Body Love/Hate

November 12, 2008

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Last week I worked with a client whom at a healthy weight (5’6” and 136#) declared herself as “overweight”. She has been struggling for months to lose 8# because then she’ll be “happier, healthier, and feel more comfortable in clothes”.

This week, I worked with a client who is clearly obese (5’4 and 226#) yet sees herself as “normal” weight. On an intellectual level, she is aware that her high weight, puts her at risk for many health issue (diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease etc.), but, generally she reports satisfaction with her body.

This got me thinking about discrepancies in body image….

It has been known for years, that majority of American women are dissatisfied with their bodies. But, apparently, body image disturbances go beyond the U.S.

At the 2008 International Congress of Dietitian’s conference in Japan, I learned that there are also cultural discrepancies in body image. One study presented at the conference compared body image between Japanese and Vietnamese adolescents. The study measured height and weight of subjects and also asked about their body shape satisfaction. The results found that 60% of Japanese thought obese was unhealthy, while 85% Vietnamese thought that thinness was unhealthy. Also, most of the Japanese girls overestimated their body weight, were dissatisfied with their body shape, and wanted to lose weight. The Vietnamese girls had similar tendencies, but less severe. And, 38% of the Vietnamese girls even had the desire to gain weight. Japanese boys were mostly satisfied with their body shape, however, less than half Vietnamese boys wanted to be more muscular.

So, why do some individuals and some cultures have higher body dissatisfaction levels than others?

make-me-a-supermodel-jen-hunterFirst, in terms of culture, western societies tend to place more emphasis on physical appearance than non-western cultures. Also, in many non-western cultures, higher weight reflects greater wealth.

Western societies also have media such as television, movies, fashion magazines, and advertisements, which portray thin women as being beautiful and successful. They also portray male images like those of Arnold Schwarzenegger as being powerful, successful and desirable. These are images that we are taught to strive for in Western cultures.

On an individual level, we are all influenced by our family and peers in childhood. How we perceive and internalize messages from our parents and friends throughout childhood can affect our own perceptions of ourselves, and how we relate to food and weight. For example, a parent who has food or negative body image issues, will likely affect their child’s own thoughts about food and body image.

In addition, psychologists agree that body image is directly related to self-esteem. They believe that afear negative body image is more a sign of a psychological issue than one related to actual physical appearance. Those with low self-esteem tend to evaluate their self-worth based on their physical appearance, while those who have a greater self-esteem tend to evaluate themselves according to internal traits (intelligence, morality, emotionality). Therefore, since we all have varying levels of self-esteem, we would also have varying perceptions of ourselves.

Here are some guidelines (Adapted from BodyLove: Learning to Like Our Looks and Ourselves, Rita Freeman, Ph.D.) that can help you work toward a positive body image:

1. Listen to your body. Eat when you are hungry.
2 .Be realistic about the size you are likely to be based on your genetic and environmental history.
3. Exercise regularly in an enjoyable way, regardless of size.
4. Expect normal weekly and monthly changes in weight and shape
5. Work towards self- acceptance and self forgiveness- be gentle with yourself.
6. Ask for support and encouragement from friends and family when life is stressful.
7. Decide how you wish to spend your energy — pursuing the “perfect body image” or enjoying family, friends, school and, most importantly, life.

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