By Jean Holthaus, LISW
Mirrors are everywhere and each one provides the opportunity for self-affirmation or self-criticism. Most men and women see their bodies as a compilation of unacceptable features. As women pass a mirror they to see big thighs, jiggling arms, protruding stomachs, and the wrong size breasts. Increasingly men are joining the ranks of those who negatively critique their bodies. While women want to be smaller, American men believe their body should have twenty to thirty pounds more muscle than the average man possesses. Unfortunately, both women and men are increasingly ensnared by the belief their bodies are unacceptable and must be molded and shaped into an ideal created by the media.
“Media messages are all around us and impact how we perceive ourselves,” states Jeanetta Nieuwsma, Pine Rest Therapist. “Consequently, media shapes body image and much of what media idealizes is unrealistic and unattainable.” From the time a child is old enough to watch TV, they are being educated about what is “beautiful” and “handsome.” Overwhelmingly, media depicts heroes as men with bulging muscles and a v-shaped body while heroines are underweight, shapely fashion models. No one needs to tell a child what is desirable because it is embedded into the culture and begins taking a toll on how Americans view themselves and relate to food at a young age.
On average, girls start their first diet by third grade, 80 million Americans are at least 10% overweight, more women have an eating disorder than have breast cancer, and over 25% of pre-adolescent anorexics are male. America’s obsession with the “ideal” body is directly linked to the epidemic of disordered eating ranging from obesity on one end of the spectrum to anorexia on the other. Disordered eating causing people to be overweight is easy to identify and, because of this, often makes these individuals targets of discrimination and bullying. Conversely, disordered eating resulting in anorexia (the inability to maintain a healthy body weight) or bulimia (eating large quantities of food and then purging or restricting to compensate) often goes undetected leaving those affected struggling in isolation.
While most Americans don’t have a diagnosable eating disorder, this doesn’t mean their eating and body image are healthy. “The solution,” states Nieuwsma, “isn’t to avoid the exercise, fitness, television, or fashion industry but to recognize that what they present is distorted and actively decide what is realistic and what isn’t when it comes to our bodies.” One of the first steps in developing a healthy body image is ruthlessly examining our lives for unhealthy food and body-image thought patterns.
“Fat talk is talk directly related to physical appearance like, ‘Do I look fat in this?’ or ‘You look great, have you lost weight?’” explains Nieuwsma. “Fat talk triggers our unhealthy behaviors and impacts others as well. As the mother of two daughters, I want to be consciously aware of my behavior, my thinking, and my conversation. I want to have a positive self-image and be a positive influence on those around me. “ states Nieuwsma. Keeping a tally of the negative food and body-image thoughts and comments you make over twenty-four hours can be helpful in determining how you think about yourself and food.
One of the essential elements for developing a positive self-image and view of food is stopping all comparison and embracing the fact each body is created uniquely. There is not one “right” way to eat or look. Embracing the uniqueness of your body provides the freedom to explore how to care for your body so it functions optimally. This exploration requires letting go of the categories of “good” and “bad” in reference to both appearance and food. Most foods, eaten at the right time in the right quantity are neither “good” nor “bad.” Determining the “right time” and “right quantity” means learning to listen to your body. It also requires learning basic nutrition information from a reliable source like a dietician and then creatively implementing this information in ways that provide flexible, enjoyable, and healthy interactions with food.
Food should satisfy hunger not serve as medication for uncomfortable emotions. Keeping a food journal can help identify ways you use food to manage feelings. Before you eat something, simply write down what you feel and why you want to eat this food at this time. A pattern of using food to deal with emotions means you need to learn healthy strategies for handling emotions without food. Counseling is one way to begin learning and implementing health strategies for dealing with emotions.
In spite of the ways Americans are told what they “should” eat and how they “should” look, it is possible to develop and maintain a healthy body image and relationship with food. “The work involved is definitely worth it!” states Nieuwsma.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.
Jeanetta Nieuwsma, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned her BA degree in Psychology from Dordt College and her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa.