Throughout history and the world, art has always reflected and formed our beauty ideals. With eating disorders rising at a distressing rate, number 23 in our '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' explores how contemporary art can transform our unhealthy body standards…

Last year, global research based on interviews with 5,165 girls aged 10 to 17 found that just 39% of those in the UK had high body esteem. This level is one of the lowest in the world. Even more worryingly, most of the girls with low body esteem who took part in the 2017 Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence Report said they had skipped meals, avoided seeing friends and family, or avoided seeing a doctor.

Our body esteem is based on our body image, which is how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror or when we visualise ourselves in our mind. Body image has far more to do with our self-esteem than our actual physical appearance. Our body image is not inborn but learned from the people and environment around us.

We need to change the social and cultural environment directly so that girls are not judged on their looks…

Professor Phillippa Diedrichs

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, people with negative body image are far more likely to develop an eating disorder and are more likely to suffer from feelings of depression and isolation. While this is more likely for women, NHS figures in 2017 revealed that the number of men being admitted to hospital with an eating disorder has risen by 70% in the past six years.

In our current viral, visual culture, we are constantly bombarded by images of ‘perfect’ bodies. Whether on TV, in magazines, on billboards or Instagram, the bodies we see most often adhere to a very specific, alarmingly inflexible set of sizes and standards. For many people, these standards are impossible to achieve in a natural, healthy way.

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, c.1484

The co-author of last year’s global beauty report, Phillippa Diedrichs, associate professor from the Centre for Appearance Research, University of the West of England, says: “We need to change the social and cultural environment directly so that girls are not judged on their looks…”

We don’t have to go that far back in art history to see that our body ideals used to be very different. Probably one of the most famous paintings in the world, The Birth of Venus by Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, depicts the Roman goddess (supposedly the embodiment of love and beauty) not as the thin, airbrushed models that we’re used to seeing but as a more recognisable, naturally curved woman.

More recently certain contemporary artists have begun to challenge our modern beauty standards head on. In 2014, Turner-Prize winning artist Grayson Perry began his series Who Are You? on Channel 4. As part of his research, he attended a Miss Plus Size International competition. There he met three plus-sized women and spoke to them about their struggle for acceptance. From this experience Grayson created a curvaceous ceramic portrait of one of the women. The ceramic evokes ancient depictions of goddesses and in doing so celebrates a positive image of a plus-sized woman. Painted onto the ceramic figure are other images of women, from supermodels to the Madonna, to illustrate our continually changing notions of beauty ideals.

Also in 2014, artist Amalia Ulman tricked the world when she carefully scripted and curated months of social media posts apparently documenting her life as an it-girl trying to make it in LA. Amalia’s online performance documented a deteriorating emotional state and culminated in fake plastic surgery.

…now it's required of everyone to learn these skills of being a minor celebrity - the way they look, the way they are perceived - which is kind of dangerous.

Amalia Ulman

Amalia planned her performance, titled Excellences & Perfections, while she was recovering in hospital from serious leg injuries caused by a car accident. Her performance created an intricate portrait of the way women are viewed and pressured online, as well as documenting our increasingly unhealthy relationship with lifestyle platforms like Instagram. In 2016, Amalia’s work was included in a group show at the Tate Modern, making her the first social media artist to exhibit there.

Art’s role in altering our body image is not just about showing us the destructive effects of current pressures. As always art can push boundaries and, in the case of body ideals, it can alter our perception of what is normal or desirable by demonstrating a far more complex notion of beauty in various sizes and body types.

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