The Effect of Culture on Body Image

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Come As You Are" by Emily Nagoski. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does modern culture encourage shame around the body? How does body shaming affect self-esteem?

Cultural ideals have pressured women into achieving a certain body type for centuries. The effects of harmful messaging around the body are not so easy to overcome because our culture encourages them. According to Emily Nagoski, the two ways in which this is accomplished are by distorting self-criticism into something positive and convincing women that fat is something to avoid at all costs.

Let’s look at the effect of culture on body image.

Society Tells Us to Embrace Self-Criticism

Nagoski asserts that the practice of self-criticism is so deeply ingrained in our culture that by the time girls hit puberty, they’ve already begun to internalize the practice of body shaming. Even before adulthood, young girls’ self-confidence is severely neglected. 

(Shortform note: The rise of social media use in recent years by children and teens has greatly contributed to this problem. Research conducted by Facebook, for example, showed that Instagram worsens body image issues for 1 in 3 girls.)

What’s more, Nagoski observes that culture permits us to criticize but not love ourselves. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable to complain to our friends about how much we hate our stomachs but not to celebrate how much we love our hips.

(Shortform note: Although this mentality persists, the body-positivity movement has made great strides in attempting to combat it since the late 1960s. What first began as fat activism in the United States evolved into a global movement that encourages people of all sizes to love themselves as they are.)

This prevalence of self-criticism in our day-to-day lives creates the impression that we can use it to motivate ourselves to be better. According to Nagoski, however, not only does it not motivate us, but it also creates stress.

(Shortform note: Although Nagoski claims that self-criticism doesn’t motivate us, others would disagree. Some say that as long as self-criticism doesn’t turn into self-deprecation, we can use it as a tool to constructively analyze our behavior. In particular, self-criticism can raise awareness of the things we need to improve and help us unlock our full potential.)

Society Tells Us to Fear Fat

Our culture has also created a reality where girls worry about their weight from an early age. Nagoski claims this is because mainstream media outlets, and even some academics, equate lower weight and thinness with health and beauty. Because of this, Nagoski adds, countless girls and women desire to lose weight to improve their health or appearance, and in some cases, they even develop eating disorders.

(Shortform note: Although Nagoski focuses on the media and academics as the main sources of women’s fear of fat, it’s not the only culprit. Familial dynamics or peer pressure can also cause fear of gaining weight. For example, if you grew up with a mother who constantly scrutinized her weight, you would be likely to internalize the same fears.)

Nagoski argues that in reality, weight isn’t indicative of our health but is instead a simple measure of gravity. It says nothing about our wellness or beauty, and losing weight won’t necessarily make us healthier. Instead, we can improve our health by adopting healthy lifestyle habits and treating ourselves with respect.

(Shortform note: Many experts agree with Nagoski’s claim that a person’s weight has no bearing on their health. In particular, they criticize the use of the Body Mass Index (BMI)—which calculates a person’s size based on height and weight—as a measure of health, claiming that it’s unreliable and advocating for abandoning it altogether. However, there isn’t consensus across the board. Some say that while BMI may have its shortcomings, it’s still a useful tool in predicting future health outcomes when combined with other measures.)

By doing this every day, Nagoski assures you that you can gradually unlearn the cultural tendency of self-judgment, as well as the self-disgust your body may trigger.

The History of Cultural Influence on Women’s Body Image

Although Nagoski points to the mid-20th century as the start of a rise in messaging that negatively affects women’s body image, culture has pressured women into achieving a certain body type for much longer. To demonstrate, let’s discuss some of the historical ideals present in different cultures throughout history, including those of Victorian England and the Tang Dynasty in China.

In 19th-century Victorian England, the cultural ideal was an hourglass shape. This influenced women to wear corsets, which would physically mold their bodies to have thin waists and full hips. Despite dangerous medical consequences, such as deformed ribs and even muscle atrophy, women felt pressured to continue the practice because in striving for the ideal, they had a better chance at accruing social power.

In contrast, during the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 906 A.D., people considered full-figured and even obese women beautiful. This was because having enough food to maintain such a figure was indicative of wealth. Just like in Victorian England, women of the Tang Dynasty felt that their bodies could give them a source of power in society.

The same societal pressures continue to influence modern women. Research demonstrates that people who fit societal beauty standards have clear advantages in life. Specifically, they’re more likely to get a job and receive higher pay, and they even have greater chances of success in negotiating loans.
The Effect of Culture on Body Image

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  • Why women should change the way they talk, think, and feel about their sexuality
  • A look at the misinformation and harmful cultural messaging surrounding sex
  • A discussion around the individual experiences of arousal, desire, and orgasm

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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