Let’s talk about body image and objectifying
Everyone has to navigate how they feel about their own body image. It’s just a part of being human.
When you look at yourself in the mirror, what do you see? How do you feel?
Body image is the way we think and feel about our own bodies. It includes everything from what we see when looking at our reflection, to how we picture ourselves in our own mind. Height, weight, shape, features, how you move and how you feel in your body all count as part of what body image is. Think of it as how you feel on the inside about the way you look on the outside.
It’s ok to have a complicated relationship with your own body, especially as you start puberty. It can take a little while to get used to your body as it changes and fluctuates. Sadly, many people have negative feelings about their bodies, and may even experience body shame but there are so many things that you can do to help you feel more positive, and improve your self-confidence with a little bit of self-care.
Let’s take a deeper look about everything to do with body image.
What is the ideal body?
It can be easy to think that your body should look a certain way, whether that’s due to what you see in magazines, films, television shows or on social media. Different body ideals or standards exist for different groups, and different parts of the world. In some cultures, certain traits might be praised while others are shamed, but the opposite could be true on the other side of the world! It almost feels random, and a bit silly.
What is fashionable also evolves over time – one minute it seems like everyone has skinny eyebrows, then the next thing you know, big and bushy is back in! It all just proves that ideas around the “ideal body” are just a changing set of standards that are very subjective. It’s impossible to have the “ideal body” because what that means changes all the time.
If you can’t see successful role models who look like you, then you might feel different or weird. It’s very easy to compare yourself to others, whether that’s celebrities, people you see on the street, or your own friends. Remember that the perfect body exists – it’s the one you’re already living in. Every body is different, and every body is beautiful.
What do real bodies look like?
Real bodies come in all shapes and sizes – tall and short, slender and curvy. Some of us have itty bitty titties, while other people have large boobs – but all of them look brilliant. Nipples come in all colours, sizes, shapes and yes they can be hairy! Meanwhile, skin can be spotty, wonderfully wrinkly, decorated with freckles, painted with stretchmarks, or covered in tattoos.
Hair can also be kinky, curly, poker straight, thick or thin. And yes, it can be on your head, your arms, legs, armpits, stomach, back, around your vulva… basically anywhere you choose to keep it. Speaking of vulvas, they come in all colours (even shades different to the rest of your body), and labia can be all sorts of sizes and shapes. We’re all different, and that’s what makes us unique and special.
Our bodies also change throughout our lives. Firstly during puberty, your boobs start to develop, hair starts to grow in places where it didn’t used to, and all sorts of other changes happen too. Bodies sweat, flow and they bleed in a natural repeating cycle – and there’s nothing shameful or secret about that. If you get pregnant at some point then your body changes again, as your body swells to accommodate your growing baby. Your body and particularly your vagina will also change, as your body recovers from giving birth.
Then as you head towards menopause, it’s completely natural to notice changes in the way you look, and the way you feel. We change on the outside because we change on the inside too, and it’s all part and parcel of growing up.
What is objectification?
Objectification is when a person is treated not like a person, and instead like an object or a thing. Objects exist for a purpose to be used, so the objectification of a body means instead of treating someone like a whole person with thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams, only viewing them in a very narrow way like a possession.
Objectification is a pretty big concept, so let’s look at a few examples of ways that people can be objectified that could lead to them feeling negatively about their bodies.
When you walk down the street, and someone shouts a comment about your body (known as ‘cat-calling’) they are treating you as something to be looked at, and not considering your feelings.
You might also notice objectification in films. Male superheroes might wear cool, practical costumes with gadgets, whereas female superheroes have more skin exposed, or even high heels on! Superheroes are incredible, but chasing after bad guys with high heels doesn’t seem like a very realistic first choice.
Certain body parts might be objectified, or presented in a narrow way that doesn’t represent the diversity and beauty of real people! Porn is sometimes criticized for the way it presents bodies – seeing hairless vulvas with small, pink, neatly tucked away labia can make you feel like that’s what all vulvas look like. In reality, vulvas can be hairy and all sorts of colours, some are big, your labia might stick out, and all of the above is beautiful, normal and sexy. Sadly, the expectation to have a perfectly unattainable doll-like figure can make you feel shame about the way your body looks.
