Society influencing people’s ideal of the perfect body image

In 2019, World Mental Health Day provided a stark reminder that modern society depends on social media, and reality shows harm people’s mental health. Reality shows have graced our television screen since the early 1990s; however, it was not until the 2010s that they began to dominate households with their dramatised real-life situations. Although they are unscripted, much of the drama is exaggerated, and actors have to re-act scenes several times to ensure they are filmed in good quality, creating an unrealistic portrayal of life. It is, therefore, distorting the viewer’s understanding of what is real. 

Society has become fixated on reality television, as it provides a means of escape for many. Consequently, it does propose a risk across social media, as it socially creates an unrealistic image of the perfect body and perfect lifestyle. The average body size in the U.K. is 16, yet the contestants in reality shows are rarely beyond a size 8, thus, creating unrealistic representations of women’s body sizes and beauty. Similarly, men are usually displaying perfect toned bodies and sharp looks. These altered images are increasingly affecting the way people look at themselves and others, resulting in people becoming displeased with their physical appearance and, at times leading them to act based on a distorted perception of what beauty is. Although Safeline (2019) states that many people may understand images are being altered, they are unaware of the extent. 

Reality check

Every day the media transmit messages of what society’s body expectations are, which could impact on the minds of young people, who may then struggle with not meeting these standards. Reality programmes focused on dating and relationships such as Married at First Sight, Love Island, and Take Me Out all fixate on the appearance of the participants, usually using their bodies to find love. Reality shows are fast becoming the most-watched programmes, and participants are regularly used as promotion tools for clothing, diets, and exercise videos, following departure from their subsequent shows. Reality stars promoting ‘fad diets’ or ‘media diets’ have had a massive impact on people’s buying habits. 

Society has become celebrity-saturated and has dramatically changed the lifestyle of millions, as people purchase and attempt to adapt their lifestyle to enhance their bodies (Lewallen, Miller and Behm-Morawitz, 2015). However, these expectations are unrealistic, with extensive cosmetic surgery, specialist lighting, and makeup cleverly utilised to further enhance their image. Those proposing (or “sponsoring”) these images are also caught in a loop of having to present themselves in a certain way; otherwise, the result would be a media frenzy, causing people to question the influencers’ personal life whenever they happen to have “an off day.” Girls in Westernised countries are exposed to more social media, and this may be affecting their self-esteem. Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence Report (2017) state that although globally 46% of girls had high body esteem, the U.K. had one of the lowest figures with 39%.

An image speaks a 1000 words.

Television has long been part of the centre point of the home, thus potentially having the ability to impact significantly, both positively and negatively. With children having unlimited access to technology within the Westernised World, early messages could be transcribed into negative connotations with body image (Sarwer et al. 1998), affecting into adulthood, as the person may then watch reality television, placing further pressures on body image. Consequently, Cash (2002) explains that these social messages influence the expectation of physical appearance and how this is determined into value within society. 

Nowadays, the overbearing use of social media and reality shows has become one of society’s biggest downfalls. For example, when people have downtime, they scroll through images on social media that have been carefully edited to create the perfect selfie. Although the images may not directly state this, the culture derived from the overly photo-shopped pictures, additional trimming of body shape, and the introduction of influencers, slowly encase our social media with an unachievable, unrealistic and unhealthy image of the perfect body. Thus, creating an unbearable pressure on people to match a body type that is liked by society, causing severe long-term health issues. Wing and Phelan (2005) express concerns that attempting to lose weight and maintaining the loss dramatically could lead to long term mental health issues, such as depression. Furthermore, Sabbagh (2019) suggests there is a concern on the credibility of information or tips shared by influencers, as one in nine U.K. influencers provided information and adherence to nutritional guidance. Thus, suggesting that many people may fall victim to false information to achieve the perfect body, placing their health at risk. 

Many people are raised to love themselves, to be proud of their achievements, and celebrate everyone’s successes by their parents, teachers, and loved ones. However, at times, society seems to expect us to focus more on appearances and uniformity, comparing ourselves to others, rather than celebrating differences. Watching shows focusing on the beauty of their participants; young viewers become more self-conscious.

Beyond gender

Modern society has led to people having the inability to escape idealistic images, as they are present on television, social media, magazines, and billboards (Schooler and Ward, 2006), chipping away at people’s self-esteem throughout the day. Men also suffer from body-image shaming, as Lamarche et al. (2017) explain that they feel pressure to measure up to societies’ standards of a muscular, strong man. Thus, leading to a heightened risk of mental health issues in young men, as they struggle to understand or comprehend the body insecurities, they will experience due to society (Lamarche et al., 2017). Bee (2010) states that men are equally influenced by the media, comparing themselves to the muscular body type often showcased.

