The main objective of this thesis is to study how social and cultural norms regarding body and appearance are perceived and interpreted by young people. This is done by studying both how these perceptions affect young people and how the body is controlled and altered through practices such as dieting, exercise, plastic surgery and the use of steroids. Another question raised in the study concerns important sources of influence for how one’s own body is perceived. The study is based on a questionnaire distributed to 167 young girls and boys aged 13, 15 and 17.
The theoretical framework includes both general theories of the body and gender perspectives. Four themes have been applied in order to capture central and important aspects of the ideal body. These are: the problematic body, the controlled body, the commodified body and the social body. These themes are all related both to gender and to the portrayal of bodies in mass media.
The main conclusion is that the body matters very much to many young people today, both their own perceptions of it and what others think of it. The perceptions of one’s own body is also very much gendered. Many girls have internalised a fragmented and problematised way of looking at their bodies. They report a greater dissatisfaction with their bodies than do boys. Size and shape are regarded as particularly problematic and a small and slim body is preferred. Girls are also frequently engaged in practices to alter and control their bodies and are more concerned with the state of their own bodies and how others’ view them. Boys expressed a greater satisfaction with their bodies. Their dissatisfaction is primarily focused on height and weight and indicates a desire to become bigger and taller.Exercise is the prime way for boys to alter their bodies. However, their own bodies are not as problematic as for girls; instead they seem to be more concerned with others’ bodies. Friends, together with mass media (particularly visual media and magazines), are regarded as the strongest source of influence on how the respondents (both girls and boys) perceive their bodies.
Age differences are also found. Girls display a tendency to be more dissatisfied with and be more involved in practices to alter the body the older they are. Boys display the reverse situation. The largest differences can therefore be found among the oldest. The influence of friends and media tend also to be perceived as more important among the oldest.