“Women are socialized in Western societies to believe their bodies are never thin enough,” Salk said, adding that men are not immune from body dissatisfaction. “We know it is a normative experience. The majority of women feel that way. They almost feel like they should feel that way.”
Media clearly has a profound influence. In a notorious study of Fiji by Harvard Medical School psychologist Anne Becker, the introduction of western television shows to the Pacific island induced a rapid shift from idealizing full-bodied women to a desire for thinness among girls. The result was a dramatic increase in eating disorders.
For most people, image dissatisfaction is manageable. But people can develop unhealthy behaviors, including binge eating or cyclical and ineffective dieting. On the extreme end are eating disorders and psychological problems like body dysmorphic disorder, when perception of a body part becomes so blown out of proportion that it turns into an obsession.
Research is limited on interventions that might prevent people from feeling badly about themselves, Salk said, but some work suggests that being able to critique social ideals can help.
“What we always push for is appreciating one’s body for its functionality,” Salk said. “If women can learn to appreciate their bodies for what they do, whether it be running or having a baby, it may help women be less critical of their bodies.”
The new Dove video has been criticized for emphasizing thinness and white skin as beauty ideals. But it does have the power to induce insight and reflection, Schlundt said.
“This showed that our perceptions of ourselves are not objective,” he said. “They are really tinged and colored by the emotional experiences we have had.”