How is it that something as innocuous as a bar of soap has managed to drum up more attention than any other viral campaign in advertising history? For those who haven’t seen Dove’s latest commercial, the answer is by making the conversation about body image.
Using a forensic artist to create and compare sketches of women from their own and someone else’s perspective, the Dove campaign seeks to remind women that they are, in fact, more beautiful than they think. The concept mirrors a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy technique used to rebalance a psychological double standard between the incongruous rose-tinted view we often have of others and the harsh standards so many of us adopt when judging ourselves.
But while Dove’s viral video succeeds in serving up its message with a super-size portion of feel-good factor, the hard facts uncover a far uglier truth. With statistics reporting that eight-out-of-10 children are ‘afraid of being fat’ and only one in four women in the world are happy with their appearance, it’s easy to see why body image is no tepid topic.
But why are we all so unhappy with our reflections? Does it really all come down to airbrushing and a handful of size-zero models flaunting triple-XS clothing? And what exactly is body image anyway?
Psychology Today defines body image as a ‘mental representation of what we look like’. Wikipedia as the way a person feels about the ‘aesthetics and sexual attractiveness of their own body’.
But it’s no mistake that these definitions are so wildly different, says cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. Katerina Fotopoulou of the Neuropsychoanalysis Association. “There are a great many interpretations of body image, perhaps because the thing we commonly understand and describe as body image is actually made up from a convergence of different bodily representations in the brain. Some of them come from outside the body via our external perceptions and some from inside our bodies.”
“The mental presentation that the brain creates of ‘self’ is also a highly malleable construct,” adds Dr. Manos Tsakiris, Professor of Psychology of Royal Holloway, University of London.
A fact that’s probably worth remembering the next time you go from feeling thin to fat in the change of an outfit or mood.
As it turns out, body image is, in fact, so malleable that we can even be tricked into believing someone else’s body is our own.
In one study, simply wearing video goggles that display the world from someone else’s perspective was enough to trick a subject’s brain, in a matter of seconds, into thinking that the other person’s body was their own. Even though they were clear that they would be looking at someone else’s arm, subjects were shown to flinch when a knife came close to what their brains believed was their own arm.
“Body image is remarkably plastic,” says Dr. Tsakiris. “It takes its cues from our sensory experiences, both private – the ones that come from within the body, and public
– those that come from our shared everyday sensory experiences.”
“What is surprising,” adds Dr. Fotopoulou, “is how influential our internal perceptions are in the formulation of body image – our heartbeat, bodily temperature, hunger and thirst – the things required for homeostasis that tell us how we’re doing in the world.
I like to think of it like the wallpaper in a room, in that no matter what’s going on inside the room it affects the mood and tone of what’s happening and it’s always there in the background.”
But it’s not just the wallpaper or internal cues and functions, like our heartbeat, that affect how we see ourselves. How aware we are of our internal world has also been found to play a significant role.
People who have poor interoceptive awareness have been shown to have a more malleable body image for example, which, in everyday life, translates as being more vulnerable and impressionable to external pressures to achieve bodily perfection. It’s unsurprising then that poor interoceptive sensitivity has also been linked with eating disorders.
But, what exactly is it that gives someone weak or strong internal perceptions in the first place?
“Humans,” says Dr. Fotopoulou, “unlike many other species, are born completely reliant on others. So in those critical stages of early life, it’s the way our parents take care of us and respond to us, with or without criticism, that determines how we will go on to sense, interpret and look after our bodily needs later in life.
“It doesn’t start with a mother saying their child looks pretty when they’re one years old. It starts with them hearing their child crying and wondering if they need to feed it or not. If the mother’s interpretation is the same as the child’s bodily need then the child will learn that that particular signal meant they were hungry or tired for example. If the mother doesn’t quite get what the child needs, or if the response is delayed or pre-empted or the needs are overlooked, then the child is less likely to be able to read their own internal signals which would put them at risk of developing a dysfunctional relationship with food or a poor body image in later life.”
