We need to stop obsessing about having the right body type and accept ourselves for who we are, writes Wendy Grace
When it comes to our bodies, we live in a world of extremes. Much of the world is starving while the rest of the world wastes billions of Euro of food every year.
While countries like Ireland are becoming more and more obese, our obsession with perfection and body shaming grows. By 2025, the World Health Organisation predicts that Ireland will become one of the most obese countries in Europe, having detrimental health consequences on our population. In contrast, it is estimated that 200,000 people suffer with a form of eating disorder and 80 people die each year due to an eating disorder.
We are losing the war on weight and we are getting it from both sides. On the one hand we are growing up in a culture where all of us, at some point or another, have felt distressed over our failure to live up to an impossible expectation of airbrushed body beauty.
On the other hand, despite us having more knowledge than ever before on calorie and nutritional intake from nutrition advisors, packaging on food, apps that count calories and TV shows, we are getting fatter. So with all this obesity on the horizon maybe body shaming isn’t such a bad thing, maybe we will start to get thinner? This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Body shaming can manifest itself in many ways from criticising your own appearance or comparing it to someone else, to you criticising someone else’s appearance with or without their knowledge. Turn on the TV, read a magazine, scroll through Facebook. Sitcoms make fun of people for being too fat, too thin, too tall or too short. The general message: “You should be ashamed of your body regardless of what size you are.”
A recent study of 2,944 adults, published in the Journal on Obesity in Britain, over a four-year time period found that those who experienced body shaming gained more weight than those who didn’t. In fact, those who didn’t actually lost weight!
Other research has shown those who resort to comfort eating are less confident in taking part in physical activity. Therefore, body shaming is part of the problem, not the solution. We need to stop shaming people for their weight and offer practical support and advice.
A similar, but much larger study, published in Psychological Science, looked at data from two surveys, which analysed nearly 18,800 adults.
The research asked participants from the US about their day-to-day experience of discrimination. What the research found was that the victimisation and discrimination against people who are overweight is not a motivator in encouraging weight loss. Decades of research has demonstrated that obesity is a complex socio-economic, psychological and physiological phenomenon. The most important thing is to make sure we are happy with whatever our healthy body looks like.
We need to be concerned with the health of an individual not the individual’s perceived attraction according to glossy magazine standards. We tend to take a negative approach to the issue, which seems to do much more harm than good. Instead, we need to be encouraging lifestyle changes.
This worshipping of one extreme body type to another came to the fore during a recent controversy when fitness guru Ashy Bines criticised plus size model Tess Holliday as “not a good role model”. Bines argued that obese models were as bad for us as models that were too thin; she said that it was deemed acceptable to shame skinny models but shaming fat people was seen as intolerant. I admit I think that Bines has a point. However, a point that is much more important is that we place far too much emphasis on the physical and not enough on the whole person.
Many commentators were irate at this story, saying all body types should be celebrated. There is an attempt here to try to normalise obesity. Just as being too thin is unhealthy, so also is being too fat and neither should be lauded. It comes down to remembering that no one’s value should ever be judged by how much they weigh. We all have different body shapes and types, but pushing obesity as the new normal is not healthy for our minds or our bodies.
Another recent media storm surrounding body image was when Kim Kardashian posted a nude selfie on her Instagram account. She said it was a statement on female empowerment.
Women need to stop using the word empowering when what they actually mean is promoting themselves. If you take a good look at the aforementioned Instagram picture, you will notice a floor light to the right, strategically placed to flatter the figure. This was not a spur of the moment girl power picture. It was after lights, makeup, hundreds of shots, filters and airbrushing that this picture was posted. These types of photos are not about feminism or empowerment and they are certainly not about female inclusion. They are actually about excluding, well, most women who don’t fit into this ideal.
This image was about selling Kim Kardashian – The Kardashians charge advertisers from $200-400,000 per Instagram post! All this type of imagery does is keep women stuck in a world focussed on how we look not who we are as people. This type of imagery is messing with the minds of young men and women who can’t help but look at this type of photograph/advertising because these types of images are everywhere, and are practically unavoidable. They are about celebrating the ‘right’ type of body.
We have to be strong in doing our best to filter out and ignore as much of this nonsense as possible.
Rather than calling out body types, it is unhealthy habits we need to decry. Much of today’s epidemic is caused, both in adults and children, because we eat too much processed and junk food and do too little exercise. These habits and the unhealthiness that arises from them should be decried.
We have to encourage healthy attitudes towards food and exercise and keep the focus off the purely physical to looking at the overall person. This attitude starts from a very young age, four out of five children are not meeting the basic requirement of 60 minutes of activity per day, and this is the first change we need to make.
Unsurprisingly, the media has a huge role to play in encouraging positive attitudes towards our bodies. Some 71.4% of Irish adolescents feel adversely affected by the portrayal in the media of body weight and shape.
A three-year study in Fiji found that purging behaviours increased from 0-11% within three years of television being introduced. Therefore, if we want to encourage a better body image, we must take steps to having positive images and ditch obsessing over the latest diet fad or airbrushed Instagram celebrity. Don’t body shame yourself or others.
Celebrate all the amazing things your body can do by using it to run, walk, swim or dance. Do whatever makes you feel good and is healthy but do something.
Keep a ‘top ten list’ of things you like about yourself that are not related to what you look like or what the weighing scales shows and keep adding to this list. Look at yourself as the whole person and surround yourself with positive people who do the same. You have to block out the voices in your head that are negative by overpowering negative thoughts with positive ones. Reminding yourself how infinitely valuable you are.
Use the time and energy that you might have spent worrying about your body or food to looking after your health.
Most importantly, remember that you are a child of God and you are infinitely valuable. As Luke 12.7 reminds us: “Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” How amazing to know that we are so valued by God that he has counted every hair on our heads!