Sad truth: Only one in seven Americans feels “body positive.” (Photo: Getty Images)
It takes women half their lives to achieve half the level of body self-esteem as the average teenage male — that’s one of the stunning findings of a new Yahoo Health survey on body image and acceptance.
The online survey, conducted on a nationally representative sample of 2,000 people between the ages of 13 and 64, found that 70 percent of males are either body positive (they love the way their bodies look) or body neutral (they’re OK with the way their bodies look and have made peace with imperfections) their whole lives. As they age, men tend to become less body positive and more body neutral.
But the opposite is true for women: 66 percent of teenage girls are either body negative (they’re dissatisfied with their bodies) or body ambivalent (they have a love/hate relationship with their bodies). Body negativity stays fairly consistent as women age, but those who are body ambivalent are more likely to upgrade to body neutral over time.
More interesting findings from the survey:
One in seven Americans consider themselves body positive, but males are much more likely to be body positive than females (20 percent vs. 11 percent).
Teenage males are 3.5 times more body positive than teenage females.
Women hit peak body positivity between ages 35 and 54 — but that only happens to 13 percent of women.
More than half of females feel body ambivalent or body negative.
94 percent of teen females have experienced body shame, but only 64 percent of teen males have experienced it.
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While the findings are eye-opening, psychologist and body image expert Sari Shepphird, who regularly works with patients on improving body positivity, isn’t shocked. She says there are various reasons for the status quo, and a lot of it is cultural. “Within our culture, it’s fair game now to comment on a woman’s weight, regardless of her age,” she says. “It used to be that only happened for women who highlighted their bodies, like models.” Social media commentary — either directed at a woman or at her peers — also has a way of influencing a female’s body image. As a result, she says, the risk that a woman will suffer from body negativity continues throughout her lifespan and remains a constant risk.
Why don’t males suffer the same fate? They’re simply not subject to the same criticism. “It’s still more acceptable to comment on a woman’s body,” Shepphird says. When men are forming their identities, they may not feel like they have to take their body image and shape into account to the same degree that women do, she says. And that can set the stage for a person’s body image for the rest of their life.
So, why do women become more accepting of their bodies over time? As they age, women take on a greater sense of meaning and fulfillment in other areas of their life, like serious relationships, children, and career achievements, says Shepphird. Younger women who are just shaping their identity, on the other hand, may put more emphasis on their body and shape because they don’t yet have those other elements in their lives.
On the flip side, men may become more critical of their bodies as they age because they’re suddenly aware that they have physical limitations. “The majority aren’t confronted with that aspect of their bodies when they’re younger,” says Shepphird. “Middle age is often the first time they become aware of how their bodies don’t measure up.”
Luckily, we can fix the problem, and a lot of it comes down to taking action. The survey found that people who were body positive or body neutral attribute their mindset to eating right and working out — both of which are doable for most people. Worth noting: That was true even for the 40 percent of body positive people with an overweight or obese BMI.
The survey also discovered that, for females, having a mom who was not self-critical of her own weight made them nearly 40 percent more likely to be body positive or body neutral. The same is often true of teachers, school advisors, and anyone that children and teens see as an authority figure. “Watch the comments that you make,” Shepphird says. “If you talk about your body in a more neutral and positive way, your kids and the ones that you influence will be shaped by that.” Talking and thinking positively about your body can also influence your own mindset, making you more accepting of yourself in the process.
And finally, pay attention to new movements like Healthy Is the New Skinny that strive to help people of all shapes focus more on being fit and healthy and less on a clothing size. “It’s important to balance the idea that ‘fit’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘skinny,’” says Shepphird. “What’s important is that you’re taking care of your body.”
Body-Peace Resolution is Yahoo Health’s January initiative to motivate you to pursue wellness goals that are not vanity driven, but that strive for more meaningful outcomes. We’re talking strength, mental fitness, self-acceptance — true and total body peace. Our big hope: This month of resolutions will inspire a body-peace revolution. Want to join us? Start by sharing your own body-positive moments on social media using the hashtag #bodypeaceresolution.