Analysis: there are many benefits associated with having body-positive role models like Lizzo in the media or on-screen

When a powerhouse like Lizzo tells you to look in the mirror and tell yourself you're beautiful, you sit back and listen. This summer the singer-rapper-superstar took to the stage at Glastonbury and told the thousands watching in person and at home that self love can change the world. 

Lizzo, 31, deals with body positivity in her music and in her social media posts. She told Teen Vogue in 2018: "Everyone shouldn't have to hit rock bottom to love themselves... That's just the society we're all unfortunately born in - the one where you have to hit your worst and hate yourself in order to love yourself? Those laws only exist because self-hate is so prevalent. Body positivity only exists because body negativity is the norm."

The 2012 My World Survey, a national study of youth mental health in Ireland, found that among the 8000 young adults surveyed aged 18 to 25, 25% of males and 40% of females were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their bodies. Among the 6000 adolescents in secondary school, aged 12-18 years, 18% of males and 39% of females were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. 

From BBC Music, Lizzo talks about self love and performs Good As Hell at Glastonbury 2019 

Research shows that there's a strong link between body dissatisfaction and mental health outcomes, says Dr Amanda Fitzgerald, Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at UCD. Body dissatisfaction is linked with higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress, as well as risk taking behaviours, like higher levels of drinking and substance misuse. 

It doesn't end there. Self-esteem is also strongly linked with body dissatisfaction. If a young person is dissatisfied with their body they’re "more likely to have much lower self-esteem and self-esteem is really our global sense of self worth," Fitzgerald says. That’s why it matters that people of all ages have a healthy body image and body-positive role models. 

Body positivity is about appreciating and loving your body and showing self-care, acceptance and respect for your body regardless of body size, Fitzgerald explains. It’s also about investing in body care, exercise, sleep and hydration and focusing on your internal characteristics, not just your external appearance. 

From RTÉ Jr Rearing to Go, over 60% of Irish children say body image is a cause of stress

"People who are properly engaging in body positivity, the message that they're trying to give is that there’s no one standard of beauty, beauty comes in many forms." Seeing more diverse and body-positive role models in the media or on-screen, like Lizzo or Melissa McCarthy, can "absolutely" have a positive effect, Fitzgerald says. 

"Because you're seeing a role model and you’re saying OK, that role model doesn’t adhere to the body ideal and they’re not engaging in 'fat-talk’ and you’re seeing how Lizzo carries herself and then that can lead a person to say, there’s actually other ways of viewing my body. A follower of hers might say, that person I admire doesn’t actually look like a ‘supermodel,’ they are maybe in the category of overweight and that means I don’t have to hold myself to this thin ideal."

The "fitspiration" movement, centred around content intended as motivation for health and fitness, came about as an anti-dote to "thinspiration", generally considered content intended as motivation for very low body weight, especially within the context of anorexia. But Fitzgerald explains that research found the messages linked with "fitspiration" actually lead to poorer body image, not better, and were often guilt-inducing messages about weight and the body. In contrast, early findings suggest that body positivity is having the desired effect. 

From NPR Music, Lizzo's Tiny Desk Concert 

Two studies published in 2019 found that body positivity posts on Instagram are representing "previously under-represented body sizes" and that viewing body positive imagery can have an immediate, positive effect on body image. "We know that it has an immediate affect, what we don't know is if it has a longterm effect and we can't conclude that it's causal. Maybe I'm more attracted to watch these images because I have a good body image anyway," Fitzgerald says. "But experimental studies have shown that immediate exposure can lead to immediate positive outcomes."

"Analysis of people who engage in body positivity showed that, yes, body positivity is really important, in the sense that it is promoting a diversity and a representation of body ideals that we wouldn't have seen in the past."

There are potential benefits associated with having body-positive role models and seeing body positive posts online, Fitzgerald says. "Those, like Lizzo, who are online being a role model for body positivity, can potentially play a protective role against the media inducing negative body images. If you're viewing these images, it can actually buffer the effect of your exposure to thin ideals as well."

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Body dissatisfaction for young people can be triggered by a multitude of things: a comment from a peer or a bullying incident, for example. But Fitzgerald says "body image isn't just focused on weight, it’s focused on issues such as your race, sexuality, gender, they’re all important to body image. Your complexion, skin colour and muscularity are all tied in with that. Being bullied about one of these particular issues can have an impact on a person's body image."

If as a parent you have concerns about how to help your child with their body image, there's plenty to take into consideration, including when it comes to your own behaviour. Parents, from when their children are a very young age, can be role modelling dieting behaviours at home, Fitzgerald says. "So mothers who criticise their own bodies, young girls start to internalise these messages." 

Parents should also be good role models to their children by not engaging in body shaming of other people and teaching their kids that they don’t agree with the "thin ideal" or "an obsessive focus on appearance." It’s also important to teach young people "to appreciate the body not just for how it looks but for what it can do," Fitzgerald says. She suggests sitting the young person down and asking them to think about what parts of their body they do like. 

From RTÉ One's Nine News, over half of nine-year-olds using social media

Encouraging a positive body image for children also includes fostering healthy and mindful eating patterns and good levels of activity, and being aware of "fuelling your body in a way that it needs, to nourish it in an appropriate way, not trying to restrict calories."

"Young girls who play with Barbie dolls are more likely to show body dissatisfaction compared to girls who play with dolls that represent the norm. The media would have a strong influence and cultural and societal messages would have an impact on an individuals body satisfaction," she says. 

Children in Ireland are increasingly spending time on social media, despite age restrictions. Fitzgerald says media literacy is really important for helping young people so that they're aware "that the media is photoshopping images, that they are trying to have an impact on your self esteem, so that you'll go out and buy a product." 

From RTÉ TEN, Louise McSharry talks about the importance of of having a positive body image and urges people to be kinder to themselves

This is true for people of all ages, who could benefit from creating a "protective filter" to deal with body image stress, to reflect on what triggers a negative body image for them and then try to regulate or cut out that behaviour, Fitzgerald says. "Young women and more recently men as well are given mixed messages… and for young people that can be really confusing on their sense of self. In one way we're saying love your body, but buy this product, buy this makeup, it'll make you feel better."

READ: why we need to address weight stigma in all aspects of life

When you're struggling with your body image, Fitzgerald says it's important to "be kinder to yourself in that process and realise that body image doesn't have to be this static thing. It can change and that’s whats important." 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