*Before reading this post, note that I am not against maintaining a healthy body weight, exercising, and eating healthy. In fact, I am a big proponent of healthy eating and love to work out. I am not saying weight loss and dieting are absolutely wrong, as these may be necessary in severe or specific health conditions. However, in the average person, dieting is found to create unhealthy relationships with food, such as feelings of shame when the individual breaks a rule or caves. In addition, restrictive eating behaviors are associated with delayed linear growth in adolescents, yo-yo weight patterns (constantly fluctuating weight- which is unhealthy), reduced bone density, diminished cognitive functioning, body dissatisfaction, menstrual disturbances, and eating disorders.
“Does this (insert name of clothing item) make my (insert name of body part) look fat?”
“I’m so fat. I should really start working out”
“I think I gained the Freshman 15 last year. That’s what dining hall food does to us”
Have any of you heard the above statements? I sure have, and it definitely hurts me to see so many of my friends and loved ones put themselves down like this. It is sad how much vocabulary there is regarding putting oneself down, particularly among women/teenage girls.
And this puts me, a huge proponent of positive body image, in an awkward position. There is a limited running vocabulary regarding positive body image among women and girls. We have come to the point where telling someone they have “lost so much weight” and “now look so much better” is seen as a compliment. The people who give this compliment out likely intend no harm, but the statement still implies that the individual did not look as good as he or she does now. Is it fair to put down the “before” image and glorify the “after” image? Should we even measure people’s attractiveness by their weight or body structure when so many other internal qualities and other features like hair or eye color could determine this as well? And what do I even say to make the women in my life realize they are beautiful when there are hundreds of other forces (media, family, other friends, etc.) telling them they are just not good enough?
I think it is time to put an end to measuring people’s worth by their body size. Because this makes people start measuring THEMSELVES by this unrealistic scale. My girlfriends should not have to be worrying about how they look in their dresses or think they are doing something wrong by enjoying a big dinner at a restaurant.
One might argue that the ideal body image that is generally glorified is not a bad scale of measurement as it gives room for self improvement. I argue that, in most cases, this scale results in negative mental health outcomes. In fact, there is research to support this:
A study conducted at the University of Arizona by Analisa Arroyo (Ph.D. student of Communication) and Jake Harwood (professor of Communication) investigated the impact of ‘fat talk’ on mental health and self-esteem. Fat talk is defined as “ritualistic conversations about one’s own or other peoples’ bodies” that “can result in decreased self-esteem and higher levels of depression.” Examples include calling oneself fat or judging others based on their body size. The researchers surveyed 33 women and 24 men over a period of 3 weeks. They found that regardless of the participants’ gender or Body Mass Index, the more frequently someone participated in ‘fat talk’ the lower their body satisfaction became and the higher their level of depression became over 3 weeks. This also resulted in greater perceived pressure to be thin.
But the negative outcomes don’t end there. According to Arroyo, ‘fat talk’ creates a pressing need for social approval. So much ‘fat talk’ has occurred in American society that individuals regularly seek feedback from others to cope (not saying I am not guilty of this). We ask our friends if we look fine in the dress rather than looking within ourselves for that approval. We expect others to like our Facebook pictures (guilty again) as proof that we look good in a specific outfit and hairstyle. We self-denigrate, making ourselves appear helpless rather than as strong and independent individuals who are ready to conquer the world. We even open up the potential for eating disorders and poor eating patterns in our selves and friends, health problems with serious mental and physical consequences.
Though negative consequences may initially appear overblown, they are actually well-documented in Social Science research and on health-related websites. I do not want my friends and loved ones to be victims of these negative consequences.
So how can we, as individual citizens, make a difference? Here is a list of ideas:
1. CUT THE FAT TALK! Rather than congratulating someone on how much weight they lost, tell them something you value about their personality or skill set. Maybe the person plays soccer very well, is a strong leader, or a very hard worker in the workplace. If we start to regularly recognize people by these aspects of their being, they may stop evaluating themselves against the ideal body image that is glorified in American culture. Their internal worth will begin to shine through even more.
2. Stop putting yourself down: If you find yourself talking negatively about your body, take back that negative comment and exchange it for more positive talk. This could lead to better mental health and a happier personality, among many other positive results.
2. Rather than dieting (which can actually create a negative mental state), decide to practice a healthier lifestyle. Incorporate more whole grains (carbohydrates are definitely good to eat), vegetables, fruits, calcium, and proteins into your diet.
3. Create an exercise plan that makes you feel empowered (I am currently working on this step). If spending a long time on the treadmill is not fun and feels like a weight loss chore, switch to an exercise that is fun for you and takes the emphasis off weight loss. For example, dancing or taking long walks in your subdivision are good options.
4. Don’t let your friends put themselves down: I realize this is not easy with the level of negative self-talk prevalent in today’s society, but we simply are contributing to this Public Health problem when we join in and put ourselves down. We should assure our friends that they have nothing to worry about and are not doing anything wrong by eating one more piece of pizza. After all, it is easiest to reach those people who are closest to us. The impact of positive talk will spread across society only if we start at the interpersonal and individual levels first.
5. Realize that health and appearance are two DIFFERENT things. Reading many different girls’ and women’s magazines has made me realize that much of society has the two confused. The magazines present weight loss and dieting as “health solutions” and claim that losing ten pounds automatically makes a person healthier. They provide strategies to reduce eating, when eating is actually very important to one’s well being. Do not fall for these silly strategies and instead be a critical reader of such magazines.
To end, I want to reiterate that it hurts me to see the most beautiful and talented individuals put themselves down for shallow societal expectations. If we want society and individuals to progress and have more positive health outcomes, it is time to make some changes in our own behaviors. I am nowhere near perfect in my behavior, but I do plan to work hard toward developing a more positive body image vocabulary.