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Speaker Spotlight: Professor Viren Swami

Viren Swami is Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University and will be giving a talk at the Festival of Ideas entitled Are we all thin enough yet: busting the myth that beauty ideals are ‘natural’. He will also be contributing to the panel discussion Judging the book by its colour: the psychological truth about myths, beliefs and prejudice. Both events are on 28th October.


What does looking at other countries tell us about the attitude to appearance ideals we have in this country?

Viren Swami: It's useful to look at other countries because appearance ideals and beauty practices don't emerge in a vacuum - they are constructed and negotiated within particular cultural contexts. What this means is that there will likely be some differences in the appearance ideals and beauty practices that are enacted across cultures. Understanding how and why these differences emerge can help scholars and practitioners to respond more effectively to the more negative effects of appearance ideals, like the high prevalence of negative body image in this country. But it also helps us understand that appearance ideals in this country haven't remained static - there has been a great deal of change over time and it is important for researchers and practitioners to understand why such change occurs.


Can you give some examples of different idealised body types in other countries?

Viren Swami: The best example is perhaps cross-cultural differences in women's body size ideals. While a relative thin figure is typically rated as the ideal and most attractive in most socioeconomically developed societies, less socioeconomically developed societies tend to idealise heavier figures. Indeed, many societies have historically linked plumpness with sexuality, femininity and fertility, and in some cultures greater body fat is also perceived as a symbol of maternity and nurturance.


Why do you think we have this emphasis on thinness in the UK?

Viren Swami: As a society, we have constructed thinness as the ideal for women - we tend to associate thinness with all sorts of positive qualities, like success, wealth and popularity. Much of this is constructed through the mass media that we consume - on TV, in films, in magazines, thinness is commonly associated with positive outcomes for women. But it would be easy to blame the media - we also construct and negotiate appearance ideals, including the pressure to be thin, in our family and peer relationships. The question of why this occurs is more difficult to pinpoint, but a good starting point is the historical denigration of the role of women in society and particularly the way in which society forces women to focus their awareness on superficial aspects associated with beauty and appearance rather than their real competencies.


Do you see signs that this is changing and if so, is that positive or are we just substituting another idealised body type?

Viren Swami: On a global level, the biggest change we've seen in the past two decades is what I've called the globalisation of a cult of thinness. In societies where plumpness was once venerated, thinness is now idealised. This has major public health implications, particularly for societies that are also grappling with an obesity epidemic. But there are also signs that unhealthy and prospective ideals of appearance are being challenged more frequently and more vociferously. In a sense, pockets of resistance to the cult of thinness are emerging and women are increasingly not just questioning but actively contesting the idea that thin is the only way to be.


How much of an issue is this now with young men?

Viren Swami: It would be wrong to think that these are issues that only affect women. One thing we've seen over the past several decades is increasing pressure on men to conform to a muscular ideal, with many men now wanting to me more muscular than they currently are. As in women, such pressure is having a negative effect on the well-being of men, with increases in the prevalence of negative body image and body dysmorphia.


What have you found that might protect men and women from body image concerns?

Viren Swami: Part of my research is focused on promoting more positive body image in women and men. In particular, I'm interested in the notion of 'embodiment', a process through which individuals gain a sense of connection and comfort with their bodies, are able to voice their bodily desires and are attuned to the needs of their bodies. Some work I've been doing recently has focused on activities that may promote embodiment and, in turn, more positive body image, such as participation in life drawing and spending time in natural environments.


How did you get into this area of research?

Viren Swami: My early research was focused on how societies come to construct ideals of appearance and the impact of such ideals in everyday life. While that work was interesting and important, I've found that there is greater value in focusing more on issues of body image and particularly in finding ways that may promote healthier body image in women and men. Given that a majority of the population in the UK now express some form of negative body image, there is clearly still a lot more work to be done.