What Do You See?
Charles Horton Cooley was a professor of sociology and one of the theorists responsible for the shaping of symbolic interactionism. His major works include: Human Nature and the Social Order (1902); Social Organization (1909); Social Process (1918); and Life and the Student: Roadside Notes on Human Nature, Society, and Letters (1927).  A collection of his papers was published after he died and is entitled Sociological Theory and Social Research (1930).


Overcoming transcendentalism Cooley sought to explain the self and its development.  Cooley developed the theory of the “looking-glass self,” which purports that we see ourselves through the eyes of other people and will even integrate their views into our self-image.  He believed that society and the self cannot exist exclusive of each other, and are in fact a result of one another.  Cooley recognized that the self is constituted through interaction with its surrounding and saw introspection as an act of public communication (Schubert 1998). 

Cooley’s looking-glass is the internalization of other’s judgments and perceptions of himself. Imagine yourself wearing a pair of eyeglasses through which you are looking into a mirror to see yourself.
The eyeglasses represent society and the mirror is the looking-glass through which you can see your reflection, or your “self” through society’s eyes. As we see our reflection, we see ourselves, and in our imagination we can perceive in another’s mind their perception of our appearance, manners, deeds, etc., and we are affected by it.
The looking-glass self that Cooley describes has 3 principal elements:

1)      The imagination of our appearance to the other person

2)      The imagination of his judgment of that appearance

3)      Our reaction of pride or humiliation for our self, based on how we perceive others see us.

Cooley states,

“Each to each a looking-glass reflects the other that doth pass.”

Cooley’s theory essentially says that each person is simply a manifestation of his or her society. We are all products of our culture, environment, friends, and family. As most people want to be accepted into their society, they are encouraged to obey the rules and ideals of the group. One of the most vivid illustrations of this theory is Western society’s obsession with thinness and the resulting self-perceptions of body image.

Something that we encounter every single day is what Dengler (http://www1.xe.net/~sdengler/) has identified as Society’s Ideal Body Image, or SIBI. This is an invisible standard propagated by society to which an individual compares himself and others each day. SIBI is the force that influences many to formulate their body image and is a large factor in determining who we are (self).  One’s body image is also vulnerable to pressures from our social sphere and the media.   

            Hesse-Briber, Marino, Watts-Roy (1999) found that socio-cultural factors have a considerable impact on self-concept and demonstrate the impact of self-concept on body image. They also found that self-concept has significant effects on disordered eating. Self- esteem is how much we like our self-concept and it is low self-esteem that leads to problematic eating patterns and distorted body images.

Advertisers emphasize sexuality and physical attractiveness in their marketing tools.  The individual’s desire to achieve these standards is used to fuel their market.  This is said to place pressure on both men and women to focus on appearance (http://www.mediascope.org/pubs/ibriefs/bia.htm). We all want the perfect body and this idea has been perpetuated in society, often leading to unhealthy eating behaviors.  The media perpetuates society’s standards for beauty and attractiveness and this depiction is found in articles in magazines and pictorials like Playboy. Many magazines are devoted to exercise and diet and this is encouraged as a way to achieve society’s ideal body.  Interestingly, it is when these activities are taken to extremes that they become a precipitator to anorexia (Killian 1994).
The media thrives on an individual’s desire to reproduce the ideals, which it has set forth to them.  The media perpetuates frustration and disappointment and tells the individual that he or she is not thin enough or beautiful enough in order to exploit those feelings. The media supports itself by selling the advertisements of their supporters to its audience. The diet industry alone generates 33 billion dollars in revenue each year. According to Mediascope, seventy-five percent (75%) of “normal” weight women feel that they are overweight.
Sociologists Dale Cusumano and Kevin Thompson are said to have found a link between media and body images. They found that the average size of centerfold models is much smaller than that of the average woman. Women who were inundated with beauty ads had a poorer body image than those who were not. They also stated that is almost impossible to avoid these advertisements in the media and that the more a person is exposed to these advertisements, the greater their desire to be thin will be. One study of television advertisements found that one of every 3.8 advertisements had a beauty-based message. It was estimated that we are exposed to over 5,000 advertisements a year perpetuating body dissatisfaction.

