Women in America feel less unhappy with their bodies than they have in decades, a new study suggests—but body image issues and eating disorders are far from obsolete.
Researchers analyzed data from more than 250 different studies conducted from 1981 to 2012. Despite the fact that body size is on the rise in the US, with over two-thirds of the population either overweight or obese, their findings indicate that women's satisfaction with their bodies has gone up on average. Women still report rampant unhappiness with their bodies, but the unhappiness is not as high as it has been in the past.
Data showed that women are still more dissatisfied than men with their bodies, primarily with regard to thinness; however, the researchers did find that men were unhappier with the muscularity of their bodies than women were. Men's unhappiness, unlike women's, has not changed much over time.
The study's authors hypothesize that this apparent decline in female body dissatisfaction may be a result of sociocultural changes and increased awareness about body acceptance. Shelly Allen, an administrative director and therapist at New York's Eating Disorder Resource Center, tells Broadly that if these findings are indeed accurate, awareness could be a plausible explanation.
"I think there has definitely been a change, especially in the last few years, with more awareness, where we're much more open about these kinds of anxieties and insecurities about our bodies, instead of thinking of them as something to be ashamed about."
She says that this increased awareness has helped remove some of the stigma around body issues and eating disorders and that it's helped facilitate conversations. "I think most of us feel like we're the only one with this issue or discomfort in our bodies—everyone else is better looking or happier," she explains. "So when we talk about this, it can be helpful to know you're not alone, that we all do experience these feelings."
This report focused primarily on thinness and muscularity, but Allen points out it could be that a new kind of dissatisfaction has emerged. "Previously, thinness is what we were all told was best, but that only began in the past few decades," says Allen. "Looking back generations, we can see how ideals have changed. So you can also say that part of this coming away from a goal of thinness could be attributed to a new mentality of 'strong is the new thin,' or 'fit is the new thin.' Is that really better?"
She also says that, regardless of size, most people are impacted by negative body image. In addition, she says she thinks body image issues predate our society's obsession with thinness. "We've seen it for over 100 years; papers and research show this. With that proof we can say safely it's not just a reaction to magazines or the media. They may be a component, but they're not the only reasons for these kinds of issues."
"On a positive note," Allen adds, "the benefits of media is bringing body image to the forefront, to make it something we can talk about openly, not just in secret at a doctor's office. We can have discussions. With these types of issues, conversation itself is the most transformative thing.
"We can all embrace those thoughts, and start to think about where these negative thoughts about our bodies are coming from. We still have big problem, but it's not with the bodies and self-image. It's figuring out where these negative perceptions are coming from: When did we decide one body is better than another?"