Negative Impact Of Verbal Abuse On Body Image

The way one view’s their own body can be considered an important part of overall self-image in today’s society. With unattainable standards of beauty being continually promoted within the media, among the family, and between peers, the reality of not living up to these expectations can cause significant detriment to one’s body image and, in turn, their entire view of themselves. These negative fluctuations in body image can, therefore, develop into much more serious issues, including self-harm and suicidal ideation due to feelings of unattractiveness and inadequacy. In their study on the impact of preconscious processing of body image cues on body concept and body percept, Waller and Barnes (2002) aimed to explore the significance of verbal stimuli, such as the words ‘fat’ and ‘thin’, in causing body image disturbance.

They defined body image in terms of body percept, ‘the internal visual image of body shape and size’, and body concept, ‘the level of satisfaction with one’s body’. Mossige et al. (2013), on the other hand, examined the hypothesis that being subject to verbal abuse, as well as other types of abuse, is associated with suicidal ideation and self-harming behavior among the youth. In this paper, I will argue that negative verbal cues, whether subliminal or direct, negatively impact body image; I will then discuss how positive verbal cues cause improvements in body image, to prove that victims of verbal abuse perpetrated by peers and family members are more likely to experience body image issues than non-victims, explaining the higher instances of self-harm and suicidal ideation among these groups.

Exposure to negative verbal cues, such as the word ‘fat’, results in worsening body image, which in turn may cause a greater instance of suicidal ideation and self-harming behavior. In Waller and Barnes’ (2002) study, the word ‘fat’ caused a significant deterioration in both body concept and body percept only among high EDI participant groups, consisting of women with unhealthy eating habits. Specifically, the high EDI group’s BPI score increased from an average of 111.1 to 113.6, while the BSS increased from 53.2 to 57.5. In their study, Mossige et al. (2013) found that cases of verbal abuse resulted in higher instances of suicidal ideation and self-harming behavior. Specifically, their results showed that participants in the study’s SSI group (consisting of those that have participated in suicidal ideation as well as attempted suicide or self-injury) are two or three times more likely to have experienced verbal abuse by parents or peers, and that verbal abuse of children younger than 13 at the hands of their parents raised the odds of suicidal ideation by 60%.

As such, these studies together explain how verbal abuse can lead to suicidal ideation and self-harm through the concept of body image. From both studies, it can be inferred that trigger words relating to body image, such as the word ‘fat’, which constitute a form of verbal abuse, negatively impact one’s body image, and therefore may result in dissatisfaction with one’s overall self-image that often leads to suicidal ideation and self-harm among young people.

Exposure to positive verbal cues, characteristic of a non-verbally abusive social environment, causes improvements in certain aspects of one’s body image, reducing the likelihood of suicidal ideation. The results of Waller and Barnes’ (2002) study suggest that exposure to the word ‘thin’ had a positive impact on the body image of participants with healthy eating habits in terms of body percept, the way they perceive their body size. This was evident from the reduction in BPI (Body Perception Index) scores of the low EDI (Eating Disorders Inventory) group from a mean of 115.6 to 110.6. According to this data, positive verbal cues, even if processed subliminally, can positively affect body image to some extent, thus positively affecting overall self-image. In their study, Mossige et al. (2013) found that participants with less exposure to verbal abuse, among other types, were less likely to be in the SSI group and the suicidal ideation group. They noted that instances of abuse were less common among the participants that reported NSSI compared with the participants that reported SSI.

In other words, participants that have never engaged in suicidal ideation, but report engaging in self-harm, are more likely from non-abusive backgrounds than those that engage in both suicidal ideation and self-harm. Being subject to verbal abuse, therefore, increases the chances of engaging in both self-harming behavior and suicide, while being from a non-verbally abusive environment reduces the likelihood of suicidal ideation. Ultimately, the results of both studies suggest that a non-verbally abusive environment, with positive rather than negative verbal cues, results in better body image in terms of body percept, and thus reduces chances of suicidal ideation.

In conclusion, negative verbal cues, characteristic of a verbally abusive environment, contribute to body image issues, which in turn result in a greater likelihood of suicidal ideation and self-harming behavior. As Waller and Barnes’ (2002) study showed, negative verbal cues, even when understood subconsciously, still cause significant negative fluctuations in an individual’s body image. Such negative verbal cues may be experienced by individuals in verbally abusive social environments, which, as Mossige et al. (2013), then cause higher chances of self-harm and suicidal ideation. Together, both studies imply that dissatisfaction with body image, caused by such negative verbal stimuli, damages an individual’s overall self-image, making them more likely to engage in self-injurious and suicidal behavior due to feelings of inferiority worthlessness. The increasing pressure within society to look a certain way only further exacerbates this issue and may cause more and younger people to participate in this sort of harmful, self-destructive behavior.

14 May 2021
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