By Susie Cortright
Twenty-four percent of women and 17 percent of men say they would give up more
than three years of life to be thinner. Thatís according to a poll conducted by
Psychology Today magazine.
At the same time, studies show that half of American women overestimate the size
of their bodies.
Sociologists who study the western-world phenomenon of poor body image attribute
the problem to a variety of factors, including media and cultural influences, as
well as parental and peer messages.
The advertising industry ties the already complex issue of body image with
materialism. A slender body is associated with wealth, health, and
attractiveness. A heavier body is associated with sloth, indulgence, and a lack
Psychological factors can add to the effect of media and culture. Girls who
experienced sexual abuse or an emotionally difficult puberty are more prone to
body dissatisfaction as adults. So are women who feel they have little control
over their lives.
Women who have felt the most brutal blows from poor body image say it is not a
single factor acting in isolation. Jennifer Tracy, who battled bulimia for nine
years, says a combination of factors, such as a non-supportive family
environment and a poor self-image, snowballed in the presence of cultural
"If I had love for myself or love from my family," Tracy says, "it would not
matter what a model looked like, and it would not affect my personal
~The Dangers of Body Dissatisfaction
When we realize that it is a combination of influences that lead to body
dissatisfaction, we empower ourselves to solve the problem. We can seize power
by breaking the chain of these influences wherever we can.
Carolyn Strauss is a top plus-size model, author of Specialty Modeling, and a
nationally recognized expert on body image issues, from fashion to self-esteem.
Her accomplishments now include her own clothing collection featured on the Home
Shopping Network. Through it all, she helps other women move toward a more
positive body image. Strauss says the biggest danger of a negative body
image lies in the power it gives away.
"When someone has a poor body image, she will try to find validation from
outside to make her feel better. The next diet, the next fashion fad, the next
boyfriend, anything but where she is now. Instead of living in the moment, she
may find herself living for Ďwhen I look better,í" Strauss says. "Remember, the
goal of most advertising it to make you Ďnot OKí so that, upon using that
product, you will become OK. I say, start OK and then youíll only buy what you
choose to have for yourself."
Most of us can think of a time when we thought a new haircut, diet, or lipstick
would turn everything around for us. But that mindset can lead to a lot of
wasted time and money. Constant self-monitoring can also drain your energy, and
it can even lead to depression and hostility.
A University of Toronto study, published in the International Journal of Eating
Disorders, found that women who were interviewed after seeing magazine ads that
featured female models showed a significant and immediate decrease in
Poor body image can lead to crash dieting and excessive exercise, which can, in
turn, lead to poor nutrition, injuries, and depression. In itís most
dangerous form, a negative body image may fuel an eating disorder or Body
Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).
When you are continually distracted with physical appearance, the energy of your
mind, body, and spirit is diverted from more salient endeavors.
If you feel that your body image has become a pre-occupation, donít hesitate to
talk to a counselor or therapist. Amoreena Brewton, a mother with a
background in sociology and counseling, has conducted research on women and body
image. She says, "Some people are too deeply entrenched in their body issues to
resolve them on their own. Often, there are personal or familial issues at play
when a person has an eating disorder, so seeking professional help is highly
Tracy agrees. "In the end, my success came from the deep desire to stop, which
had been inside of me for years, and then getting into serious therapy with an
eating disorder specialist. Having someone who focuses on just that area was a
Make small changes
A global change in cultural and economic structures would, no doubt, help us all
achieve a more positive body image. But there will likely always be supermodels,
paid endorsements, and the unstoppable "quest for the best" bandwagon.
Instead, enforce changes on a smaller scale. Brewton suggests we stop allowing
those negative forces into our lives.
"Donít buy Cosmo, buy Redbook," she says. "Look at really powerful, intelligent
successful women whom you admire as often as possible. For example: Oprah,
Rosie, Hillary, Martha, your mom, your grandmother, your daughter."
Use positive affirmations.
When you catch yourself commiserating over tight blue jeans, donít let your mind
get stuck in the negativity. When that negative voice does emerge, follow it
with 10 positive thoughts.
