Dealing With Body Image Issues
Twenty-four percent of women and 17 percent of men say they would give up more than three years of life to be thinner. That's according to a poll conducted by Psychology Today magazine. At the same time, studies show that half of American women overestimate the size of their bodies.
Sociologists who study the western-world phenomenon of poor body image attribute the problem to a variety of factors, including media and cultural influences, as well as parental and peer messages.
The advertising industry ties the already complex issue of body image with materialism. A slender body is associated with wealth, health and attractiveness. A heavier body is associated with sloth, indulgence and a lack of self-control.
Psychological factors can add to the effect of media and culture. Girls who experienced sexual abuse or an emotionally difficult puberty are more prone to body dissatisfaction as adults. So are women who feel they have little control over their lives.
Women who have felt the most brutal blows from poor body image say it is not a single factor acting in isolation. Jennifer Tracy, who battled bulimia for nine years, says a combination of factors, such as a non-supportive family environment and a poor self-image, snowballed in the presence of cultural influences.
"If I had love for myself or love from my family," Tracy says, "it would not matter what a model looked like, and it would not affect my personal self-esteem."
The dangers of body dissatisfaction
When we realize that it is a combination of influences that lead to body dissatisfaction, we empower ourselves to solve the problem. We can seize power by breaking the chain of these influences wherever we can.
Carolyn Strauss is a top plus-size model, co-author of Specialty Modeling, and a nationally-recognized expert on body image issues, from fashion to self-esteem. Her accomplishments now include her own clothing collection featured on the Home Shopping Network. Through it all, she helps other women move toward a more positive body image. Strauss says the biggest danger of a negative body image lies in the power it gives away.
"When someone has a poor body image, she will try to find validation from outside to make her feel better. The next diet, the next fashion fad, the next boyfriend, anything but where she is now. Instead of living in the moment, she may find herself living for 'when I look better,'" Strauss says. "Remember, the goal of most advertising it to make you 'not OK' so that, upon using that product, you will become OK. I say, start OK and then you'll only buy what you choose to have for yourself."
Most of us can think of a time when we thought a new haircut, diet, or lipstick would turn everything around for us. But that mindset can lead to a lot of wasted time and money. Constant self-monitoring can also drain your energy, and it can even lead to depression and hostility.
A University of Toronto study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, found that women who were interviewed after seeing magazine ads that featured female models showed a significant and immediate decrease in self-esteem.
Poor body image can lead to crash dieting and excessive exercise, which can, in turn, lead to poor nutrition, injuries and depression. In its most dangerous form, a negative body image may fuel an eating disorder or Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).
When you are continually distracted with physical appearance, the energy of your mind, body, and spirit is diverted from more salient endeavors.
Seek help. If you feel that your body image has become a pre-occupation, don't hesitate to talk to a counselor or therapist. Amoreena Brewton, a mother with a background in sociology and counseling, has conducted research on women and body image. She says, "Some people are too deeply entrenched in their body issues to resolve them on their own. Often, there are personal or familial issues at play when a person has an eating disorder, so seeking professional help is highly recommended."
Tracy agrees. "In the end, my success came from the deep desire to stop, which had been inside of me for years, and then getting into serious therapy with an eating disorder specialist. Having someone who focuses on just that area was a true lifesaver."
Make small changes. A global change in cultural and economic structures would, no doubt, help us all achieve a more positive body image. But there will likely always be supermodels, paid endorsements and the unstoppable "quest for the best" bandwagon.
Instead, enforce changes on a smaller scale. Brewton suggests we stop allowing those negative forces into our lives. "Don't buy Cosmo, buy Redbook," she says. "Look at really powerful, intelligent successful women whom you admire as often as possible."
Use positive affirmations. When you catch yourself commiserating over tight blue jeans, don't let your mind get stuck in the negativity. When that negative voice does emerge, follow it with 10 positive thoughts.
Tracy says repetition is key. "It begins with re-recording the negative messages in your own mind, which are so painful," she says. "I have probably re-recorded that message over 500,000 times, and I keep losing it. But it's easier to find for the next time."
There are tools to help you re-program the thoughts you direct at yourself. One successful example is the Think Right Now series of audiotapes and software programs.
Once you navigate yourself out of the negativity rut, you'll feel better about yourself, and you'll better understand your power to create and maintain a healthier mind, body and spirit.
Remember your spiritual connection. "The first thing to remember is that the Universe does not make mistakes," Strauss says. You are where you are for a reason. Acknowledge this and then choose how to proceed with the next minute, hour, day of your life."
Surround yourself with supportive friends. "As I began to recover little by little from bulimia," Tracy says. "I did not surround myself with people who were as concerned about body size. I put myself among beautiful, strong and intelligent women who really put little emphasis on looks."
Brewton also recommends surrounding yourself with friends whose focus is not on exteriors. "Other women can make the biggest difference in our lives by being mentors and leading by example," Brewton says. She suggests we find a group of women to meet with regularly to discuss issues important to our lives, but, she says, don't focus solely on body issues. "Obsessing as a group is no better than obsessing as an individual," she says.
Find a group of supportive women, either in your neighborhood or online. Then use this safe, non-critical environment to empower one another.
Focus on health. Change your relationship with food. Food is fuel for active living. Strive not for a number on the scale but for a weight at which you feel strong and energetic. Ask yourself if your diet contributes -- or takes away from -- your health and energy levels.
When we stop focusing on our bodies, and begin to focus on our health, our bodies have an easier time finding our optimal weight. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered that people who start a weight-loss program when they feel happiest about their body are more than twice as likely to lose weight as people who are less satisfied.
Tracy proves that we can control how much power food has over us. "One of the most important factors in my success has been to eat everything and anything I want, whenever. I do not diet, restrict, or make rules for myself in any way. This sets my life up so that I don't ever feel restricted and needy for food. It has taken a lot of the importance out of food for me," Tracy says. "Since I quit my bulimic behaviors, I have lost 15 pounds, my face and cheeks are not swollen, and I feel really good."
Change your relationship with exercise. Regular exercise creates power and endurance, which can help you enjoy more activities. Can you hike as far as you like? Would you like to try kayaking? Do you know the joys of a "runner's high?"
Find an exercise you enjoy. If you hate aerobic dance, don't join an aerobics class. If you hate the gym, don't spend your time there. Instead, experiment with exercises you've never tried before. Is there an exercise that makes you feel physically empowered? Do that one.
Motivate yourself to exercise by reminding yourself about the burst of energy that inevitably follows a workout.
Change your relationship with your body. When food becomes a tool for active living, and exercise becomes a tool for increased strength, your body becomes a tool for your mind. Suddenly, your body has the endurance and power to do what the mind wills.
"Our bodies are miracles, walking around in skin," Brewton says. You will never come across a finer work of art or machinery."
Befriend your body, and ask yourself how you want to spend your life energy. "Imagine for a moment that you took all that time you spend thinking about appearance and focused on how much you love your ability to communicate well, or what a great mom you are, or ways to solve the issue of homelessness," Brewton says. "If you took that negative energy and used it for good, not only would your life improve, but the world would improve, as well."