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What's Your Body Image? (Part One)

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who's the fairest of them all?" They say that mirrors don't lie and that is true but we can sure misinterpret what we see. Thus, there are lovely women who think they are unattractive. There are people who believe they are fat and flabby when they are actually of normal weight with normal muscle tone. At the other extreme, some people are many pounds overweight but "see" themselves as being slim. An example is a woman who insists that she uses a smaller size than really does and then gets mad at the sales clerk when the clothes don't fit because the size is "wrong".

What I am talking about is body image, which is defined in the article, "The Body Image Problem" (Idea Today Magazine, 1993), as the picture people have of their body - "what it looks like to them and what they think it looks like to others, and what this means to them."

We all carry a "picture" of what we think our body looks like. If we have a healthy body image, we view our body realistically. We know our body has good and bad points but we love ourselves just the same. If we have a distorted body image, no matter how good looking we are, we are not happy with ourselves because we do not believe what we "see".

Women are not the only ones who can be plagued by a poor body image. A few months ago, at a fitness seminar in Bacolod, a woman in the audience asked me to write about "bigorexia", a body image disorder wherein muscle-bound men think they are small and puny. She said there were many men like that in the gym she worked out in .

Healthy versus unhealthy body image
Very few people are totally satisfied with the way they look. The difference between having a healthy and unhealthy body image is the degree of that dissatisfaction and the way it is expressed.

There is nothing wrong with realizing that you are thirty pounds overweight and that you would look better without those excess pounds. However, there is something wrong if, because of the extra pounds, you hate your body and call yourself all kinds of names that you would never say in polite society.

People with a healthy body image work on what they can change in their body and accept what they cannot change. They do not let their physical shortcomings get in the way of having a 'life'.

People with an unhealthy body image are never satisfied. Improving their looks by having plastic surgery or getting lean and defined through exercise does nothing to improve the way they feel about themselves or their looks .

Self-esteem and body image
According to Ellen Evans and Carol Kennedy, co-authors of the article mentioned above, "self-esteem and self-acceptance are at the heart of body image". In other words, they say that the "condition of your body image may have more to do with your level of self-esteem than with the condition of your body".

Rita Freedman, author of "Bodylove: Feeling Good About Your Looks and Yourself", writes that "there's hardly any connection between a woman's actual physical attractiveness (as rated by others) and her satisfaction with her body". She says studies show that pretty women are as likely to be unhappy with their looks as plain ones. She further states that "there's very little connection between physical attractiveness and feelings of self-worth".

However, there is a strong relationship, Freedman says, between body image and self-esteem. Therefore, she explains, regardless of appearance, people who view their bodies favorably tend to have higher self-esteem than those who view their bodies unfavorably.

Body image and weight loss success
A study done at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention found that people with poor body image and a history of yo-yo dieting may be less successful at losing weight and maintaining weight loss than people who are satisfied with their bodies. As other researchers have discovered, the participants who claimed to dislike their bodies were not any heavier than those who claimed to be satisfied with their bodies.

How you develop your body image
You are not born liking or disliking your body. The first place your body image is formed is at home. What you hear from your parents shapes what you think about your body. For example, if physical appearance is important to your parents, it becomes important to you too. If your physical appearance is not up to par with their standards, you may believe that you are not worthy of their love. If your mother is always making negative comments about her body, you probably will too about yours. The peer group you grow up with also plays a role in the shaping of your body image.

Many body image experts say that the culture we live in is probably the biggest factor that influences our body image. For example, a beautiful morena celebrity I know is insecure about her looks because she believes that only people who are fair are good-looking. This is an obvious influence from our colonial-minded culture.

Today, when the world's cultures are blending into each other because of the far-reaching effects of the media, it is not surprising that eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, which have their roots in poor body image, are becoming more common among both young men and women.

Everywhere you look, you see pictures of extremely slim, seemingly perfect bodies of male and female models. The fitness industry, the industry I work in, is also to blame for perpetuating the myth that the average person can attain the "perfect" body. Thus, many people are killing themselves, physically, financially, and emotionally, to have bodies that are impossible to achieve. The models that are used in fashion and fitness advertisements are genetic freaks. What I mean by this is that they are physically exceptional and blessed by nature. They are not the standard that the rest of us are supposed to reach for. They are not even the only yardstick of attractiveness because, in real life, beauty and fitness come in all shapes and sizes .

Young girls may be influenced by fashion photos
A joint study conducted by such institutions as the Harvard Medical School and University of Virginia Medical Center found that sixty-nine percent of the 550 female (ages 10 to 18) participants said that fashion photos influenced their idea of the perfect body and forty-seven percent felt they needed to lose weight. However, the researchers pointed out that only 29 percent of the girls were actually overweight. In other words, even normal weight girls can develop a distorted body image because of pictures of extremely slim models.

Some toys can influence body image
Researchers in a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, studied male toy action figures and found that their muscular dimensions have been increasing since the 1960's. The study said that the original G.I. Joe doll had biceps that were a normal 12 inches (converted to human measurements) but today's G.I. Joe has a 26" biceps circumference. The researchers felt that toys like this give boys the wrong impression about a normal male figure in the same way that the Barbie doll gave girls a distorted image of the female figure.

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