Another study conducted found three stages demonstrating how a distorted body image leads to eating disorders. The first stage is the internalization of society’s ideal body image (SIBI). In the second stage, individuals fantasize about becoming the beautiful and thinner version society tells them that they should be. It is realized in the third stage that the ideal body image portrayed has not been achieved and the individual becomes depressed and disappointed, often leading to eating problems.

Women are taught by socially constructed gender roles that extreme thinness is a symbol of femininity.  Men are taught by these same roles that having a muscular body is a symbol of masculinity. Men are encouraged to be strong and women are taught that to acquire success, happiness, and control you must be thin and beautiful. Gender socialization teaches us this idea from the time we are small children (http://www.eating.ucdavis.edu/speaking/told/bulimia/jill.html). 

Society places women in a subordinate position and teaches them to be submissive, dependent and content with limited control of their lives. Eating disorders assist women in this subordination by causing them to become dependent on others for health and support; however, it conversely enables them to gain control and power over themselves through their eating habits (Killian 1994). Women also play the role of nurturers and caregivers.  This place in society mandates that they be self-sacrificing, which may manifest itself through eating disorders. The physical numbness that comes with the pain of starvation and purging helps to deny oneself and focus on the needs of others.


The responsibility for this internalization of our culture’s body ideals does not rest solely upon society.  The family also plays a paramount role in helping define and develop a child’s eating attitudes and behaviors.  These include:

1)                          The influence parents have on what their children eat growing up.

2)                          The example parents set regarding eating attitudes and behaviors for their children.

3)                          Encouragement by parents for the children to diet and/or lose weight.

4)                          Criticism or teasing related to a child’s weight by a parent (http://www.internationalnodietday.com/Documents/RS%20Influence%20of%20%20Parents%20-%20update.doc).

A number of women described how family influenced their concern for physical appearance, particularly being thin. Here are some examples of this tension cited by a few participants of the study conducted by Hess-Briber, et al.

Joan: My brothers and sisters would go around and make pig noises…My dad would say, “You need to lose weight.” And I’d try and I’d be successful.

Becky: My brothers would mention to my mother and she would say, “Tommy thinks you are getting fat: and then she’d say, “Maybe you should stop eating so much.” He (father) commented a lot. Never bad. Always good. He’d say, “You look good, you lost weight.” He was always commenting on pretty young girls.  So I knew it was important to him that I look good, too. I wanted him to see that I could be as pretty as all the girls he was commenting on.  I wanted him to be proud of me for that, and I knew he was.

Eliza: She (mother) was very crucial. I was always the fat one and she was the thin one.  She always made sarcastic remarks.  You know, just something like, “You better watch what you eat.  You’re going to get fat. You look chunky there.” She said, “thin down” all my life…. That I have the fattest thighs in the world. I’m the fat one. I’m her fat daughter.

Florence: I was sitting at the table and he (father) would just turn to one of the girls…. And he would say, “You’re getting a little fat belly.”

Mary: My dad used to call me fat.  I wouldn’t have noticed on my own… I was three years old when my dad was calling me fat.

Levinson et al found that development of self-image and perception of physical appearance are the responsibilities of parents as socializing agents. Parents have influence over how their offspring view their bodies. By the age of six, children have begun to form positive and negative images of different body types. As female types are generally closer to their parents than males, they may be more influenced by parents. This study also found that parental evaluations of the adolescent’s weight are strongly associated with that child’s perceived body image. Therefore, parental assessment in indeed a strong factor in the formulation of body image. However, one cannot contest that there are other variables present that influence body image, especially the media.