Furthermore, Bee (2010) explains that this misrepresentation of men in the media has resulted in an increase of young men adopting unhealthy and strict diets to achieve the muscular image. Thus, causing grave harm to their bodies. It was identified in Credos (2016) study’ Picture of Health’ that 41% of boys felt the images presenting men in the media were unrealistic. Furthermore, the study expressed concern on the amount of pressure to achieve this glorified idealistic look, affecting the boy’s body confidence as they have yet to achieve this expected look of a man. This has led to 29% of young boys struggling to have the confidence to discuss body image with their parents, increasing the risk of mental health issues as they may be a risk of low self-esteem resulting in depression (Bee, 2010). 

Changing the approach

Clearly, the problem aligns with both genders and, as such, requires a united response. Fundamentally, society should assist in shaping confidence and feeling comfortable in one’s skin. The increasing number of young people struggling with their body confidence and image, opting for plastic surgery or developing eating disorders, emphasizes that society strongly influences people’s lives. Wen (2017) states that there is an increasing number of young people undergoing cosmetic procedures due to celebrities’ direct and indirect influences. Wen (2017) explains further that the attitude toward cosmetic surgery has changed since the growth of celebrities. Abraham and Zuckerman (2011) explain that people tend to want to mimic their favourite celebrities, buying into the same clothes, hairstyle, and even opt for cosmetic surgery. Young adults are electing to undergo these surgeries, as they feel the celebrities have had a significant and positive effect upon their lives (Maltby and Day 2011). 

Following their reality stint, some contestants are awarded their own television shows, following their lives and develop fitness DVDs, losing weight with 5-minute workout programmes within 12 weeks. Muscle Foods (2017) questions whether these are ethical, as they are sold upon the hype of the star rather than their effectiveness and reliability, whether the star loses weight or not. Muscle Foods (2017) reminds society that these stars are provided with expert guidance, and do not rely solely upon their new DVD workout. Viewers who may not achieve their goal within the expected time will be subject to further distress. Instead, society needs to encourage people to love themselves and not compare themselves to reality stars or other celebrities.

The images that are promoted in the media need to change, as these are increasing the risk of mental health-related problems. These images affect people’s confidence and self-esteem, thus, leading the person to be unhappy with their body. The portrayal of these “perfected” images needs to be addressed, as they can encourage destructive behaviours, affecting mental health and the wellbeing of millions. To tackle this issue, transparency is needed, explaining which images have been altered and to what extent. Emphasis needs to be placed back on the portrayal of natural beauty: consequently, natural beauty needs to be celebrated. 


Reference List:

Abraham, A. and Zuckerman, D. (2011) Adolescents, Celebrity Worship, and Cosmetic Surgery. Journal of Adolescent Health 49(5). Pp. 453 – 454 

Bree, C., J. (2010) The contemporary body image of men. Do looks outweigh the importance of being healthy? Available at: (Accessed August 15th, 2019). 

Cash, T. F. (2002). Cognitive- behavioural perspectives on body image. In T. F. Cash, & T. Pruzinsky (Eds.), Body image: A handbook of theory, research and clinical practice (pp.38-46). New York: The Guilford Press

Credos. (2016) Picture of health? Available at: (Accessed August 14th, 2019). 

Dove (2016) Self-esteem project. Available at: (Accessed August 14th, 2019)> 

Green, S.P. & Pritchard, M.E. (2003), Predictors of Body Image Dissatisfaction in Adult men and Women, Social Behaviour and Personality, 31(3), 215-222.

Lamarche, L., Ozimok, B., Gammage, K. and Muir, C. (2017) Men respond too: The effects of a social-evaluation body image threat on shame and cortisol in University Men. 11(6). Pp. 1791 – 1803. Doi:

Lewallen, J., Miller, B., and Behm-Morawitz, E. (2015) Lifestyles of the rich and famous: Celebrity media diet and the cultivation of emerging adults’ materialism. Mass Communication and Society. 19(3). Pp. 253 – 274. Doi:

Maltby, J. and Day, L. (2011) Celebrities worship and incidence of elective cosmetic surgery: Evidence of a link among young people. Journal of Adolescent Health. 49. Pp. 483 – 489 

Muscle Foods (2017) Fitness DVDs by reality stars – are they actually good role models? Available at: (Accessed August 11th, 2019). 


Safeline (2019) How body image is portrayed in the media. Available at: (Accessed August 15th, 2019). 

Sabbagh, C. (2019). Study scrutinizes the credibility of weight management blogs by most. Available at: (Accessed August 10th, 2019).

Sarwer, D. B., Wadden, T. A., Pertschuk, M. J., & Whitaker, L. A. (1998). The psychology of cosmetic surgery: A review and reconceptualization. Clinical Psychology Review, 18(1), 1-22.

Schooler, D. & Ward M.L. (2006), Average Joes: Men’s Relationships with Media, Real Bodies, and sexuality, Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 7(1), 27-41.

Wen, N. (2017) Celebrities influence and young people’s attitudes towards cosmetic surgery in Singapore: The role of parasocial relationships and identification. International Journal of Communication. 11. Pp. 1234 – 1252 

Wing, R. and Phelan, S. (2005) Long-term weight loss maintenance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 82(1). Pp. 222 – 225. Doi:

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