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Tackling body image: Cultural beauty standards, social media and history shape the way women think of their bodies

Wearing the cutest bikinis and laying out on the beach is something most girls do in the summer, but Chelsea Holmes-Robinson, a Georgia State student, hid her body in one-piece swimsuits and T-shirts until she was 18 years old. Three years later, she couldn’t care less what people say when she’s donning her favorite bikini.

Whether it’s comparing dress sizes with a friend, avoiding food at social gatherings or having a general anxiety when it comes to getting dressed in the morning, Holmes-Robinson is one of the thousands of students at Georgia State, and across the nation, who have or had an unhealthy perception of their bodies. With the influx of curated data trending on social media and pressures from individual cultures, the number of people with body image issues is on the rise.

“Before the hashtags ‘body positivity’ and ‘self love,’ it was ‘You need to be skinny. You’re not skinny, so you’re not cute,’” Holmes-Robinson said. High school was the pivotal moment for her when she realized the image her peers idealized was an image she didn’t quite fit in.

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While her smaller friends and classmates could explore their fashion tastes, Holmes-Robinson felt limited to clothes that wouldn’t offend anyone with her body.

“If you’re a heavier girl, you can’t wear certain shorts or you can’t wear crop tops, and you can’t wear that dress because you’re simply too heavy,” she said. The restriction imposed on girls and women like Holmes-Robinson was a recipe for self-loathing and denial of happiness.

Along with being plus-sized, Holmes-Robinson dealt with the pressures to look a certain way on both sides of her biracial family. “You can tell which [family] is more lenient, like which grandparent aren’t gonna say anything in front of people.”

Beauty to her white mother’s family is being extremely skinny and wearing modest clothing, but her black father’s side were a bit more accepting of her fuller size.

“My mom is like a toothpick. She’s 5-foot-10 and 130 pounds,” she said. “On my father’s side, it was more of an understanding that I will never be that size. Even still, [my parents] would be like, ‘Are you sure you need seconds?’”

Another student who wishes to be anonymous said that her breasts were a big part of her body insecurity. “They started growing in the second grade and didn’t stop until [I was] 18,” she said. Because of her breasts, it made not only shopping for clothes a hassle, but living her life as an average kid. “People always said I was older. When I would tell them my age, they would say, ‘Oh, you seem more [mature],’” she said.

The student also felt that her Caribbean parents were disapproving of her hormonal weight gain. “There have been times when I’ve been heavier and my parents would try to encourage me to lose some weight. What am I supposed to do? I’m just a teenager,” she said. Her parents were advocates for the Caribbean beauty standard: silky hair, smooth skin, and an hourglass-shaped body that’s perfect for cultural activities like Carnival and dancehall parties.

Having a breast reduction in 2016 for health issues also brought unexpected feelings of inadequacy for the student.

“I’m looking at myself and I’m looking at other people, thinking, ‘How do I stack up? When people look at me, what do they think? I want to look like that person or that person.’ Even after the surgery, I’m wondering, ‘Did I make them too small?’” she said. “This is so ridiculous! How could [I] go from one extreme to another?”

Even though she feels happier after her surgery, the student still goes through moments where she compares herself to others. “Now I’m looking at girls with bigger breasts and I’m like, ‘Ugh!’ I’m [wondering] what I’m doing with myself,” she said.

In an age where society has integrated social media, it’s a frequent occurrence to come across pages where body positivity is highlighted in ways that can be frustrating. “[It feels like] if you’re not fat like Ashley Graham [a famous plus-sized model], it’s not okay,” Holmes-Robinson said. “You can be plus-sized, but you can’t have a belly, your thighs can’t have cellulite.”

Even beauty trends on social media can highlight how quickly people change their minds on something as seemingly simple as eyebrows. The anonymous student remembered how her thick eyebrows weren’t as popular as they are now. “When I was younger, I remember everyone having the pencil-thin eyebrows and I was made fun of for my [eyebrows]. Now, it’s like you gotta have thick eyebrows! People are now giving me compliments on my eyebrows,” the student said. “Trends are annoying in that way.”

To Holmes-Robinson, it’s a nuisance to see people only celebrate specific types of bodies instead of all bodies. Both Holmes-Robinson and the anonymous student remind themselves and cautions others to look at posts with a critical lens instead of nitpicking and comparing bodies, especially since authenticity is questionable.

“There’s certain body images that takes work and isn’t easy to get to,” the student said. That work could include dieting, personal trainers, supplements and surgery. The lack of accessibility and financial freedom is something that could wreak havoc on someone’s self-perception of their bodies.

“[Some people] can’t afford the organic food, the personal trainers or personal chefs that can break down your meals. If you don’t have money, you can’t physically achieve what society is asking for when it comes to beauty,” Holmes-Robinson said.

But where did these expectations and experiences of body image come from? Juliana Kubala, the senior lecturer in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Alex Maxwell, president of Georgia State’s Faces of Feminism organization, said that the value of physical appearance has been embedded in history.

“The fundamental problem [with low self-esteem and poor body image] is the sense that our success and power in the world is based on how we look,” Kubala said. This idea can be tied to how being plumper during the Renaissance era meant financial excess and luxury or how certain types could be associated with social popularity among peers.

Maxwell thinks that familial influences could also play a part in how younger generations view themselves, especially in marginalized communities. “The parents were probably body shamed in their own way and are going to continue that cycle of body shaming. When people are hurt, they carry that onto their children. In the black community, [emotional projection] can be seen as a protection mechanism and [to be understood as] looking a certain way to get where you want to be in white America,” she said.

Kubala also suggested that beauty standards are not always globally expansive and can be culturally specific. “While white women…may be more focused on thinness, for black women, hair may be a big body image issue. Skin color may be a body image issue,” she said. Anything from hairiness to body fat composition could be a critical part to how cultures view and keep up beauty standards, which can put a hefty percentage of impressionable girls and women at risk of having low self-confidence.

“The most important age to [understand] body love and self-esteem is right around 13 to 17 or 18,” Holmes-Robinson said. “There are real girls struggling with body image and self-esteem and these trends are affecting them.”

The effects of social media and cultural expectations could be so severe that people can develop eating disorders and other mental health issues.

The National Association of Eating Disorders (NEDA) said that 86 percent of people with eating disorders report the onset by age 20, while 43 percent report the onset between ages 16 and 20. Leslie Knapp, a dietitian at Georgia State, works with people with eating disorders and may know a few reasons why eating disorders are common in this demographic.

“For many, adolescents and college age is when our bodies change and many changes in life can occur,” Knapp said. “We also start becoming adults and are trying to make friends, fit in, and control our surroundings. These are things that can cause us to look at ourselves perhaps compare ourselves to others. These factors may increase the susceptibility of adolescents and college-aged individuals to developing an eating disorder.”

The faces of eating disorders are also changing and representing a much more diverse population as more people are becoming aware of the issue. “Historically, white females presented with a higher rate of eating disorders. However, that image is changing. It is becoming much more common in males and other races and ethnicities and all sexual orientations. There is no longer a textbook version of what someone with an eating disorder looks like,” Knapp said.

With the risk of developing an eating disorder affecting anyone, the demand for better body representation and new ways of teaching body positivity is high. Maxwell supports the flexibility of social media because people can be more exposed to other bodies, like disabled people and people of color, pull inspiration from others and seek support when they need it.

While Holmes-Robinson plans her summers for sandy vacations in bikinis, the anonymous student can focus on her artwork and relationships. Both students can focus on their happiness regardless of how they look to other people, like family members or people on social media, which is something they probably only dreamed of when they were younger.

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