Written by Dr Carmel Harrison.
Recently reported within the media are the comments made by Northern Suburbs principal Suellen Lawrence at Cheltenham Girls High School urging the students to dress appropriately, including not wearing skimpy clothing out of concern for compromising the male teachers employment. As an eating disorder treatment service, events such as these provide an opportunity to be reminded of why such comments and attitudes are harmful to young women’s relationships with their bodies.
Within the field of psychology there is a theory known as Objectification Theory, it was developed to describe the experience of living in a female body within a culture that focuses on women’s bodies and body parts as separate to them as a person or treated as objects. This experience results in young woman learning to internalise the observers perceptive in how they relate to their bodies or – self-objectify – treating themselves as an object or evaluating themselves based on how they look or appear.
“Instead of connecting with how they feel in their bodies, they orient their attention to how their body looks to others.”
In particular, women are most vulnerable to these messages during adolescence and young adulthood, a time where the key developmental task is that of identity formation. Research shows consistently that there are many negative consequences of relating to your body in this way including habitual body monitoring, shame, anxiety, diminished awareness of internal body experiences (including hunger), depression and eating disorders.
“Mission Australia’s Youth Survey in 2020 found that 33 per cent of young people struggle with their body image, with 87.9 per cent of adolescent girls reported they were concerned about their bodies in a previous survey.”
Approximately 3 of every 10 young girls (aged 12 – 19 years) in Australia have experienced an eating disorder, again approximately 3 in 10 report they are concerned or very concerned about their body image. Increasingly, it is being reported in services that disordered eating is on the rise as a result of COVID-19. Given such alarming statistics building healthy body image for young people increasingly is becoming a priority.
When it comes to disordered eating and body dissatisfaction there are a range of what we call ‘unmodifiable’ risk factors, these are things that we cannot change such as genetic predisposition and personality traits. However, research tells us that there are some ‘modifiable’ risk factors that can and should be targeted in preventing the development of disordered eating and body dissatisfaction. One of these modifiable risk factors is the overemphasis placed on body appearance. It is this investment in, and importance placed on their body’s appearance, that develops into what is known as the key cognitive psychopathology of eating disorders where one’s self-worth is unduly influenced by their shape and weight (or body appearance).
Therefore, one important way to reduce the risk of disordered eating and increase positive body image in young women is to teach them to value themselves for more than their appearance. Orienting attention to what bodies do rather than how bodies look, valuing other qualities over appearance, and re-connecting with internal body experiences.
So, what is the appropriate response? In the context of Cheltenham Girls High School, focusing on body functionality, praising the young women for what their bodies were able to do at the school swimming carnival instead of critiquing their outfits. This emphasises and values what bodies do rather than how bodies look and begins to build the foundation for healthy body image. Women are never responsible for male thoughts and behaviours and should never be taught to orient their attention to the male gaze.
- Szymanski, D. M., Moffitt, L. B., & Carr, E. R. (2011). Sexual objectification of women: advances to theory and research 1ψ7. The Counseling Psychologist, 39(1), 6-38.
- Mitchison D, Mond J, Bussey K, Griffiths S, Trompeter N, Lonergan A, Pike KM, Murray SB, Hay P (2020). DSM-5 full syndrome, other specified, and unspecified eating disorders in Australian adolescents: prevalence and clinical significance. Psychological Medicine 50, 981–990. https:// doi.org/10.1017/S0033291719000898
- Tiller, E., Fildes, J., Hall, S., Hicking, V., Greenland, N., Liyanarachchi, D., and Di Nicola, K. 2020, Youth Survey Report 2020, Sydney, NSW: Mission Australia
- Bullot A, Cave L, Fildes J, Hall S, Plummer J. Mission Australia Youth Survey Report 2017.