Tracy says repetition is key. "It begins with re-recording the negative messages
in your own mind, which are so painful," she says. "I have probably re-recorded
that message over 500,000 times, and I keep losing it. But itís easier to find
for the next time."
There are tools to help you re-program the thoughts you direct at yourself. One
successful example is the "Think Right Now" series of audiotapes and software
Specifically, TRN's Eating for Excellent Health program
http://www.momscape.com/thinkrightnow/eatingforhealth.htm - helps listeners
regain a positive outlook on food and its power. Once you navigate
yourself out of the negativity rut, youíll feel better about yourself, and
youíll better understand your power to create and maintain a healthier mind,
body, and spirit.
Remember your spiritual connection. "The first thing to remember is that the
Universe does not make mistakes," Strauss says. You are where you are for a
reason. Acknowledge this and then choose how to proceed with the next minute,
hour, day, of your life."
For the religious and spiritual among us, body image may instantly improve with
the simple reminder that God gave you the body you have for a reason. He didnít
make you to look like Cindy Crawford because you arenít Cindy Crawford. He wants
you to be healthy enough to do your lifeís work. To live and work at an optimum
level. So, accept His creation, and nurture it.
Surround yourself with supportive friends
"As I began to recover little by little from bulimia," Tracy says. "I did
not surround myself with people who were as concerned about body size. I put
myself among beautiful, strong, and intelligent women who really put little
emphasis on looks."
Brewton also recommends surrounding yourself with friends whose focus is not on
exteriors. "Other women can make the biggest difference in our lives by being
mentors and leading by example," Brewton says. She suggests we find a group of
women to meet with regularly to discuss issues important to our lives, but, she
says, donít focus solely on body issues. "Obsessing as a group is no better than
obsessing as an individual," she says.
Find a group of supportive women, either in your neighborhood or online. Then
use this safe, non-critical environment to empower one another.
Focus on health
Change your relationship with food. Food is fuel for active living. Strive not
for a number on the scale but for a weight at which you feel strong and
energetic. Ask yourself if your diet contributes - or takes away from - your
health and energy levels.
When we stop focusing on our bodies, and begin to focus on our health, our
bodies have an easier time finding our optimal weight. Researchers at the
Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered that people who start a
weight-loss program when they feel happiest about their body are more than twice
as likely to lose weight as people who are less satisfied.
Tracy proves that we can control how much power food has over us. "One of the
most important factors in my success has been to eat everything and anything I
want, whenever. I do not diet, restrict, or make rules for myself in any way.
This sets my life up so that I donít ever feel restricted and needy for food. It
has taken a lot of the importance out of food for me," Tracy says. "Since I quit
my bulimic behaviors, I have lost 15 pounds, my face and cheeks are not swollen,
and I feel really good."
Change your relationship with exercise
Regular exercise creates power and endurance, which can help you enjoy more
activities. Can you hike as far as you like? Would you like to try kayaking? Do
you know the joys of a "runnerís high"?
Find an exercise you enjoy. If you hate aerobic dance, donít join an aerobics
class. If you hate the gym, donít spend your time there. Instead, experiment
with exercises youíve never tried before. Is there an exercise that makes you
feel physically empowered? Do that one.
Motivate yourself to exercise by reminding yourself about the burst of energy
that inevitably follows a workout.
Change your relationship with your body. When food becomes a tool for active
living, and exercise becomes a tool for increased strength, your body becomes a
tool for your mind. Suddenly, your body has the endurance and power to do what
the mind wills.
"Our bodies are miracles, walking around in skin," Brewton says. You will never
come across a finer work of art or machinery."
Befriend your body, and ask yourself how you want to spend your life energy.
"Imagine for a moment that you took all that time you spend thinking about
appearance and focused on how much you love your ability to communicate well, or
what a great mom you are, or ways to solve the issue of homelessness," Brewton
says. "If you took that negative energy and used it for good, not only would
your life improve, but the world would improve, as well."
Susie Cortright is the founder of momscape.com -
http://www.momscape.com. Read her reviews
about behavior modification programs, including programs designed to help you
eat for health and enjoy exercising here: