elements and involves both biological and psychological factors. While attempting to gain control of one’s identity during their transition into adulthood, many females experience difficulty when comparing themselves and trying to measure up to their fellow peers. This dangerous cycle of comparison and conformity can be difficult for college-aged women who are still piecing together their identity.

            The social comparison theory from the field of social psychology can also explain a humans’ inherent drive to compare one’s self to another and ultimately see if one can measure up to and be deemed “good” enough by others. For females, physical appearance is frequently assessed when comparing one’s self to others. Many times, this comparison occurs when women look towards the photo-shopped and airbrushed models continuing to grace the covers of magazines, advertisements and media outlets worldwide. But, comparing an individual's appearance to those of the seemingly perfect and unrealistic images of women’s bodies in the media can be a vicious and dangerous cycle for young women. In fact, research has shown that exposure to ultra-thin media images results in increased body image dissatisfaction among young adult females (Spettigue & Henderson, 2004). Additionally, the influence of media images was identified as the most important predictor of body dissatisfaction in college-aged women (Green & Pritchard, 2003). Yet, women continue to compare themselves to celebrities, models and those who are deemed beautiful enough to be featured in various channels of media. Such comparisons increase the chance that a young woman will develop a negative or poor body image once they realize that they cannot live up to standards that are completely unobtainable and seemingly perfect.

Conformity theory, also from the field of social psychology, describes the ways in which people change their behavior due to the real or imagined influence of others around them. Within this theory is a phenomenon known as normative social influence, which occurs when people go along with what others are doing in order to be liked and accepted (Reno, Cialdini & Kallgren, 1993). During the formidable college years in a young adult’s life, researchers have concluded that peer relationships play a significant role in one’s continued social development, as relationships are more intimate and complex (Berndt & Keefer, 1995). Such a finding intersects with the increasing concern that many college students face in placing a great emphasis on how they appear to others and how they will fit in with their peers, with social conformity peaking in early adolescence to early adulthood (Dacey & Kenny, 1994). With the prominent and extreme influence of social conformity falling at a pivotal developmental time in a young adults’ life, it is no surprise that many college-aged women feel the pressure to conform to the beauty standards and physical appearances of those around them. Yet, change can come once women realize the importance of supporting one another, rather than competing with one another.