But it’s not just our early years that determine how sensitive we become. Striving to be beautiful in later life also affects our interceptive perceptions.
“Self-objectifying or seeing yourself as an object is an important part of human development,” says Dr. Fotopolou. But self-objectification also describes a more complicated concept, first brought to light by the feminist movement, where, rather than simply viewing themselves as an object, people, traditionally women, begin to judge and value themselves more as an object of desire or a commodity in the world.
Although this is said to be on the increase in men, there are a plethora of studies that have shown it’s primarily a female phenomenon. And high levels of self-objectification have not only been shown to weaken internal perceptions, making us more vulnerable to the external pressures to achieve bodily perfection (a vicious cycle that clearly guarantees bodily dissatisfaction).
But, it has also been shown to affect women’s cognitive ability. In one study, dressing women in swimsuits, a situation known to trigger higher levels of self- objectification in females, saw them perform significantly worse in math tests over women wearing baggy sweaters. When the same test was performed on men there was no difference between the groups.
With self-objectification having such detrimental effects it’s perhaps surprising that, in another studied carried out by Dr. Manos Tsakiris, looking in the mirror was found to help strengthen people’s internal perceptions.
“There are a number of things going on when we look in the mirror,” says Dr. Fotopoulou. “Self-objectification can happen yes, but that can also take place without mirrors. Dr. Tsakaris’s study demonstrates something else that happens when we look in the mirror, where people find it easier to connect with themselves.
“But it’s not just mirrors that can help, it’s also important to understand the role of ‘social mirroring’ on body image. How people look back at us also plays a role. In our early lives, the quality of parental mirroring – i.e. how parents respond to the infant’s expressions, gestures and desires – is known to have a profound influence on how the grown-up adult will perceive their body. There are studies that have already shown that people with eating disorders are hyper-vigilant to disapproving faces. Given the growing pressure to have the ‘perfect’ body, it makes sense that people who have developed a sensitivity to the judgement of others are likely to be particularly vulnerable to body image concerns and anxieties.”
So should we all be gazing longingly in the mirror at ourselves every morning or avoiding the more judgemental people in our lives? And what else can we do to get back in touch with our inner selves?
“Meditation and mindfulness can also help you tune into your inner world,” says Dr. Fotopoulou, “but it probably isn’t as simple as thinking that any of these things are ‘the answer’ in themselves. In science, we’re keen to learn more about the role our inner perceptions play in all aspects of our lives, from when we’re really upset to when we’re calm and happy. We want to understand how these bodily states influence our emotions in general and how they relate to all cognition, behaviour and motivation.”
The Neuropsychoanalysis Association, Dr. Tsakiris and Dr. Fotopoulou’s teams at the Royal Holloway Hospital, University College and Kings College in London are planning a series of studies to dig deeper – exploring the effects of human touch, the hormone oxytocin as well as the effect our relationships have on our body image.
“If we can study the effect others have on body image, we may be able to create new treatments using positive feedback. There is also a specific type of touch that’s also been shown to boost cognitive and emotional skills and produce positive inner feelings. We need to investigate more but we suspect it may also have positive affects on the way we construct body image in the mind.”
It’s interesting that while the world continues to raise the bar in its impossible quest for external perfection, science has set its sights on helping us feel happier and more beautiful from the inside out.
Maybe it’s no accident then that Dove’s 3-minute short, giving women permission to feel better about themselves, found itself breaking records. Because, as the emerging science is starting to show, how our body feels on the inside doesn’t just make us feel better or worse about how we look, it can literally change what we see in the mirror.
So next time you find yourself anything less than happy with the image looking back at you, it may be worth seeking solace in the fact that it may look different tomorrow.
Perhaps the astronomer Maria Mitchell was even closer to the truth than she thought when she said, “there’s no cosmetic for beauty as powerful as happiness.”