Sometimes, people may objectify your purpose in life because of your sex or gender. In society, for years there have been expectations placed on both genders to perform certain roles, whether that’s providing for a family by working or by looking after children at home. Just because a person has a certain body part (like a uterus) it doesn’t mean that having babies is the only thing they can do. Some people don’t want any children, some people might want to adopt, while other people might really look forward to being a parent. Whatever you want to do with your life and your body is completely up to you, and you shouldn’t pay attention to judgement or expectation from other people.
If someone makes a comment about your body, or says you should do something because of your gender, your race, or anything else for that matter, it might feel like you’re being put into a tight box that you can’t escape from. It doesn’t feel good, and can make you lose confidence in yourself and your abilities. It might even cause you to feel negatively about yourself and your body, which is sometimes known as body shame.
How to cope with objectifying behaviour
If someone says or does something to objectify you, it can make you feel sad, angry, or even make you think negatively about yourself and your body. Remember that being objectified is not your fault, so you shouldn’t internalise it or listen to what they’re saying.
Objectification can arise in all sorts of situations. If it happens to you at school or in the work place, it can be a good idea to talk to someone you trust like a teacher or manager, so they can be aware of the situation and stop it from happening again.
If it happens to you in a different situation, the first thing to say is that you should always put your safety above anything else. That might mean leaving the situation as soon as possible – don’t worry about being polite, just get out if you can.
If you feel able to, ask the person why they made the comment and what they hoped to achieve. Calling out objectification for being wrong when it happens to you or other people can help to stop it, but only do this if you feel safe and strong enough to do so.
If it happens to you on social media, block and report the user and move on. You don’t owe them anything, including a response. Your social media is your space, and you don’t need to put up with anything you don’t like. Remember to take breaks away from social media if it’s getting you down. While interacting with friends and communities online is a brilliant way to feel connected, sometimes putting your phone down and doing something else can benefit your mental health. Setting daily or weekly limits for yourself to manage your screen time can also help too.
Annoyingly, most people face objectification every now and then. Sometimes all you can do is tell someone like a friend or family member how it made you feel, and ask for reassurance if it hurt your feelings. Remind yourself how amazing you are, and use some of the below ideas to help you feel positive again.
Dealing with body shame
It’s ok to sometimes feel negatively about your own body – loving yourself all of the time isn’t always possible! Everyone has off days, and there are so many different factors that can affect how you feel. That being said, there are things you can do to help yourself on your journey away from body shame and towards self-love.
Prioritise what makes you feel good
When do you feel most confident? Maybe it’s when you’re running, painting, singing or doing something else that you love. Maybe it’s hanging out with your friends, walking in nature, or taking some time to be mindful. Even with a busy lifestyle, try to look after your body, and your mind at the same time.
Follow a wide range of body types on social media
The brilliant thing about social media is that you are able to curate your own space. You have the power to mute and block things that don’t make you feel good, and instead follow people and brands that represent you! Finding cool people who look like you, and following a diverse range of individuals can keep your feed a body-positive place.
Consume positive content
If something makes you feel bad, then don’t engage with it. Instead, find a new TV show that includes people like you who are flawed and real, doing cool stuff. Listen to music that you can dance around to and feel amazing while singing the lyrics out loud. Think about the books you read and the podcasts you listen to, and choose ones that lift your spirit.
Treat yourself like your best friend
Think about the way you speak to your best friend or closest family member – you treat them with kindness, you praise them, you support them and lift them up. .
Try treating yourself like you would treat someone you love – you’d never be negative about the way they look.
Try practising this by saying affirmations to yourself. I am smart. I am worthy. I am beautiful. After a while, you’ll start to believe it..
Body image and objectification is such a huge topic, and we’ve barely scratched the surface! Just remember the way you feel about your body is like any other relationship – sometimes it needs work, but it’s worth it. If you’d like to learn more, read our articles on how your body changes during puberty and what’s going on in your brain during puberty.
The medical information in this article is provided as an information resource only and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult your doctor for guidance about a specific medical condition.