*Reprinted from “Body Image” issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 12 (1), p. 5
Few of us today escape some kind of dissatisfaction about the way we look. In a 2008 study, only 10% of BC adolescent girls in Grades 7 through 12 rated themselves as very satisfied with their body image, compared to 19% of adolescent boys.1 By high school, more than half of adolescent girls are dieting to lose weight, despite being in a normal weight range.2 “Fat talk” (such as “Do I look fat in this?” or “You look great! Have you lost weight?”) is a part of everyday conversation. More than a third of healthy-weight teen boys are trying to gain weight and muscle to look like the masculine heroes they see in sports, video games and movies.2 People perceived as being fat experience discrimination and size-shaming.
I am delighted to be the guest editor for this issue of Visions, focused on body image. Since body dissatisfaction is one of the strongest predictors of unhealthy dieting, and is also linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety, we at Jessie’s Legacy are serious about promoting healthy body image. Healthy body image encompasses far more than weight, shape and size. People of all ages can feel pressured to attain a myriad of beauty ideals dictated by mainstream media, society and family. It can be really challenging to love your body and yourself just as you are.
What is body image?
Body image is both the mental picture you have of your body and the way you feel about your body when you look in the mirror. Healthy body image means accepting and liking the way you look right now, and not trying to change your body to fit some idea of how your body should look. It means valuing the individual qualities and strengths that make you feel good about yourself—beyond your weight, shape or appearance.
Many external factors contribute to poor body image: thin body idealization, false and unattainable images of beauty in media, weight bias and stigma (seeing overweight people as lazy, lacking in self-control or less credible), family attitudes and behaviours, and a billion-dollar diet industry, to name a few. We don’t see a variety of natural body shapes and sizes reflected in mainstream media. We don’t see hair on women’s bodies—and increasingly not on men’s bodies, either. We still don’t see a broad representation of people from different cultures and ethnicities on TV or in movies. Gender expression is presented only as binary (“masculine” men or “feminine” women); transgender people rarely see their bodies or identities reflected. In short, we are all bombarded every day in many ways by messages that tell us we are not okay the way we are.
How we internalize this endless spray of negative messages is what hurts the most. We take in the words and images. We start thinking, “If only I could lose a few pounds, I’d look better and life would be easier.” Or, “Once I’m thinner, I can join that new group.” Or, “Once I can afford to remove all my body hair, I can go on that date.” The marketing campaigns have done their work. It’s impossible to measure up. No wonder so many of us experience poor body image.
Poor body image affects self-esteem, particularly in teens. Self-esteem is the opinion you have about yourself, both inside and out. When your self-esteem is good, you can value and respect yourself. There’s room for making mistakes and you see yourself as good enough—even when you’re dealing with difficult feelings and situations. If you don’t like your body, it’s hard to feel good about your whole self. It’s easy to feel inadequate or not good enough.
None of us is immune. Kristi Gordon, Global BC’s senior meteorologist—and a person who happens to fit the thin body ideal—tells a story about a particularly negative email she received. The viewer complained that she had sock marks on her ankles. Gordon had worked out at the gym before going on air and the sock marks were still visible. This story may seem a bit funny and harmless. But after she read the email, Gordon made sure not to wear sports socks before a broadcast again. She had internalized the negative message and changed her behaviour.3
What can we do?
Become media aware
We can become critical consumers of advertising and media messages. Parents and other adults with influence can help mitigate the negative impact of media and advertising by teaching children how to look at and think critically about the images and messages they are seeing. Parents can also monitor and limit screen time and help make choices about the content their kids are taking in through fashion magazines, the Internet and social media.Be a positive role model. Examine your own attitudes and beliefs about body image, weight, shape and appearance, and be a positive role model for your family and friends. Rather than talking about your child’s weight and appearance, for example, focus on his or her overall health and personal strengths. Promote the importance of having a fit and healthy body rather than a thin or “ideal” body. Create space for children to talk about how they feel about their body—and make sure to listen.
Promote the Health at Every Size model
We cannot judge the state of a person’s health from an individual’s body shape or size. For example, some skinny people have very poor diets and can experience heart problems, while some large people engage in regular physical activity and are healthy and fit. The Health at Every Size model focuses on a person’s overall health rather than the number on the scale or a person’s body mass index (BMI). BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services recently developed Balanced View, an online learning resource designed to raise awareness about weight bias and stigma in health care and to help health care professionals reduce weight bias and stigma in practice.4
Teach children to value difference
Teach children that bodies come in all shapes, sizes and capabilities. Teach children that body hair is natural. Teach children about different gender identities. Teach children that teasing hurts. Help children develop a broad palate for what they consider beautiful. Make comments that show you value their qualities and actions in the world, not their looks. Be a positive mirror for them—by reflecting who they are in the world, not what they look like in the world. Help them understand their body image within their own ethnic and cultural context by looking at photos of their ancestors and connecting them with their communities.
A future of diversity and acceptance
I look forward to a world where people aren’t valued for their appearance and where weight stigma and size-shaming don’t exist; a time when children are supported and empowered to feel confident about their bodies; a time when media images reflect the natural diversity in body weight, shape and size; a time when society celebrates diversity in gender expression.
Marilyn Wann, self-proclaimed fat activist, author of the book FAT!SO? and keynote speaker at the Fourth Annual Weight Stigma Conference (Vancouver 2016), sums it up nicely: a time when “people of all weights and identities feel at home in [their] bodies and welcomed in society.”5
I’m with Marylin Wann. Let’s strive to make our society a welcoming home for every body.
About the author
Laurie is Director of Community and Provincial Programs at Family Services of the North Shore. She oversees Jessie’s Legacy eating disorders prevention and awareness programs, which provide education and inspiration for BC youth, families, educators and professionals through online resources, live events, social media and the Love Our Bodies, Love Ourselves movement. Laurie worked for years as a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor supporting survivors of physical and sexual violence, many of whom struggle to attain healthy body image