(original photographs/edits/art by me)

Last week I started an art project with a focus on body image. As a young person living in a society where appearance continues to be viewed as a primary factor of success – whether this is in our social interactions, the way that we are perceived by others or even our career prospects – the importance of using a visual medium such as art to explore the factors affecting our self-perception has become increasingly apparent to me.

We live in a world where statistics suggest that women now feel more uncomfortable about their bodies than at any other point recorded in history . According to research conducted for the Dove Beauty Report, only 20% of women in the UK feel happy about their bodies, and only 11% of young girls would describe themselves as beautiful. Perhaps more concerning than this is the impact that low body-esteem seems to have on a woman’s ability to realise her potential, with the study stating that nearly all women (85%) and girls (79%) say that they “opt out of important life activities – such as trying out for a team or club, and engaging with family or loved ones – when they don’t feel good about the way they look”.  Additionally, 7 in 10 girls with low body-esteem say they won’t be assertive in their opinion or stick to their decision if they aren’t happy with the way they look. This detrimental effect that body image can have on the mental state of a person on a daily basis, affecting their confidence in their own ideas despite these being completely unrelated to their physical appearance, is both shocking and disheartening. Can free thought be drowned and silenced so easily by the need to appear “attractive”?

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And what about boys and men? Despite the troubling statistics above I feel hugely fortunate to be surrounded by messages of body-positivity every day, whether these are in adverts like Dove’s or the endless stream of posts online that encourage people (usually with a specific focus on women) to love and celebrate their bodies the way that they are. While I recognise that women have historically been judged by their appearance to a greater extent than men, and that this – alongside the objectification of women – continues to be a very real issue, I feel as though it’s constantly in the public eye. We’re all aware of the challenges that women face regarding their body image, and there is a continuous conversation surrounding it which seems to be both progressive and healthy. I hope that this will continue and that some day the pressures to reach an unrealistic standard of beauty – which women (69%) and girls (65%) blame on advertising and media -will be silenced by healthier ideas of positive self-perception.

However it seems to be a different matter when it comes to male body image. We appear to believe that girls are inherently more concerned about the way that they look, and this could be true to a degree, but I find the lack of awareness and discussion of the state of male body-esteem to be concerning. A study carried out by the centre of appearance research at the University of the West of England in 2012 showed that body talk affected around three in five men (58.6%), usually negatively. 12% said they would trade a year of their life if they could have their ideal body weight and shape, 15.2% would give up two to five years, 5.3% would sacrifice six to 10 years and 5.3% would give up a decade or more. Although the overall statistics for negative male body image are significantly less extreme than those found in similar studies about females, I question why so many who promote gender equality seem to ignore the importance of conversation surrounding male body perception – whether this is written, through art, or spoken – and the need for an environment in which a boy or man doesn’t feel ashamed to discuss any insecurities that they may have with their appearance.

I believe that art holds a mirror up to society, reflecting and challenging social boundaries and breaking through cultural constraints; from the avant-garde movement, which rejected the notion that art must realistically depict the world, or Dadaism (both of which deserve endless blog posts to themselves), which questioned our perceptions of beauty and the concept that there’s a rule to what is or isn’t aesthetically pleasing. Challenged by the issues of body image today and how this is evolving, I hope to use different styles, methods and photographs to investigate body image and the different factors that affect and warp our self-perception.

This is the first in a series of posts, just detailing the outline of the primary facts and ideas that have made me take on this subject matter for my art and that I hope to build on as the project progresses. Stay tuned!

Published by Rachel Kevern