Thursday, February 9, 2012

Loving the Skin You're In: Body Image & Relationships

"It's hard to talk about sexuality and relationships without also talking about body image and body awareness."

Good afternoon LOVEanese! I know what you're probably thinking: it's been a while. Well, I apologize that I accidentally took such a long break. As you remember me saying in the past, I like to blog once a week. While I've been posting a lot on the LOVEanon Facebook page,
much has happened in the past few weeks--good things! The first is that I wrote my results chapter for my thesis which took a long time. But I did it! And now I'm waiting for the edits from my advisor. The second important thing that happened to me is that my girlfriend moved here to Beirut! You can only imagine how exciting it is, but also how my priorities have been elsewhere :) It's actually quite incredible how one person can really make you think about the world in a completely different way, especially when you write about love and relationships. Experiencing it really allows you to connect, to empathize... you get it. I wish this loving feeling to everyone in the world, and it's something I think that is really lacking. If only the world could love more... Perhaps I'm too much of a romantic.

Some of this maybe?

Anyway, I digress. And here we are, back to weekly blogging. So, how do I restart my blogging efforts? By talking about something that I've been wanting to discuss for a long time. And that happens to be the connection between body image, self-esteem, and romantic relationships. You might be thinking, "Chou, how are these concepts connected to each other?" But really, think about it... If you're living in Lebanon (or anywhere for that matter), what are you seeing every day? Advertisements. Hundreds of them, thousands of them. All telling you that you can be thinner, lighter, prettier, sexier... and this is especially true for women. All throughout both Lebanon and the world we're being saturated by and exposed to fake, altered images and videos, and we are self-internalizing them. This affects our self-perceptions. What I want to do with this post is show some examples of this and then connect it back to relationship research to show how they are connected (just check out this link for more information, or check out my thesis where I cover how media affects perceptions of self and love more extensively).

Courtesy of Ink on the Side by Sareen Akarjalian

The first thing I want to do is present: movie time! There are so many great videos out there about body image, media, advertisements, and the adverse effects. My favorite is called Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising's Image of Women, and it's presented by Jean Kilbourne, who is "a feminist author, speaker, and filmmaker who is internationally recognized for her work on the image of women in advertising and her critical studies of alcohol and tobacco advertising." You can watch the full video on YouTube here (part one), and here (part two). I want to show you just the trailer though that gives a great overview:


She goes into great depth about how exactly images are being altered and then presented as reality to people watching and consuming. It's creating a false reality that women and men in the REAL reality have to compete with, but ultimately never can. This also happens all while women especially are being "told" what is beautiful and what is not. Check out the following videos for some additional commentary on how we are duped into buying into false ideals of beauty:

1. This is a great example from the Dove company about the evolution of a model from before make-up/editing, to after: here

2. This is another really cool example from the Dove company: here

3. This video shows how Photoshop is used exactly to alter images, and this one that illustrates exactly how different what we view is from the reality.

4. This video and this video show examples of how celebrities look before and after photoshopping.

5. This video is really interesting as well. It's all about how media is used to reinforce gender stereotypes.

6. This slideshow, this slideshow, and this slideshow portrays models/actresses with and without make-up/Photoshop/enhancement, as well as this slideshow (at the bottom of the page) which does the same, but with porn stars.

7. This video looks at the the world of advertising and media production, and explores the "
central claim that gender ideals are the result of ritualized cultural performance, uncovering a remarkable pattern of masculine and feminine displays and poses."

8. Here's a trailer to Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising's Image of Women, also done by Jean Kilbourne.

9.  And lastly, I highly recommend you watch Miss Representation, which uses "film as a catalyst for cultural transformation, The Representation Project inspires individuals and communities to challenge and overcome limiting stereotypes so that everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation or circumstance can fulfill their human potential."

But what would this list be without this one, possibly the best video in terms of commentary and comedy: Fotoshop by Adobé

Great isn't it? But what does this say for us? For you? Let's tie all this back together... as many of you might remember, a Lebanese bank was offering loans for plastic surgery. What's going on with us!? And why do we care so much about the way we look? And why do all the Lebanese girls seem to either look alike or TRY to look alike? Well, this answer has been explored a bit, in particular by Mallat (2011). Building on consumption theory, sociology of the body, post-war anomie, and other sociological (and anthropological) theory, she contextualizes Lebanese plastic surgery and offers insight into why it is so common and frequent. According to Mallat's (2011: vi) abstract:  

"The findings reveal that the pursuit of facial and bodily modification is an extension of an increasingly consumerist post-war society gripped by anxiety and fear about an uncertain future. In the face of this uncertainty, young Lebanese women use this tactic to increase their social capital and their chances of securing a good marriage. It explores the underlying characteristics of Lebanese society to explain how the local boom can be seen as the result of a long, complicated domino effect that is unique to Lebanon."

This as well as other commentary about sexuality and body image have been covered elsewhere by Lebanese bloggers too such as Our Man, and in the NOW Lebanon Blog. This one is particularly good: Are Lebanese women afraid of being natural? There were also two other articles that were interesting, this one and this one.

I think she needs a bit more foundation, what do you think?

Or Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova, the Real-life Barbie

What we're doing to our bodies is horrible. The social and psychological pressure to fit into a certain unrealistic ideal of beauty is an epidemic. Famed Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi spoke of it in her book "Scheherazade Goes West" basically concluding that although some women in the Arab world are bound by a harem consisting of patriarchy and religion, women in the "West" who are allegedly "more free" are bound by a different kind of harem. What she calls the "Size 6 Harem." Here's a newsflash though, that "harem" has been exported to the Arab world through globalization, mass media, and commercialization, and now Arab women in particular have much more to deal with than just misogyny, patriarchy, double-standards, and a host of other things. They have to contend with looking perfect all the time. Men are not excluded from this either. While there is less pressure on men especially in the Arab world as a whole, men are not divorced from unrealistic beauty and body standards and ideals.

Can't we just agree that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors?

Are you starting to understand what this has to do with relationships? It goes beyond what is just skin deep. Simply remember the one term I referenced earlier: self-esteem. And of course, what does self-esteem have to do with relationships? Everything! It affects how we think of ourselves, affects our relationship security, our relationship certainty. "Am I good enough?" "Does s/he like me enough, are they attracted to me enough?" "Would they break up with me if I wasn't good-looking enough?" Or of course, "Am I thin enough, is my penis too small, too big? Are my breasts too big, not big enough? Is my nose too big? Are my nails pretty enough, my eyebrows shaped well enough, lips luscious enough, curves curvy enough?"

YA ALLAH!! There's just so much to consider, no wonder people are insecure! And guess what? The academic literature supports it too... for both women AND men!

First of all, many studies have reaffirmed Jean Kilbourne's arguments above regarding media consumption and body image dissatisfaction among women including Vartanian, Giant, and Passino (2001); Green and Pritchard (2003); Grabe, Ward, and Hyde (2008); and Mousa, Mashal, Al-Domi, and Jibril (2010) (which was actually a study among Jordanian adolescent females), and many have affirmed this for men as well such as Leit, Gray, and Pope (2002); Hatoum and Belle (2004); Baird and Grieve (2006); and Barlett, Vowels, and Saucier (2008) (among many others).

Second, body image has direct relationship to self-esteem (e.g., Olivardia, Pope, Borowiecki, and Cohane, 2004; Smolak and Stein, 2006; Farquhar and Wasylkiw, 2007). Moreover, one thesis study was conducted on Lebanese adolescents examining the relationship between body image and self-esteem, discovering a positive relationship between these two constructs (Khraybani, 2008). In addition, she found no gender differences were shown on body image, where as males had higher self-esteem than females related to athletic competence, physical appearance, and romantic attachment.

While this might all seem like common sense, what isn't so common sense necessarily is how self-esteem connects to our relationships. There's been much research to show how self-esteem connects to relationship satisfaction and sexual functioning. For instance:

Hoyt and Kogan (2001: 199) examined body image and relationship satisfaction in male and female university students, indicating, "Women, especially those under or above average weight, were more dissatisfied with their appearance than were men, whereas men were more dissatisfied with their relationships and sex lives than were women. In addition, those body parts with which each gender was most dissatisfied were consistent with the body parts emphasized through "ideal" images. These results are discussed in relation to gender role dynamics and societal pressures."

