Mental Health Reflections on Mental Health from a Subject of Study—How People Feel From the Bottom of the Well
Reflections on Mental Health from a Subject of Study—How People Feel From the Bottom of the Well
Researchers John Mayer and William Eccles of Duke University are studying how people feel from the bottom of the well. They’re studying how third-party pressures—with others’ input—change what’s perceived as an individual’s “normal”—which, in turn, affects how people feel about themselves.
In the context of mental health, what they’re finding—and what comes as no surprise to those in the field—is that people are reluctant to give up “personal control” of their bodies. Mayer and Eccles call it the hidden leg of the stool.
One of the most notable studies on body image was conducted in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Researchers, intrigued by the New York City subway car advertisements that advertised women’s bras in elevators, turned to the Chicago Transit Authority and found elevators lacking seatbelts and safety. Researchers wore women’s clothing and overstayed their time allotted in the car, observing the women’s attitudes during their time on the car. They found that women trapped in the chairs with a lonely spectator type of view reported less body dissatisfaction.
What researchers and fitness experts have been trying to understand for years is how feelings of body-image distress are influenced by news we receive from the streets. As Psychology Today pointed out, often we make what we hear about ourselves as news—for both positive and negative reasons. Sometimes we’re even intent on learning exactly how to “fix” a problem to remove our feelings of distress and feel good about ourselves.
We want to fix our own bodies, which may be the result of what psychologist Donald Armstrong, Ph.D., explains as compensatory thinking:
Sensation seeking tries to ensure that we can displace feelings of unhappiness with external sources. We may feel anxious because of an event that creates a sense of violation, so we want to blame the surroundings, establish a sense of safety, and be reassured of our own worthiness.
Mayer and Eccles describe the third-party influences as the feeling of the observer’s hand on the waist, the feeling of the “inside” of the body on the outside, and the feelings on both sides of the gap, the third or outer and inner worlds.
Interestingly, when a photographer from Aperture magazine captured self-portraits of black women (almost all from black artistic talent such as photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, anthropologist Maria Hamilton Gisiko, and experimental performance artist Janice Nelson) during a photo shoot at the site of the Lincoln Memorial, after the photo was released, there was a small increase in confidence in blacks at the site. This effect persists for black women. People might believe that an observer view of a person’s body changes their own perception of those same individuals. In fact, we’re still finding that making an assessment of one’s self without specific context—whether self-esteem or self-concept—can have lasting repercussions.
According to research by Mayer and Eccles, even with the benefit of third-party discussions, self-enhancement and the excessive use of images in the media, physical images drive self-image, not perspective. They call this the beneficial/unhealthy intersection.
According to psychology professor-author Judith Stansfield, PhD:
This is where today’s “attachment disorder” stems from. When children feel safe, loved, and recognized, they are less likely to seek out an extreme approach—like that achieved by copycat eating disorders.
Facing the Facts:
What we already know: People love to compare themselves to others. Where else do they compare? Fashion stores. Fashion magazines. TV. Film.
Mayer and Eccles: We see a lot of people compared with their body type within the context of advertising.
We also learn that people are reticent to feel any difference between the images of themselves and the ads. This may be a natural body-image thing, but it is also a social phenomenon—it makes sense to be scared of what you don’t know—especially if you never had a chance to get closer to it.
With a change of the context, though, things change. Here, we’re looking at our bodies from the car.