Science Book a Day Interviews Aric Sigman

aric-sigman

Special thanks to Aric Sigman for answering 6 questions about his recently featured book – The Body Wars: Why Body Dissatisfaction is at Epidemic Proportions and How We Can Fight Back

Dr Sigman has a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Psychology, a Master of Science degree in The Neurophysiological Basis of Behaviour, and a Ph.D. in the field of the role of attention in autonomic nervous system self-regulation.  Dr Sigman works independently in health education lecturing at medical schools including UCL and to NHS doctors. He is a Chartered Biologist, Fellow of the Society of Biology, Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a  Chartered Scientist awarded by the Science Council and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine. – From Aric’s Homepage

Aric’s Homepage: http://www.aricsigman.com

#1 – What was the impetus for The Body Wars?

I’m involved in child health education and try to help prevent diseases and developmental problems in children. I became intrigued by the idea that our own perceptions of how we look can translate into such profound mental and physical changes. Body dissatisfaction seems to involve too many indistinct links in a long and winding chain for it to be fully understood and taken as seriously as it should be. I was concerned at the extent to which the effects can be wide-ranging, long-lasting and even fatal. I initially wrote a biology paper A Source of Thinspiration?: The biological landscape of media, body image and dieting and felt that there was a great deal of relevant research that was not making its way into discussions and debates on ‘body image’.  And I’m also a father and husband, saddened and angered by the pressures and judgments about body shape and size that our culture imposes insidiously upon the females in my life. Coming from a family of 5 boys, women’s sensitivity about their bodies was something I didn’t understand until well into adulthood. In trying to understand the world of female body image, what has been most astonishing is how even the most intelligent, capable, rational and ‘empowered’ women I’ve known, loved, worked with and for, can be laid low by body dissatisfaction. This includes women with body shapes a man would die for. Most men assume that an otherwise confident woman wouldn’t be bothered that deeply by something as superficial as a bit of fat or a patch of cellulite. Many of us just don’t get it. when it comes to the world of women’s body image, eating disorders and dieting, there has been a distinct lack of male input. It has understandably been dominated almost entirely by women. However, for better or worse, we are inextricably entwined: half of all fathers have daughters, 90 per cent of men will have a wife/partner; we also have mothers, sisters and female friends. Therefore, men have a big stake in female body dissatisfaction and I feel they can be helpful in redressing the state we’re in.

#2 – How has our relationship with body image changed over time? Did people in the Victorian era look at their bodies as we look at them now?

Our relationship with our bodies has, in measurable terms, deteriorated very, very significantly. We are experiencing, in effect, a worldwide epidemic of body dissatisfaction: A high proportion of 3-6 year old girls worry about being  fat. What’s more, it seems that worry doesn’t diminish with age: a preoccupation with physique and body dissatisfaction is now found even among a high proportion of pensioners. In the age of unlimited electronic screen media our longstanding forms of self-comparison to other’s bodies has given way to mass perpetual comparison to an incomparably high number of idealised images on screens. Social media, photoshopping and the selfie have ushered in a high degree of self-objectification. These are pressures of volume and intensity that our grandparents did not have to contend with. I’ve also tried to do a reality check on this by travelling to other cultures in various stages of industrial and technological development e.g. North Korea, Republic of Congo, Turkmenistan, Bhutan, Mali, Tonga, Burma, Mongolia, West Papua, Laos, Iran, Vietnam, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Far Eastern Siberia, Sumatra, South Korea, Cambodia, Chile, Philippines, Jordan, China, Japan in addition to North America and Europe. In some ways it’s a form of time travel helping to answer ‘how did we feel about our bodies during previous eras?’ The answer is ‘better’.

#3 – According to research, what are the things in our lives that most influence body dissatisfaction?

The driving forces behind body dissatisfaction are wide-spread, ranging from the media, our culture and our own deeply embedded emotions, values and judgments about our bodies to our biological predispositions. We know a lot more about female BD than we do about males and it now seems maternal role modelling turns out to be a significant influence on girls. How we adults fare and feel about our own bodies is often linked to how our children fare and feel about theirs: parents who hate their bodies are more likely to produce children who hate their bodies too. Visual media plays a highly significant role in producing and exacerbating body dissatisfaction. Research is now unpackaging some of the mechanisms which may enable the media to literally alter the way our brains function along with the way we feel about ourselves, so significantly. And the misuse of social media provides a toxic combination of slender images for self-comparison and critical comments about they way you look. In the UK, for the first time, young people 16-24 now spend more time looking at media than they do sleeping, while for the rest of society it’s our main waking activity. I believe that with such a high proportion of their time spent in the virtual world with countless possibilities for viewing idealised images, our social comparison mechanisms have been distorted.

#4 – How can men help alleviate, this predominately female issue?

The research in the book indicates that men actually have a very different and much kinder take on female body fat, sex appeal, eating and weight loss than women. One arresting statistic related this is that on the night they become pregnant, nearly 60 per cent of women in the US and half of Australian women are obese or overweight. Yet women are led to believe that body fat is ugly and sexually unattractive. So clearly, either someone is lying or men must simply be kind, submitting to charitable sexual encounters with these unattractive creatures out of genuine pity and compassion. I don’t think so.

When we try to establish a universal healthy yardstick for women to consider their body size and shape, evaluating the types of female body men prefer is a valid and highly important perspective. Knowing what men like can actually serve as an antidote to the prevailing assumptions that feed body dissatisfaction. Therefore, whether it is politically incorrect or not, it is a real part of life and history and will not be going away any time soon. The book contains a chapter entitled What Men Want which includes among other research, graphic studies helping to answer this question through monitoring the blood flow and swelling in a man’s penis in reaction to what he prefers or dislikes.

This is most certainly not replacing one prescriptive view of the ideal female form with another. Far from it. The chapter is trying to make clear that men generally do not find women’s body fat ugly, which is certainly not the same as telling women how they should look. Rather, it’s saying almost all women have body fat on their hips, thighs and bottoms and, despite media messages to the contrary, men certainly don’t find this unattractive. It’s saying, you look this way already and often it’s fine. Fathers need to counter the messages their daughters hear, and husbands and partners need to do the same for their wives and partners. In short, men are an untapped army who need to become aggressively vocal about the culture and messages bearing down on their daughters, wives and female friends.

#5 – Is your book a clarion call? Or do you think we can improve the current problems related to body dissatisfaction?

I’m certainly neither the first, nor the last person to try and draw attention to the increasing problem of body dissatisfaction and the fact that it’s a risk factor for eating disorders. There are obviously no instant self-help cures for body dissatisfaction because many of the necessary changes are cultural, financial and political and beyond our immediate control. An outbreak of people learning to ‘love their bodies’ is pure fantasy of the kind offered up in the very magazines that have helped cause body dissatisfaction to begin with. However, I do believe there is a  great deal we can do as individuals to significantly lessen the effects of body dissatisfaction, enabling us to lead less troubled, healthier and more fulfilling lives: to feel more comfortable with our size and shape. As parents there’s a great deal we can do to prevent our children from experiencing body dissatisfaction the way our generation has.

#6 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

Given that I am an exceedingly slow writer who agonises over every word, I won’t be writing another book any time soon. Instead, I’m doing more lecturing at medical schools and to doctors in Britain’s National Health Service, on child health issues, especially risks associated with excessive discretionary screen time and screen dependency, a subject I’ve just published a paper on: Virtually addicted: why general practice must now confront screen dependencyBr J Gen Pract 2014 Dec; 64(629): 610-611.  DOI: 10.3399/bjgp14X682597

[Note: The above also includes parts from his book where Sigman felt it helped answer the question.]

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