Davison and McCabe (2005: 463) conducted a study that examined the relationships between different aspects of body image and psychological, social, and sexual functioning, finding, "Body image was associated with self-esteem for all groups, but...a disturbance in body image was related to problematic social and sexual functioning among middle-aged men and to depression and anxiety symptoms in late adulthood among men and women. Middle-aged men who presented with the type of body image disturbance typical of women were more likely to have impaired interpersonal functioning. These results demonstrate that social aspects of body image appear to be important in understanding psychological functioning in later life."

Markey and Markey (2006: 271) investigated the associations between young women’s romantic relationships and their body image. Their results revealed, "Females were more dissatisfied with their bodies than they perceived their significant others to be and were more dissatisfied than their significant others actually were. Analyses further indicated that the longer women had been in a relationship with their significant other, the more likely they were to incorrectly believe that their significant other wanted them to look thinner."

What's even more interesting is the link between relationships and self-esteem, and how it is gendered. Here's an example: Ambwani and Strauss (2007) explored body esteem, romantic love, and gender through qualitative and quantitative analysis, finding that there was a link between body self-esteem and romantic relationships for both genders. Moreover, they found that the variables of "trust" and "jealousy" were connected to self-esteem for women--i.e., higher feelings of trust and lower feelings of jealousy were correlated with higher self-esteem. Lastly, women were more likely than men to admit that body image influenced their sexual relations and that relationships affected their self-confidence.

While some such as Samet and Kelly (1987) have found that there's a correlation between romantic love and higher self-esteem, there is also an inverse connection between romantic relationships and self-esteem. Feeney and Noller (1990) studied attachment style, social relationship/attachment history, and beliefs about relationships, finding that each of these factors were related. They found that "Securely Attached" individuals reported relatively positive perceptions of their early family relationships. "Avoidant" participants were most likely to report childhood separation from their mother and to express mistrust of others. "Anxious-Ambivalent" participants were less likely than the "Avoidant" participants to see their father as supportive, and they reported a lack of independence and a desire for deep commitment in relationships. Further analysis also indicated that attachment style was also strongly related to self-esteem and to the various forms of love. This also connects to body image because, as Cash, Thériault, and Annis (2004: 89) found, "For both sexes, greater body image dysfunction was linked to less secure general attachment, especially more preoccupied general adult attachment and more anxious romantic attachment."

I know that was all a lot of information... but hey, what do you expect from me? I might write long posts, but this is research. It's not right to bull shit it or give shallow insight to social problems. Just remember that the way you think about yourself also affects your relationship/your relationship partner, and vice-versa.

This campaign seeks to address a huge problem in India and South Asia: the overvaluing of light (brown) skin, and the undervaluing of dark (brown/black) skin. But, #BrownIsBeautiful!

Although, like usual, I don't come with answers, just more information to understand the problem, I can say that there is something you can do. Love yourself! Love the beauty you have. No one's perfect, but why do we even have to be? Even worse, why do we expect them to be, and why do people expect YOU to be? Why do you let them? No one else has your eyes, no one else has that beautiful smile you flash when you hear a service driver call you "habibi." No one else has your curves, your arms, your body. More importantly, no one should control your body, especially media images. While it's unfortunately cliche to say that a personality is beautiful, remember that our personality often highlights our beauty. And attraction in itself is a difficult thing to comment on, mostly because it's subjective. What you think you like, and who you think you are attracted to can be--and often are--completely thrown out of the window when you meet the right person. They don't need to look like Haifa Wehbe or Nancy Ajram. They can just be who they are. They have their own beauty. And don't forget: our outer beauty is undoubtedly inseparable from and inextricably linked to our inner beauty.

So, love yourself. Be beautiful. Spread the love,


P.S. This article discusses the "Contrast Effect," which describes evaluating ""normal" people as less desirable and unfairly plain when compared to "beautiful" people." It is incredibly relevant to this topic, and I really suggest you check it out. Also, I suggest you stay up-to-date with the Science of Relationships because they often post articles about body image and its connections to relationship well-being, satisfaction, and maintenance.


Ambwani, Suman, and Jaine Strauss. 2007. "Love Thyself Before Loving Others? A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis of Gender Differences in Body Image and Romantic Love." Sex Roles, 56: 13–21.

