If you’ve watched the news recently or opened a magazine, you have probably become familiar with the fact that body image issues have taken hold of our society. From idolizing images of “photoshopped” models to forming dangerous habits and ideas about food and exercise, for many people of all ages and genders, body size and shape means everything. These opinions and actions can, as many studies and personal experiences show, have disastrous and long-lasting effects on individuals and the community-at-large. But, while most people would agree that eating disorders are both physically and psychologically harmful and that societal perceptions of beauty are skewed, we’re willing to bet that only a handful of people would own up to perpetuating these body stereotypes. Well, what if we told you that some of your actions—like gossiping and reading those glam mags—can turn even the healthiest body image activist into a body image enemy?
Using the Reflections: Body Image Program as the basis for her curriculum, Amy Chestnutt, the Eating Disorders Education Coordinator at the Women’s Center, works with University of Virginia students to make them aware of the ways they both unconsciously and consciously develop and spread harmful views on the way bodies “should” or “should not” look. We had a chance to talk to Chestnutt about her program, and she was kind enough to share with us a few ideas for promoting positive body images.
1) Get Rid of Gossip! “Fat Talk” Hurts. “Fat Talk” is any communication related to body image. It’s a “no brainer” that negative comments related to a person’s physical appearance can be harmful to that person’s body image. We all know that gossip is contagious, and “fat talk” can very quickly create serious problems. But, did you know that the same goes for seemingly positive comments about bodies– like: “You’re looking so slim!” or “That skirt looks so good on you.”? It’s true! These comments work to foreground the physical in a person’s understanding of herself. Basically, by focusing on someone’s body, you’re subconsciously telling them that their appearance is what defines them for you. This move is a slippery slope for promoting unhealthy body images.
2) Limit media exposure. It’s Messing With Your Brain- Photoshop is everywhere, and even if you know that some famous actress really isn’t the size that she appears to be on the cover of that magazine, your brain still feels that image’s impact—no matter how ridiculous or obviously doctored the picture might seem. Rule of thumb: Be a discerning consumer of media. We’re not saying you need to cancel all of your subscriptions, but be aware of what you’re buying and viewing on TV! On the one hand, the manipulated images
3) Love it, don’t dissect it. Your Body is Whole- How many times have you said or heard someone say: If I could just change my [insert body part here], I’d be so much more likely to be [insert unlikely positive effect here]… Many of us get hung up on our noses, waists, shoulders, etc. In fact, in group studies, students have written that they can identify problems with everything from their hair to their toes. But, when we think of ourselves as a collection of parts and not a complete human, whose body has needs, we lose sight of what is healthy. Instead of focusing on fitting into your jeans, think of the long haul. Do your ideas about food, exercise and your body promote a healthy and engaged lifestyle? If so, you’re in the clear. If you’re still thinking about that one thing that isn’t right, you might want to remember that for your body to be sustainable (i.e. to keeping living), you have to make sure that it’s ALL in proper working order.
4) Take a Lesson from Body Images Economics 101. If Suze Orman has taught us anything, it’s that there are costs and benefits to all kinds of investments. That being said, bad body image investments can have pretty dire costs – to your wallet and your life. Since most people focus on the physical toll a negative body image can take, they often forget that unhealthy thoughts and actions (eating disorders, over-exercising, weight-fixation, etc.) can also affect your mental and social health. From causing depression and anxiety to ruining friendships and tanking grades (yes, body image issues can hurt your GPA), the way you think about your body can change more than your looks: it can dramatically affect the way you operate in your daily life.
5) Become a Role Model: A Body Image Activist. Though the title sounds a little intense, it’s actually pretty simple to fit-the-bill as a body image activist. Basically, a body image activist is a person who works to promote healthy body images by educating others. This could mean anything from sharing this post with a friend to becoming involved in “Celebrate Every Body Week”. Body image activists promote healthy bodies through their actions (Example: Thinking about exercise beyond the calorie-counters on those elliptical machines at the AFC) and their words (Example: Nipping gossip in the bud).
To learn more about body image issues and eating disorders, or to get involved, visit us online at http://womenscenter.virginia.edu/body-positive.php or contact Amy Chestnutt [email@example.com].
–Information for this post was gathered through an interview with Amy Chestnutt. Chestnutt cites the Reflections: Body Image Program as the basis for her curriculum.