Writing the Body Politic, Student.

Everybody knows that University is a time when your body changes. Your alcohol-filled stomach bulges over your tight fitting jeans. You can no longer wear those skimpy hot pants-because the late night essay writing sessions with your reliable friend, coffee, have left your once smooth and toned legs looking unbearable. So we may have reasons for not feeling too great about our body. But to the point that we think ourselves unattractive generates problems. Everyone has a concept of beauty and their own body image, yet it is extremely rare that these two things ever go hand in hand. Our perception of our appearance often being much more negative in regards to how others see us.

This tendency to be critical towards our body can have serious effects not only upon our health, but also on our mental health and daily life. It is well publicised that having negative perceptions about our body can lead, in extreme circumstances, to anorexia, bulimia and over-eating. However, what is a less known, but a more common phenomenon is traits like skipping lunch, counting calories, debilitating gym sessions and depression. Sound familiar? You are not alone.

It is no wonder that the majority of people have negative feelings towards their body, when images of stick-thin women and athletic men are constantly projected in the media in style publications like Vogue, scrutinising gossip pages like Heat and fitness magazines like Men’s Health. Most people do not conform to this elusive stereotypical body, whether it is the waif-like figures of female models or the muscular build of famous sportsmen. But the media has most definitely contributed to us becoming obsessed with our body image by making us feel inadequate to this seemingly unattainable physique.

The U.K. fashion industry, who has been the main target of protest campaigns against “Size Zero”, declared last year that it would not ban “ultra-thin” models from the cat walks of London Fashion Week. This statement was made even after the untimely deaths of Luisel Ramos who died of heart failure during the annual fashion show in Montevideo, Uruguay in August 2006 and Brazilian model, Ana Carolina Reston, who died in November 2006; both deaths were diagnosed as being caused by anorexia. The Fashion Industry obviously does not empathise with the issues of body image as they still cast these particular models even when their weight dramatically dropped to below 7 stone. If the industry shows no regard for its models then it definitely does not care about the young women and men who feel imperfect compared to the airbrushed ideal body that it uses to make money. It is no wonder that people find it difficult to love their bodies when they are constantly bombarded with images that are telling them the opposite.

Not only do the media and the fashion industry have to change their priorities, society’s attitude in general needs to be challenged. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not it is a fact that ‘beautiful’ people, who conform to the stereotypes portrayed on every glossy magazine cover, are given preference over those who do not. Recent research conducted by the Social Issues Research Centre, a science based non-profit, NGO with funding from the European Union, discovered that students who are thought to be more attractive were more popular not only with classmates, but also with their teachers. The teachers were found to have higher expectations of attractive students, which led to them gaining higher grades as a result of their physical appearance. Another very damaging consequence of this quest for ‘beauty’ is that it produces the stereotype within our society that beauty goes hand in hand with characteristics such as intelligence, social skills and morals. Whilst the enlightened reading this article may deny that they hold such a conception this is not the issue because many people, even unconsciously, do. What is at stake for those who are not ‘beautiful’ or ‘skinny’ is that they begin to associate their lack of ‘perfection’ with the self-image of worthlessness and thus begin to associate losing weight as a step in becoming a ‘better person.’

A study by the University of Glasgow in 2001, of an unidentified university, showed that the majority of students that were surveyed were self-conscious about their bodies. In particular, female students were 10 times more likely to exhibit anxiety over their weight in comparison to male students even though the men surveyed were on average more likely to be over-weight. However, a significant number of male students also admitted to being insecure over their body image. This anxiety has its root in only one source: the exposition and objectification of the body in the media. The results of this obsession with body image are made clear by a recent report by the charity Mental Health Foundation UK. Their recent study found that on average 1% of women between the ages of 15 and 30 suffer from some form of ‘anorexia nervosa’ and 4% of this age from ‘bulimia nervosa.’ For men the average is much lower but still significant making up 10% of all anorexia or bulimia cases that are reported in the U.K. To put it in perspective: even at a mean estimate this means that around 800 students at Edinburgh University will have some form of eating disorder.

Apart from the very real threat to bodily health this anxiety about body image also impacts on the every day of life of students who do not feel that they fall into such categories. Even a slightly negative body image can cause insecurity, which can affect not only academic performance, but if ignored can develop into depression, while attempts to diet to achieve ‘the perfect body,’ is the precursor to more drastic cases like bulimia and anorexia.

Change in society’s superficial attitude is unlikely to alter anytime soon. Big corporations will continue to make extortionate amounts of money through fashion, beauty products, and our natural inclination to be insecure about our physical appearance. The only way to combat society’s stereotypes and the reception of them is to rise above it and accept ourselves for who we are. As one Edinburgh University student put it, ‘there is so much pressure to conform to what the media shows is beautiful. It doesn’t matter. Ultimately I’d rather go on living my life and eating that chocolate cake instead of worrying about my weight.’ This said if you feel that your body image is affecting your life then there are a number of people that you can contact to talk to confidentially and anonymously about any concerns you may have.

Nightline: The University of Edinburgh trained volunteer phone service can be called between 8pm and 8am on 0131-557-4444.
Breathing Space Scotland: This nation wide advice and counselling service can be contacted between 6pm and 2pm on 0800-838-587. Information and Guidance can also be found at http://www.breathingspacescotland.co.uk/.
Mental Health Foundation UK: This service provides information and contacts for those who know someone with eating disorders and want to find help for them; they can be called on 020 7803 1101. Information can also be found at http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/.

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