Baird, Amy L., and Frederick G. 2006. "Exposure to Male Models in Advertisements Leads to a  Decrease in Men's Body Satisfaction." North American Journal of Psychology, 8(1), 115-122.

Barlett, Christopher P., Christopher L. Vowels, and Donald A. Saucier. 2008. "Meta-Analyses of the Effects of Media  Images on Men’s Body-Image Concerns." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(3): 279-310.

Cash, Thomas F., Jocelyne Thériault, and Natasha Milkewicz Annis. 2004. "Body Image in an Interpersonal Context: Adult Attachment, Fear of Intimacy and Social Anxiety." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(1): 829-103.

Davison, Tanya E., and Marita P. McCabe. 2005. "Relationships Between Men’s and Women’s Body Image and Their Psychological, Social, and Sexual Functioning." Sex Roles, 52(7/8): 463-475.

Hoyt, Wendy D., and Lori R. Kogan. 2001. "Satisfaction With Body Image and Peer Relationships for Males and Females in a College Environment." Sex Roles, 45(3/4): 199-215.

Grabe, Shelly, L. Monique Ward, and Janet Shibley Hyde. 2008. "The Role of the Media in  Body Image Concerns Among Women: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental and Correlational Studies." Psychological Bulletin, 134(3): 460-476.

Farquhar, Jamie C., and Louise Wasylkiw. 2007. "Media Images of Men: Trends and Consequences of Body Conceptualization." Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 8(3): 145-160.

Feeney, Judith A., and Patricia Noller. 1990. "Attachment Style as a Predictor of Adult Romantic Relationships." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2): 281-291.

Green, Sharin Palladino, and Mary E. Pritchard. 2003. "Predictors of Body Image Dissatisfaction in Adult men and Women." Social Behavior and Personality, 31(3): 215-222.

Hatoum, Ida Jodette, and Deborah Belle. 2004. "Mags and Abs: Media Consumption and Bodily Concerns in  Men." Sex Roles, 51(7/8), 397-407.

Khraybani, Imane Farouk. 2008. The Relationship Between Body image and Self-Esteem Among Female and Male Adolescents in a School in Lebanon. Master’s thesis. American University of Beirut: Beirut, Lebanon.

Leit, Richard A., James J. Gray, and Harrison G. Pope, Jr. 2002. "The Media's Representation of the Ideal Male  Body: A Cause for Muscle Dysmorphia?" International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31(3): 334-338.

Markey, Charlotte N., and Patrick M. Markey. 2006. "Romantic Relationships and Body Satisfaction Among Young Women." Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35(2): 271–279.

Mallat, Sarah E. 2011. More Than Just Another Pretty Face? Understanding Motivations for  Plastic Surgery Among Lebanese Female Youth. Master’s thesis. American University of Beirut: Beirut, Lebanon.

Mernissi, Fatima. 2001. Scheherazade Goes West. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Mousa, Tamara Y., Rima H. Mashal, Hayder A. Al-Domi, and Musa A. Jibril. 2010. "Body Image Dissatisfaction Among Adolescent Schoolgirls in Jordan." Body Image, 7: 46-50.

Olivardia, Roberto, Harrison G. Pope Jr., John J. Borowiecki III, and Geoffrey H. Cohane. 2004. "Biceps and Body Image: The Relationship Between Muscularity and Self-Esteem, Depression, and Eating Disorder Symptoms." Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 5(2): 112-120.

Samet, Naomi, and Eugene W. Kelly. 1987. "The Relationship of Steady Dating to Self-Esteem and Sex Role Identity Among Adolescents." Adolescence, 22(85): 231-245.

Smolak, Linda, and Jonathan A. Stein. 2006. "The Relationship of Drive for Muscularity to Socio-cultural Factors, Self-esteem, Physical Attributes Gender Role, and Social Comparison in Middle School Boys." Body Image, 3: 121-129.

Vartanian, Lesa. Rae, Carrie L. Giant, and Rhonda M. Passino. 2001. "Ally McBeal vs. Arnold Schwarzenegger:" Comparing Mass Media, Interpersonal Feedback, and Gender as Predictors of Satisfaction with Body Thinness and Muscularity." Social Behavior and Personality, 29(7): 711-724.


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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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