Every now and then, a topic surfaces that deserves a little more than fleeting attention. Anyone who’s read this blog for more than a week knows health, fitness and eating clean are always on the table. I want to be abundantly clear, however, that body size is in no way the sole factor in what I deem healthy. Body image is a topic that oozes into both genders of all ages – it’s not just a “teenage girl thing.” A great many people of all shapes and sizes deal with how they perceive their body – attaching some degree of self-worth along with how they look. More often than not, better is equivalent to “leaner,” “thinner,” or “skinnier.”
As a woman who once went through adolescents, teenage years, college years and several “figuring-out-who-I-am” years, I can attest that concern about body image reared its ugly head regularly. As a health and fitness professional, I’ve seen first-hand how perception of body image has dictated and controlled the way many men and women get from one end of the day to the other. As the mother of two young girls, I’m vigilant to maintain focus and acceptance on staying healthy – making no mention of size or diet.
The connection between body image and eating disorders is undeniable. While eating disorders may not directly affect your life, chances are they’ve affected the life of someone you know, and will affect people you know in the future.
I had a chance to talk with eating-disorder expert, Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LCSW about this topic. The causes of eating disorders are complex including the possibities of biological and genetic roots. Relationships are affected in the family when someone has an eating disorder. Family issues can contribute, sometimes significantly, to the development of an eating disorder. However, the causes for the development of an eating disorder are unique to the person and family affected. When Food is Family: A loving approach to heal eating disorders addresses how relationships suffer and what role they may have in the development and maintenance of the disorder. The book provides a treatment approach that is based on members learning how and why food (a metaphor) becomes the replacement for relationships. The book teaches how to create an environment which fosters empathy, safety and trust and helps families learn and utilize a “language of emotions.”
is a primary contributor to the evolution of these diseases. Scheel, who is the founder and executive director of New York-based CEDAR Associates, a private mental health group, suggests that “relational issues” and what family members project onto their children are largely responsible for the growth of eating disorders.
Body Image Concerns in Youth
On the surface, it would be easy to say that media is largely responsible for how we look and feel – particularly as it relates to teenagers. But how we feel about our bodies starts much earlier. In fact, 42% of 1st to 3rd grade girls want to be thinner (1) and 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of becoming fat (2). We live in a fat-phobic culture. Children should look like children, not like adults with smaller bodies. This “rigidity and control at a young age is concerning,” says Scheel.
People who were affected by eating disorders in their youth, or those who struggled with body image issues are “connected to projecting the image of who they want to be,” says Scheel, not who they are. Unfortunately, these problems don’t necessarily dissolve with age. According to a Psychology Today poll, 56% of women and 40% of men stated they were dissatisfied with their bodies.
Looking Beyond “Fat Days”
Every now and then, it’s normal to have so-called “fat days,” but those days should be far less frequent than the better days. So what can you do to feel good on the inside and out? An avid fitness buff and food-lover, Scheel is all about exercise, eating well and discovering healthier ways to take care of your body. Here are a few tried and true tips to stick to:
- Exercise Regularly: I know – it’s like beating a dead horse, but regular exercise makes everyone feel good. Muscle tone, brain chemistry and digestion are a few things that are either enhanced or improved just by moving.
- Stop Dieting/Start Eating Clean: When I work with clients, I encourage them to get an initial ballpark idea of how many calories they should eat, but that’s it. Don’t count calories – it’s such a waste of energy and time. Do start eating clean. Avoiding foods that are processed (including a great many “diet” foods) and eating foods that are closer to the ground will normalize weight.
- Appreciate Your Body for What it Is: Sounds a little corny, I know, but things could always go south in terms of health. If you were suddenly afflicted with a terminal illness tomorrow, what wouldn’t you give to have the health of the body you’ve got today? Treat it well.
1) Collins, M.E. (1991). Body figure perceptions and preferences among pre-adolescent children. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 199-208.
2) Mellin, L., McNutt, S., Hu, Y., Schreiber, G.B., Crawford, P., & Obarzanek, E. (1991). A longitudinal study of the dietary practices of black and white girls 9 and 10 years old at enrollment: The NHLBI growth and health study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27-37.