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Research Papers on Body Image

Research papers on body image look at the psychology of body image and one's personal association with their physical form. Problems with body image lead to disorders that are often topics of research papers for psychology students. Learn more here.

The term “body image” refers to one’s perception of one’s own body. Because it involves perception, body image is not always in accordance with actual body size and shape. Despite the subjectiveness of body image, it plays a significant role in self-esteem particularly in women. Over the last 20 years, body image has received great attention in its relationship to eating disorders such as:

But, the attainment of an “ideal” body image is not a late 20th century phenomenon. Body ImageThe manipulation of body shape and size whether it is through dieting, fashion, or other methods, has been around for centuries. Over that time, a variety of ideals have evolved many of which involved painful or unhealthy methods to attain. This being the case, the question is, why have women subjected themselves to such manipulations particularly at the whim of societal impressions of what’s beautiful at the moment? Historically, women have had little power or status. However, through the attainment of an ideal body image, women have been able to achieve the symbols of power and status as defined by the era in which she lived.

Beauty as a representation of power goes back to the beginning of civilization. Famous women such as Delilah, Cleopatra, and the Queen of Sheba used their beauty to exert power particularly in their relations with men. Over time, beauty has continued to provide women as a means of attaining power and status whether it was to secure a husband during the 18th century and 19th century or rights and a job in the 20th century. Appearance through fashion and physical manipulation provides a path to influence and achievement . To this end, women endured many physical discomforts and even dangers to alter or give the appearance of ideal shape and form. Chinese women would bound their feet despite the fact that it was painful and caused clubfoot. Small feet on a wife were a symbol of the husband’s ability to support his family without his wife having to work . The drive for upper class status and power has been an important motivation behind fashion and beauty in America, which offered the ability to ascend to higher echelons of society. By emulating the wealthy in dress and style, people of varying social classes achieved increased acceptance and opportunities.

In 1998’s “Body Image: Third Wave Feminism’s Issue?,” author Amelia (Amy) Richards asserts that body image is the unifying issue for women of the third wave of feminism. Whereas, women of feminism’s first wave allied in their fight for suffrage and second wave feminism’s females were banded together to fight for equality, body image presents a platform in which the women of feminism’s third wave can unite. 

While the women’s movement has accepted, celebrated and rejoiced in the diversity of voices that are amongst us, we have also created “many different paths to—and definitions of empowerment” that make it difficult to organized in a collective movement. While body image itself may not be an issue for legislators, its related issues such as affirmative action, sports, reproductive rights and media images are worthy of the attention of lawmakers. 

Furthermore, body image seeks to incorporate women who otherwise distance themselves from the “feminist movement” and calling themselves feminist. Regardless of political beliefs, many women can unite in their abhorrence of media images that perpetuate unrealistic beauty ideals.

Richards believes the “road to a solution (for body image) is certainly a feminist one”. Dialogue must be created between women to speak about these issues. This dialogue must also extend to men and into our daily lives. Through conversation we can help to eradicate the shame, pain and suffering that is associated with body image. Most importantly, we can create a sisterhood that seeks to support and encourage the beauty in all of us. 

Media images promoting unhealthy and unrealistic beauty standards continues to be the most harmful issue under the body image umbrella. On a daily basis we are bombarded by approximately 400 to 600 images on tv, internet, magazines and billboards (www.aboutface.org).  Like the corset and foot binding, these images perpetuating beauty ideals that the majority of women cannot obtain only serve in oppressing women further. 

Besides robbing women of their self-esteem, these images steal a woman’s power. Women are objectified while at the same time being told that they do not measure up. Much like Victorian messages that asked a woman to be seen and not heard, these images perpetuate the myth that women are nothing but their physicality.In turn, many women, particularly teens and adolescents do not learn to value their inner worth. In their study measuring the effect of media images on teenage girls, Rabek-Wagener, Eickhoff-Schemek and Kelly-Vance (1998) found that:

  • The mass marketing of body images through print media and television advertising has been well documented as a powerful force in creating the perception of the tall, thin, and toned ideal for women. 
  • 70% of the teenage women who regularly read fashion magazines considered the magazines an important source of beauty and fitness information.
  • Nearly one fourth of those girls reported a strong interest in emulating fashion models.

Body distortion and body dissatisfaction corrode a woman’s sense of self.  In turn, she is vulnerable to a host of societal ills including violence, sexual exploitation and eating disorders. An estimated 5 million women are affected by eating disorders in America. Worse, eating disorders pervade through race, class and education lines to harm and even kill women ranging from middle age to adolescents. Though diseases like bulimia and anorexia nervosa are classified as mental illnesses that stem from both a patient’s external and internal environment, much has been documented proving a link between these disorders and harmful media images.

Body dissatisfaction and body distortion are eroding our power collectively and individually as women.  Air brushed, digitally altered media images that promote unhealthy beauty standard are dangerous and irresponsible.  These images only serve in stripping women of their true beauty by forcing us to conform to an ideal that does not recognize or embrace the power that comes from our diversity. Additionally, they reinforce sexist patriarchic views that fail to see women as more than their physical attributes. Furthermore, these images perpetuate ideas of inferiority by dwindling a woman’s self esteem.

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