Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Body Positive: What We Wish We Knew Back Then

Charlotte Markey, Elizabeth Daniels, Meghan Gillen

When we started studying body image, between 14 and 20 years ago, we had a personal interest in the topic.  In some ways, the work has become less personal across time and in some ways it has become more personal.  When middle age is just around the corner, it feels easier to care less about how you look.  Some of the insecurities of adolescence and early adulthood have passed as maturity has set in.  But then, we find ourselves with responsibilities towards young people – children, nieces and nephews, students – and we worry about them.  There are things we want to convey to them that we wish we had known when we were younger, back when we were early career body image researchers.

We wish we had appreciated that body image is not just about feeling generally good or bad about your body.

We wish we had appreciated that body image is not just about feeling generally good or bad about your body. It’s also about trying to feel better about and accept your body as it is.  It’s also about taking care of your body and nurturing yourself.  As researchers we talk a lot about “body satisfaction” and “body dissatisfaction,” and more recently “positive body image.”  However, people experience all of these feelings. For example, we are satisfied with our legs, we are dissatisfied with our hips, we feel good about our hair, we appreciate the strength in our body.  It’s possible that these feelings even fluctuate from week to week (or day to day).

We wish we had appreciated how well our bodies worked when we were younger.  Never mind how good they looked!  One of the hard truths of life is that you are less likely to meet societal standards of beauty with age.  We’re also less likely to function as well with age; accidents, injuries, and illnesses are inevitable.  Across the three of us, we’ve been pregnant multiple times (and postpartum multiple times), we’ve developed bunions on our feet, chronic illnesses, and a bad back.  Aging may lead to more issues. This isn’t pessimism, but a reality check for the younger set.  However, although aging may not be a fully positive experience, it is not a completely negative experience, either.  With age, we have developed a greater awareness of the artificial nature of images in the media, learned more about self-care, and have had more time to be comfortable with ourselves.

Again, this isn’t to say we have everything about body image figured out on an academic or a personal level.  When we started this work, we wish we had realized how messy and complicated it was to try and understand women’s bodies in particular.  The cultural messages that women receive about their bodies is contradictory at best.  It matters how we look.  We shouldn’t care so much about how we look.  We should focus on our health.  It’s unhealthy to be overweight.  It’s even more unhealthy to diet.  The mental energy that goes into deciphering these messages is immense.

One thing we didn’t necessarily realize when we started doing body image research is that a big part of this is about wanting the next generation to be better off. More specifically, it’s about wanting girls and young women to be empowered and no longer burdened by the mixed-messages they receive about their bodies.  It’s hard not to wonder about all of the things girls and women would achieve if we didn’t have our bodies on our minds so much of the time.

So, do we have all of the answers?  Not at all.  Do we have some of them?  We think so, and thus we compiled a book that contains the latest science on how to appreciate and value your body.  If nothing else, we have come to understand that we are works in progress in a whole variety of ways – and everyone else can be, too.

Reviews and endorsements for Body Positive: Understanding and Improving Body Image in Science and Practice

“Body Positive provides a novel, refreshing way of conceptualizing body image, from the assessment of body image to its antecedents and consequences across a range of populations, from childhood through to old age. The authors are outstanding researchers and clinicians who tackle the old concept of body image in a new and positive way, by focusing on the positive role that body image can play in our lives.” – Marita McCabe, Australian Catholic University

“Body Positive is just what we need to promote the development of positive embodiment. Congratulations to the editors on this first-rate collection! The book is chock full of ideas for researchers and suggestions for clinical interventions. Highly recommended for both professionals and graduate students.” –  Joan C. Chrisler, Connecticut College

“The book addresses a timely and important topic in the field of body image and eating disorders. Moving beyond negative body image and risk factor research to positive ways of living in the body and protective factors is essential to health promotion and the treatment of a range of body-based disruptions, including eating disorders.” –  Niva Piran, University of Toronto

Find out more about Body Positive: Understanding and Improving Body Image in Science and Practice


In honor of Mental Illness Awareness Week and World Mental Health Day, Cambridge University Press is giving away free journal articles and book chapters related to mental health and wellbeing for the full month of October 2018. Click here to learn more.

About The Authors

Charlotte Markey

Charlotte H. Markey, Ph.D., is a Psychology Professor and Director of the Health Sciences program at Rutgers University, New Jersey. She has been conducting research on eating, die...

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Elizabeth Daniels

Elizabeth A. Daniels, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She is a developmental psychologist and has been conducting re...

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Meghan Gillen

Meghan M. Gillen, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania State University, Abington. She has been conducting research on body image, gender, and physical ap...

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