6-pack abs & thigh gaps: Objectification, body image, & eating disorders for adolescent girls & boys
#teengirlsy Jenn Chmielewski
*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement
Illustration by Calvin Sprague
I didn’t know what the ‘thigh gap’ was until very recently (you’re supposed to have space between your thighs?!). But I can honestly say that I have always been aware of the fact that my thighs don’t fit the standards of perfection according to the media or whatever idiot came up with this thigh gap thing. Even now, with all my feminist know-how and how-to, I have to admit that I occasionally still feel like I should be thinner or prettier. When I open a magazine or go to the movies, sometimes I can’t help but think of how much I don’t look like the woman I see. And even though, really, I think to myself, ‘now Jenn, why the heck would you ever want to look like that? Get a grip!’ it can be hard to focus on all my positively awesome qualities when I’m inundated with this false idea that my looks matter above all else. And this is exactly the sort of thinking that leads girls and women to develop extremely unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders in order to try to live up to some ridiculous ideal.,
But even though I’m so used to thinking about these issues for women, it never really occurred to me that boys might be having a similar problem. A guy friend of mine recently told me he feels so much pressure to look strong and muscular, that he counts all of his calories and works out like a madman to try to fit a wolverine, ultra muscle-man standard. I was shocked when he looked at me with somber eyes and told me he hated his body. All of a sudden it hit me: boys might look at their bodies as objects and have issues with body image too. It makes me sad that anyone, regardless of whether they’re a girl or guy, might feel that way. But apparently the intense pressures on looking ‘sexy’ can be enough to make us all crazy and body-obsessed.
And it turns out that researchers Amy Slater and Marika Tiggemann thought it might also be enough to make teenage girls and boys engage in unhealthy dieting and even eating disorders (if you’re curious about what eating disorders are, you can learn about them by checking out the National Eating Disorder Association’s website). In our other research blogs at SPARK, we’ve talked about how the media is linked to thinking about our bodies in terms of how we look instead of how we feel (thinking about our bodies as objects is known as self-objectification). Slater and Tiggemann believed that self-objectification might be linked to eating disorders – a huge issue among teens – in both boys and girls. To find out, 714 teenage girls and boys in Australia filled out questionnaires about self-objectification and how anxious and ashamed they felt about their bodies. They also answered questions about their eating habits and desire to be thin to see if they had any kinds of behaviors that could be related to eating disorders, like always dieting to lose weight.
I’m going out on a limb and bet you won’t be shocked to learn what they found: self-objectification is related to teenagers’ eating disordered attitudes and behaviors. So girls and boys who thought about themselves more in terms of their appearance were more likely to be ashamed of their bodies and engage in disordered eating. The girls in this study self-objectified more, and were more likely to have body shame and eating disordered behaviors, than the boys. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t exactly surprised that girls experienced these issues more. I mean, even though men and boys are being shown in objectified ways more and more in the media, girls and women are still overwhelmingly the focus of the media’s sexualization (Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video, anyone?). And the ways that boys’ and men’s bodies are competent (think sports) are much more frequently shown. Side note: I don’t want to see anyone portrayed that way – equal objectification is not equality or empowerment for women!
But here’s the real kicker: self-objectification can lead to eating disorders for some boys too! So even though girls may experience self-objectification and eating disorders more often than boys in a sexist culture, boys also worry too much about how they look and meeting an unrealistic standard for their bodies. While I get pressure to be a Barbie stick figure (which is actually physically impossible), guys get pressure to get those 6-pack abs and huge biceps, which is also not even physically possible for many guys. It seems that the self-objectification we can experience by buying into the ‘ideal’ (and unreal) bodies we see in the media is related to unhealthy, and even deadly, eating disorders for both girls and guys. It’s no wonder! I mean, how am I supposed to fit into the ‘supposedly’ desirable size 0 if I eat… anything? And I know my friend is miserable trying to get as buff as the latest superhero, because he thinks it’s the only way anyone will find him attractive.
So what’s the take-home here? Even if we tend to associate these issues with just women (because, let’s face it, we are bombarded with sexualization everywhere in our lives), and there are a whole lot of representations of men being valued in many other ways, objectification and emphasizing appearance isn’t good for anyone. This study just shows us one more way that thinking of ourselves in terms of how we look, instead of what we do and how we feel, is terrible for our minds and our bodies. So how about girls and boys work together to take sexy back for us all. Because what’s sexy is all about what we can do with our bodies and minds. It’s how we feel in our own skin, rather than trying to fit some made-up standard of how we look that’s based on airbrushed and photoshopped models. I’m not buying it anymore and neither should you. Just as I am more than my thighs, boys and men are more than their pecs. Let’s fix this together.
 Groesz, L. M., Levine, M. P., Murnen, S. K. (2001). The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31, 1-16.
 Moradi, B., & Huang, Y. (2008). Objectification theory and psychology of women: A decade of advances and future directions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 377-398.
 Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2010). Body image and disordered eating in adolescent girls and boys: A test of objectification theory. Sex Roles, 63, 42-49.
 Neumark-Sztainer, D., & Hannan, P. J. (2000). Weight-related behaviors among adolescent girls and boys: Results from a national survey. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 154, 569-577.