Monday, November 10, 2008

How Body Image Can Effect Your Health

Numerous factors weight on a person’s body image, factors such as mass media, including magazines, television, film, peer groups, and family opinions etc. There is no such thing as the perfect body as different cultures have their own standards for judging what is attractive. It can be very interesting to explore the differing norms that can exist even within a particular culture as societal standard can shift periodically.

For example, in the US, the thin stereotype has been the most popular since the 1960’s when a particular clothes model named Twiggy captured the attention of the public. The average fashion model these days is almost 6 feet tall and weights about 130 pounds while the average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weights 140 pounds. The disparity can lead to a mountain of self esteem problems when a woman does not meet the expectations of the cultural ideal.

Mainstream media portray the thin model stereotype as equating to happiness and success, and cases of weight discrimination have even been tried in court.

Even though many health organizations emphasize health rather than weight some people feel more pressure than ever to mold themselves to the ideal due to body image distortion. Most objective sources see this “you’re OK, I’m OK” theory as silly and unhelpful. With obesity statistics increasing at an alarming rate, medical cost estimates for the future due to the condition run in the tens of billions of dollars. Some see this as an unacceptable monetary burden put on society due to the simple refusal of people to learn an effective way to control their weight. Japan has even started a program that may be the future in many countries, penalizing it’s citizens for failing to conform to certain weight guidelines.

There are predictable stages in life when an individual is more susceptible to body image distortion. Puberty is the most significant time in a person’s life when rapid changes take place in the body. At this time adolescent males will gain muscle mass, height and facial hair as well as a deeper voice and will often shed any residual “baby fat”. They may see there bodies as smaller than they actually are. Just the opposite, females will gain fat in the buttocks, hips, breasts and legs and will often see their bodies as fat when they compare them to those of the fashion models in the mass media.

Body distortion is closely related to the development of eating disorders. The jury is still out in some circles as to which abnormality begets which, but most in the medical field agree that this development involves many facets of the individual’s makeup including family heredity, peer group, and psychological factors that create body distortion. One percent of teenage girls in the United States develop anorexia nervosa which can be deadly if not taken care of. These disorders occur only in developed countries where food is plentiful and the occurrences increase with wealth.

Females with anorexia and bulimia can see themselves as fat no matter how thin they may already be. Much more controversial is the idea that males develop what some in the medical field call “muscle dysmorphia ”. This is an imaginary disease in which males supposedly see themselves as skinny and underweight. This disorder can be magnified, they say, when the individual is a bodybuilder and will see himself as skinny no matter how enlarged his musculature.

A bodybuilder may want to pack on all the muscle possible for their specific body type but scoff and laugh hysterically at the notion of “muscle dismorphia”. Bodybuilding contests have changed over the years to require larger and larger muscles simply to compete in the contest and this is usually the reason that the
bodybuilder will continuously try to pack on more size. One only has to look in on bodybuilders that have reached the pinnacle of bodybuilding achievement, Mr. Olympia, and have retired from competition, to see that this is true. After the competition years the individual will drop up to 80 pounds of pure muscle or more because it is no longer needed to compete.

Treatments for eating disorders created by body image distortion range from behavioral therapy to smart diet programs for the mild cases. It is remarkable that a woman will put herself through measures such as bingeing and purging when an effective diet and exercise program is so much easier and infinitely more life changing. More on this subject in future articles.

By: Adam Eisenhart