Driving Positive Change With Body Image

A world-leading New Zealand scientist weighs in on an issue that cuts more than skin-deep

Studies showed up to 80 per cent of girls experienced body-image concerns, double the rate seen in boys. Picture / Supplied

Girls are sitting in classrooms all over the world too crippled by self-consciousness or self-loathing to put their hands up, says New Zealander Dr Phillippa Diedrichs.

The UK-based academic researcher, who is working to change this, says that trivialising or teasing those with concerns about their body image is sadly commonplace.

So too, well-meaning people inadvertently perpetuate a focus on appearance ahead of achievements. The results can be beyond hurtful, causing deep-seated harm that manifests itself in individually damaging ways and acts as a brake on wider gender advancement.

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“That’s something that we all have the power to change,” she says. Expanding conversations about beauty ideals to include healthy ideals — including physical and mental well-being — is a good place to start. “We really need to move away from making judgments based just on looks. We have this image in our minds of what a healthy person looks like, but in reality that looks different for everyone.”

Dr Diedrichs’ work underpins a number of early intervention programmes being implemented internationally. This includes the Dove Self-Esteem Project, aimed primarily at those aged 8 to 16. It is the largest of its kind worldwide and was launched here last year in partnership with Life Education in schools, reaching about 12,000 pupils, and more again through Girl Guiding NZ.

The 35-year-old associate professor at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, told Viva being involved in research-based programmes now used in 124 countries and delivering to 20 million people was a “career highlight”.

“I’m very passionate about supporting girls and women to not be held back by appearances and to be empowered to have the types of lives they want to have,” she says.

“Boys and men feel the pressure too, but girls and women are disproportionately affected.” Studies showed up to 80 per cent of girls experienced body-image concerns, double the rate seen in boys. This could lower self-esteem and lead to less active participation or withdrawal from school, sport, social and work activities, hindering their advancement.

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The Selfie Generation was often seen as at the forefront of image obsession, said Dr Diedrichs, but the impact of women being judged by how they look — and, in turn, judging themselves — showed up at all ages and across all countries. Girl Guide organisations in Rwanda and Nigeria had proved as keen to have the programmes as their sister groups in the United States, saying it really resonated with their girls.

Seeing the project extended to New Zealand, where she grew up before moving to Australia and gaining her psychology doctorate, was particularly satisfying, she said. Dove’s aim is to see 1.5 million young women across Australasia benefit from its resources for teachers, mentors and parents by 2020.

Dr Diedrichs has lived in England for eight years now and is often called on for her expert insight, including by the media and policymakers. Asked what drew her to this line of research, she says: “I’ve always been interested in how ideas and culture and society can influence people’s health and wellbeing and I think body image is a really good example of that because some of the really strong drivers of what influences whether someone is happy and accepting of their body and what their bodies can do comes from the world around us, including our family, our friends, media and advertising and broader social and cultural norms.”

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Serious research into body image has been going on since the late 1980s, she says. Although themes were constant, social media did have an amplifying effect. “For young people, teasing and bullying in the past might have just been at school, whereas now it’s in your bedroom at night as well. The anonymity that social media can bring can make teasing and bullying particularly pervasive, also the volume of messages and images you can be exposed to all the time.”

But online connectivity could be a way for people to call for change, as seen by the upsurge in #campaigns. “There is an opportunity to really flip the narrative here.” Social media provided a forum for women to put pressure on brands, retailers and the media not to deal in stereotypes or to stigmatise. Fat shaming was but one insidious example.

Working with corporates in delivering messages was a way academics could gain a broader base for their work, she says.

“Increasingly we are seeing brands and media becoming a lot more pro-active and trying to do something about this issue.” (The commercial hook-up is not without risk, however, with Dove forced to apologise and withdraw an advertisement last year which showed a black woman transitioning into a white one. This despite a long track record of using “real” women of different body shapes and ethnicities to promote its products). Consumers now expected diverse depictions, said Dr Diedrichs, and everyone had a part to play.

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Research has shown that girls carrying a positive body image into the difficult early teen years had a better likelihood of healthier eating, outlook and behaviours.

“We don’t quite know yet what’s going on with the selfies, whether or not it’s a form of self-expression, or really whether it’s just about showing your appearance to other people.” Sound research into social crazes takes time, but for now Dr Diedrichs urges young women to think about how they could be impacting on other people.

“If you’re taking 100 selfies and only posting one and filtering that extensively it’s not necessarily a good representation of who you are, so be conscious of that.”

Show different aspects of your life, she advises, so what you are depicting is not just passive poses of yourself, but more about activities and participating in your community.

As to how she sees the future unfolding? “I am optimistic and I do think we are seeing some positive changes, but we still have a long way to go.”


  • For children, the change should begin at home with positive family role modelling. “Instead of saying: ‘You look very pretty’, or ‘Don’t you look so cute today’, or ‘That dress is beautiful on you’; focus on other attributes, like: ‘You were brave out on the playground’, or ‘Wow, your art is amazing’, advises Dr Diedrichs.
  • Mothers could reconsider comments they make about theirs, or others, weight or shape and the message this sends to children. Saying things like: “That dress makes you look tiny”, or “You look great, have you lost weight?”, might be well-intentioned, but repeated exposure to such comments has shown to send judgmental negative messages.
  • Building a strong sense of healthy self in young girls is paramount. Focusing on what a body can do, rather than what it looks like is a good strategy for all ages, says Dr Diedrichs. “Young women who self-objectify really internalise or have bought into the view that their bodies are objects to be looked at rather than active agents of change. They’re less likely to seek out and challenge gender stereotypes and to engage in gender activism.”

Find out more about the Dove Self-Esteem Project, including access to its online resources.

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