The Effects of Body Image in Different Cultures
In every society, people use their appearance as a way to express their social relationships. Applying makeup, adding or removing clothing, building muscles, or piercing various parts of the body are examples of how people try to change their appearance in order to fit in, or in some cases, to stick out. In suburban America, girls struggle to reach the goal of a Barbie-doll figure, whereas in Jamaica, it is more desirable, and socially accepted, to be fat. American women use makeup to express feelings and moods while Bedouin women use tattoos as a means to reveal their personalities. Contemporary Western culture sees the body as an object that is separate from the self, while many other societies see a person as an integration of the mind, body, and spirit. By studying the effects of body image in a few different cultures, a new understanding is given to the reasons why people describe, perceive, appreciate, and alter their bodies as they do.
In suburban America, teenage girls starve themselves while in Jamaica, a larger body size is what is valued. Socially dominant individuals who are enmeshed in sound relationships are usually large and bigness tends to ensure reproductive success and survival in times of scarcity. All in all, plumpness is generally considered attractive. Such is the case in many of the West African societies from which people were taken to Jamaica as slaves. In these societies, those who can afford to do so seclude their adolescent girls in special "fattening rooms" and, after a period of ritual education and heavy eating, the girls emerge fat and attractive. Weight loss signals social neglect in Jamaica, and instead of congratulations for a noticeable "drop-in-the-pounds", one wonders about the sorts of life stresses that have caused such an event. Fatness is associated with moistness, fertility, and kindness, as well as with happiness, vitality, and bodily health in general. "Fatness connotes fullness and juicy ripeness, like that of a ripe fruit well sweet and soon to burst" (Sault, p. 137). Diet foods and beverages are only seen in bigger towns and assumed to be meant for diabetics because no one should wish to be thin; quite a drastic difference in attitudes from that of the American ideal.
In a study done with 42 college students in Iran and 53 college students in the U.S., the Iranians scored reliably higher on a Body Self Esteem Scale (Akiba, p. 539). Those with little or no access to westernized media perceived themselves on a more positive level and were less likely to have eating disorders as well. Whether it is the media to blame, or the culture as a whole, is definitely a question not easily answered.
In America, television programs present slender women as the dominant image of popularity, success, and happiness. One in every eleven commercials includes a direct message about beauty, which are almost exclusively directed toward women...