Bad Body Image

By Eloise King | First published: June 26, 2011
body+soul, The Sunday Telegraph 

Ninety-seven per cent of women will say something bad about their body today. Here’s how to turn things around.

Women have an average of 13 negative things to say about themselves each day, according to a recent US survey. The quest for the “perfect” body has become normal for many women. The cost of this social issue is it continues to churn out generations of women who believe they are not good enough.

What women are thinking

Recent research reveals just how ingrained negative body image is in women:

  • Ninety-seven per cent of women will say something negative about their body every day, such as: “I hate my thighs”, “I hate my stomach” or “I’m ugly”, a US survey reports.
  • The first thing women notice about other women is how fat they are, a UK study of 2000 women found.
  • Ninety per cent of women aged 15 to 64 want to change at least one aspect of their appearance, most of all their body weight, according to an international survey.

Bad body image begins early

Dietitian and co-author of The Good Enough Diet (Wiley), Tara Diversi, says body image issues exist across all age groups. “Girls as young as five have strong ideas about weight, such as fat is bad and skinny is good,” she says.

These values often develop into unhealthy eating behaviours in adolescence and beyond. An international survey found 68 per cent of 15-year-old girls are on a diet, while an Australian report found 30 per cent of women aged 18 to 23 have experimented with purging, laxatives or fasting to lose weight.

What’s fuelling the obsession?

There are four main factors contributing to women’s negative body image, according to Diversi.

1. Parents’ body image

Many parents are dieting and saying skinny is better, even when they have healthy bodies, and this sets up their children to have the same approach. Diversi says: “A healthy body does not equate to a healthy body image and children pick up on their parents’ constant quest to be thinner.”

2. Mixed messages

Education about the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods can actually trigger eating disorders in kids. “Keeping a food diary might be great for 98 per cent of kids, but it’s important we’re checking on their understandings of the teachings,” Diversi says. One of her young clients developed an eating disorder after “understanding” some foods can be bad. Her thinking then became, “I’m not bad, so I don’t eat food”.

3. Models in media

Research shows the more women see pictures of perfect women in the media, the more they believe they should look like that. “This happens even though women know pictures have clearly been airbrushed,” Diversi says. “The rational brain knows it’s not real, but the emotional brain doesn’t.”

4. Taking control

It may not be weight that is causing women to feel unhappy or unsatisfied, but it’s the part that can be perceived as the easiest to control. “This is when people make the mistake of thinking the quick-fix diet will help them feel better about themselves,” Diversi says. Research shows most people on quick-fix diets put all the weight back on, or more.

Turning it all around

“If you’ve been saying bad things about yourself and your body, it can take quite some time and commitment to turn that habit around, but it’s a practice worth committing to,” Diversi says. Here are Diversi’s recommendations on fostering a postive body image:

1. Good food guide

Focus on the health properties and nutritional value of foods instead of what they will do to your backside or thighs. “We should be looking at what’s going to give us more energy, make us live longer and experience optimal health,” Diversi says.

2. Many healthy body types

People can be overweight but healthy if they’re exercising and eating well. They can also be thin but unhealthy through a poor diet and sitting down all day. So when sizing up your health, consider how happy you are. Why? “Being overweight reduces your life expectancy by three years, but being unhappy reduces it by nine years,” Diversi says.

3. You versus you

A powerful practice is to commit to measuring your health, weight and worth based on how happy you are, not how your body compares with others around you.

4. Self-loathing to self-love

Some people magnify criticism and don’t hear compliments. “A lot of women in our clinics say things out loud and in their heads that they would never say to their worst enemy,” Diversi says. A powerful way to turn that habit around is to write a list of 10 nice things about yourself and say them out loud.

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