More articles by

Dr D Narayana Reddy
Dr D Narayana Reddy


All in the mind

A distorted sense of body image can lead to psychological disorders

A recent news report pointed to an 80 per cent increase in genital cosmetic surgeries among teenagers in the US in the last two years. Alarmed, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, on consultation with the Committee on Adolescent Health Care, has urged doctors to reassure patients, suggest alternatives to surgery and screen them for a psychiatric disorder known as body dysmorphic disorder that causes obsession about perceived physical defects.

The situation is no different in India where aesthetic surgeries to beautify the female genitals are performed and common concerns among men range from a small penis to a burgeoning paunch. They are people who are beset with a distorted sense of body image. Body image is the concept we have of how our bodies feel and appear to ourselves and of how we believe others see us. A person's perception of their appearance can be different from how others perceive them. It is subjective. Body image issues can have a wide range of psychological and physical effects such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, besides body dismorphic disorder.

JUST SEX Illustration: Bhaskaran

The phrase body image was coined by Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder in his book The Image and Appearance of the Human Body. Human society has at all times placed great value on the beauty of the human body. As men and women age, body image takes on a different meaning. Research shows that the importance attached to physical appearance decreases with age. Though physical appearance remains important, the functional aspects of the body take precedence. Women are reported to benefit from the ageing process, becoming more satisfied with their images, while men begin to develop more issues.

To a great extent, media defines how male and female bodies should look. Thinness is associated with happiness, success, youthfulness, and social acceptability. People who are slightly over-weight are seen as lazy, lacking in willpower and being out of control.

The tendency to link physical qualities with positive personal qualities has been documented since the 1970s. People assign positive personality traits and overall life outcomes to those they perceive as attractive both mentally and physically.

A study by Leslie J. Heinberg of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and J. Kevin Thompson of the University of South Florida showed that women exposed to appearance-based advertisements experienced a significant growth in depression, anxiety, anger and body dissatisfaction.

Our mental spotlight at times is more on the negatives than the positives and we live a life of misery wallowing in and focusing on the missing elements. We are blind to our personality that endears others more to us.

To combat unhealthy body image issues among women, France, last year, passed a law requiring models to be declared healthy by a doctor to participate in fashion shows. It also requires re-touched images to be marked as such in magazines.

Often, people who have a low body image will try to alter their bodies in some way, such as by dieting or undergoing cosmetic surgery. What we need to understand is that we are born with our constitution. We don’t choose our parents. We may be able to change many things about us but not beyond a point. So, exercise, stay fit and wear your self esteem on your heart and not on your body image.

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The Week

Topics : #Sex | #health

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