7/19/18

My thoughts on culture and body image






I'd like to ask you a personal question....

Over the past day, how many times have you been called fat - to your face?
Over the past week, how many times has someone told you that you need to lose weight?
Over the past month, how many times has someone commented on your body, in a negative way?
Over the past year, how many times have you been told by someone that you will always be unhappy until you change your body composition?

I'm hoping that the answer is never for if anyone is commenting about your body, I'd think twice about the role of that person in your life and how he/she is adding value to your life. Certainly, there are exceptions for health/medical reasons regarding body composition changes. 

Now I'd like to ask yourself the same questions but now that someone is you. How many times over the past day, week, month or year(s) have you told yourself that you are fat, you need to lose weight, commented on your body or believed you will only be happy when you change your body composition?

Sadly, far too many people struggle with negative self-talk regarding body image. If nobody is saying these things to your face, where are these thoughts coming from? Why do you feel so badly about the way that you look?

As someone who strives to always send positive messages about body image (especially relating to athletes and sport performance), it makes me so sad that so many individuals see body image as a reflection of self-worth. That is, how you look holds so much importance in your life.

What is body image? It's how you visually perceive your body, how you feel about your physical appearance, how you think and talk about your body and your sense of how other people view your body.

In America (and many other parts of the world),  your body image has a lot to do with how you feel you measure up when compared to the societal or media-supported norms. This is often where those negative thoughts come from. When you see someone who is lean, you feel fat. When someone looks pretty, you feel ugly. Whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, the media (TV, magazines, Facebook, Instagram, bloggers, movies, commercials, etc.) constantly reminds you how you should look. That is, the more you watch, look at or are entertained by perfect images of others, you feel worse about yourself when you don't fit into societies "perfect" body image.

Now this is no biggie if you can laugh it off and carry on with your day but this is far from the case. The more negative your body image, the greater the risk for extreme weight or body control behaviors such as extreme dieting, extreme exercise habits, cosmetic surgery, eating disorders and using supplements or drugs to change body composition.

Societies connection between thinness or leanness and beauty is around you on a daily basis. Think about all those unrealistic body images that are genetically impossible for most of us to emulate. 6-pack abs, sculpted arms, thin thighs, a flat stomach, a perfectly rounded butt - these are the images that you are told are "ideal"  and normal, desirable and achievable, but in truth, they are unattainable and truthfully, the work needed to achieve this ideal look may not make you happy or healthy in the long run. But, constantly trying to measure up to these images may make you feel worse about yourself - often picking on all of your flaws and self-imposed disgusting features. Sadly, many people believe that having fat on the body is a sign of being ugly, unattractive and unhappy whereas those with a toned, thin or muscular body are happy, successful, body and disciplined.  When did this become the norm?

While the media is a powerful tool that is responsible for determining the standards for beauty, physical attractiveness and what's sexy (or not), it's important to get to a point of body acceptance to improve your quality of life. Even if you desire to change your body composition, make sure you are not comparing yourself to others and realize that your self-esteem and happiness should not depend on how you look. You should want to eat healthy food and exercise not because you need to look a certain way but because a healthy lifestyle allows you to do awesome things with your body. And it's absolutely ok to eat nutrient poor food on occasion (like ice cream and other treats) and to not feel guilty about it!

Over the past few weeks, I've been "living" in a society where I don't speak the language. I don't watch TV, I have limited time on social media, I don't read magazines and I don't watch movies here. The only person I talk to is Karel. Why do I share this with you? Despite already having positive views about my body image, body confidence and cultural diversity go together. In other words, by traveling, interacting with a different culture and experiencing foreign foods, you are no longer confined to the images that overwhelm you on a daily basis. When I see bodies here in Czech, I see all sizes. People express who they are without trying to fit a standard. When we go to the local swimming pool, I see body confident men and women in very little clothing - smiling, running/playing around and having fun. These people look happy and guess what, they aren't lean or skinny. Yes, people can be happy without being fat-free.

While I'm sure there are people here who are dieting to look different, surrounding yourself with people from other cultures may help to lead to a healthier body image. If anything, when you are in a different culture with such diversity, you get to choose what messages you want to listen to - that is, if you can speak the language. If you can't speak the language, no one can tell you what you should or shouldn't look like and that's gotta feel good. You can choose negative self talk or positive talk. You can think about all the negative things about yourself or focus on positive aspects and your individual uniqueness.

Remember, there is no standard or perfect body. You can be thin, medium or heavy built and still have problems or be happy and healthy. You don't need to achieve a certain weight to have a satisfying and enriching life. While I believe in good lifestyle habits to reduce risk for disease and to improve quality of life, "healthy" doesn't have a look or a number on the scale that never changes.

You are unique in your own way. Let go of your personal assumptions about yourself. Stop "following" people who make you feel bad about your image and spend time with people who have a healthy relationship with food, exercise and their body. Enjoy, thank, celebrate and accept who you are. And the next time you travel, consider exploring cultures and cultural traditions that support positive body image and self-esteem. Sadly, the Western culture is hyper focused on dieting and appearance. If only we could be like other cultures and rather than highlighting and commenting on appearances, we could celebrate all bodies.