Another example of the role of family was found in Jill’s Story. She stated that she doesn’t hold her parents fully responsible for her eating disorder, but feels they share a role. She spent her entire life trying to please her father through her accomplishments and followed her parents’ beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors to seek their acceptance. Part of the reason Jill developed her eating disorder was to hide her neediness and herself.

The pervasive acceptance of the unrealistic body type creates an impractical standard for individuals. Mediascope concluded that the number one wish for girls ages 11 to 17 is to be thinner. At any one time, 50% of American women are dieting. Research has found that stringent dieting to achieve the ideal figure can trigger eating disorders.

There are three main types of eating disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, and Compulsive Eating.
Anorexia is an eating disorder of which the main characteristic is the restriction of food and the refusal to maintain a minimal normal body weight. Any weight gain or even perceived weight gain is met with intense trepidation by the Anorexic. There is a true feeling of fear of gaining weight and body image distortions.  Anorexics often view areas of the body that represent maturity or sexuality such as the buttocks, hips, thighs and breast as fat. Sometimes, weight loss is so severe that there is a cessation of menses. In the obsessive pursuit of thinness, restrictive dieting, compulsive exercise, and laxative and diuretic abuse are used. Anorexia Nervosa can be fatal if left untreated (http://www.ce5.com/anorexia.htm).
Bulimics use a cycle of binging and purging. Bulimics are also afraid of weight gain.  In order to achieve or maintain their ideal body they eat compulsively and then purge through self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, diuretics, diet pills, ipecac, strict diets, fasts, chew spitting, vigorous exercise, or other compensatory behaviors to prevent  weight gain. These binges, which occur in private, usually consist of the consumption of large amounts of food in a short period of time. This may be done occasionally but mostly as an obsessive ritual. The medical complications of the binge-purge cycle can be severe and fatal (http://www.prozac.com/DiseaseInformation/BulimiaSymptoms.jsp).
Compulsive Overeating is another type of eating disorder and, like bulimia, is a vicious cycle of binge eating and depression. Compulsive Overeaters often use food as a coping mechanism to deal with their feelings and control weight. Binge eating temporarily relieves the stress of these feelings, but is unfortunately followed by feelings of guilt, shame, disgust, and depression. It is not uncommon for this group to hide their disorder, eating normally or restrictively in front of others, and then make up for eating less by bingeing in secret.  For other Compulsive Overeaters, binges consist of “grazing” on foods all day long. Just as with all eating disorders, Compulsive Overeaters put the individual at risk of severe health complications (http://www.something-fishy.org/whatarethey/coe.php).
The findings of Levinson et al also indicate that there are serious health consequences to achieve these ideals. The “reed thin” ideal for women and the “beefcake” ideal for men may not be beneficial for physical well-being. So much so that a third of American women in their teens and early twenties begin smoking to help control appetite. Many weight loss products containing Ephedra, an herbal stimulant, have recently been removed from the market because of health risks (http://www.yourlawyer.com/practice/news.htm?story_id=4971&topic=Ephedra).  Fen Phen, another weight loss drug, was taken off the market after discovering the hypertension and heart risks (http://www.fen-phen-legal-resources.com/) to consumers.                          


The ideal body image is perpetuated by society through the media, gender roles, and the family. Though a lot of fault lies in socialization, one cannot ignore other factors such as mental health issues and trauma (i.e., sexual abuse) that may play a pivotal role in the development of self-esteem and self-concept. Development of a poor body image, leading to eating disorders, could possibly result from any one of these factors alone, but it is more likely to require a collection of variables.

As society evolves and changes so does the ideal body image. It is now fashionable to be thin, but historically, women were voluptuous, curvy, and larger than they are now. Marilyn Monroe was the quintessential sex symbol of the 1950’s and would wear a size twelve dress today. As Jill stated in Jill’s Story, the process needed is re-socialization and to do this you do not have to suffer from an eating disorder.  We should be teaching our children, each other, and ourselves that true beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not through the eyes of society. Because, as Cooley declared, “The imaginations which people have of one another are the solid facts of society.”


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