By Judy Torel
You can’t go anywhere in America without being confronted with images of thin and ultra lean models and celebrities. Magazine covers, TV shows, Hollywood movies and even advertisements on the sides of public transportation relentlessly emit a standard that many women and men use to assess their own body.
Research has demonstrated that the culturally desirable image is becoming increasingly thinner and leaner. It is also becoming more unattainable for the majority due to genetic influences that are beyond our control. Given this environment, what can be done to maintain a healthy body image without throwing in the towel out of hopelessness and abandoning a workout program?
What is body image?
From the surface, body image would appear to be how a person views their body from a visual point of view. This is true, but body image includes much more than that.
According to Marcia Hutchinson, author of the book, Transforming Body Image, “Our body image is formed out of every experience we have ever had—parents, role models, and peers who give us an idea of what it is like to love and value a body. Image is formed from the positive and negative feedback from people whose opinions matter to us.”
Our body image is also formed by the reactions of people whom we don’t really have a relationship with, but give input, such as the trainer at the gym who gives us the visual once over and then acts dismissive towards us during a workout. We might think from this experience that we look unfit.
Other people’s feedback is part of the information we use to formulate our own body image. Proprioception, which is an internal physical awareness of ourselves, is a second and powerful part of what forms our body image. For instance, our own experience of running on a treadmill may make us feel like we have two left feet. Other people may comment that we look like a good runner, but this comment is modified by our internal proprioception. We use other people’s comments in combination with our own experiences to form, adjust and reinforce our body image every day from birth until death.
A third component of body image is how we perceive ourselves to fit or not fit the predominant cultural image and how much value we put into achieving that image. We are social creatures by nature and in being so, we create social and cultural standards that we use to evaluate personal worth. For instance, if you are tall, thin, have low body fat and look like a celebrity or model then you are a valuable and desirable person based on our cultural standards. The further from the ideal, the more negatively your body image is effected. And this is true whether you are above or below the ideal. Having a high body fat percentage is viewed as negative by a cultural standard. However, having too low of a body fat level is also undesirable as illustrated most recently by celebrities Kate Bosworth and Nicole Richie.
How does body image become a problem?
The problem in contemporary American culture and other consumer driven contemporary cultures is that the body image ideal is now being held as the standard—young, thin, lean, and tall is now projected as a norm.
Not fitting into the cultural ideal may cause body dissatisfaction, according to James Rosen, Ph.D. from the University of Vermont. Dr. Rosen has done studies indicating that women are most dissatisfied with parts of their bodies that are furthest from the cultural ideal: thighs, buttocks and hips.
And men, who have previously been more immune to this problem, are more and more affected as the cover models of Men’s Fitness and the models in advertisements for male personal hygiene products become leaner and more chiseled looking. Increasing frequencies of low self-esteem and depression are being linked to negative body image in men, and these numbers are also continuing to grow among women.
What can be done to combat negative body image?
In my opinion, the solution will not come from fighting to change the cultural standard from the current ideal, as has been suggested by many theorists and body image consultants. I believe the problem lies within the value hierarchy upon which we culturally base the worth of a person.
The solution to this dilemma lies in a conscious reformulation of our value hierarchy. It means that physical appearance needs to continue to be an important component of self-esteem, but it cannot be the number one value upon which we base ourselves.
We need to place personal characteristics like creativity, humanitarianism, consciousness/awareness and global stewardship as more highly valued then physical appearance in order to start to decrease the trend towards negative body image and self value. We need to refocus ourselves on using our efforts, talents, accomplishments and personal relationships as a measurement of self-value.
This does not mean that we should stop caring about what we look like. We should not stop going to the gym regularly to work out. What it does mean is that we must keep a perspective that body is the outward component of who we are, but that there are more valuable inner components that we must value more highly. Especially since all but a few of us will ever achieve the body image ideal and even among those lucky few, that ideal will only last a short time as being young is one of the requirements!
Judy Torel is a therapist/personal trainer with a Master’s degree in psychology. She is certified through the American College of Sports Medicine as a fitness trainer and works out of Planet Fitness and Deb's Sweat Shop Extension. She can be reached at JTOREL2263@yahoo.com