When you look at your body in the mirror, two things occur. First, you see the body’s physical structure; its size, shape, texture, curves, and nuances–great and small. Then comes the part that’s hard to control–the thoughts and comments that swirl about our brains concerning the body in that mirror. Oh man, can those cause trouble!
It’s usually at this point when most of us look at our bodies and berate ourselves for not having that flat stomach, or shapely thighs and buttocks, or taut breasts and biceps that many of us crave. But these thoughts are not just passing emotional blows to the psyche. For nearly 60 percent of women and over 40 percent of men in the United States, they are constant barrages of hatred and self-loathing. They are statements that bend and distort the reality of our perceptions about the body and its abilities, and thus the core beliefs we have about our worth as human beings.
Here’s where the danger evolves into more than just compulsive thoughts. Depression and anxiety invade our daily existence, limiting and even atrophying, social, professional, personal, physical, and sexual development. More frightening is that as many as 10 million women, and possibly as many as a million men, develop eating disorders, leading to approximately 50,000 deaths per year from this disastrous disease.
Children as young as six years old express unhappiness with their looks, while other studies show that most girls by fourth grade are diet veterans. By high school, one in five young women take diet pills, or use laxatives, diuretics, fasting and vomiting to attain the “ideal” image. More telling, an increasing number of women and girls fear being fat than they do dying. Some 50 percent of women and 30 percent of men who smoke say they do so to help keep them trim.
So where does this phenomenon come from? The media is a force to be reckoned with, of course. Most models in magazines and on fashion runways today are 23 to 25 percent leaner than the average American woman, and any imperfections are digitally airbrushed before publication to create the more perfect bosom, thighs, hips and buttocks.
And there are comments from parents, family members and peers that reinforce the idea that being fat is sinful based on their own negative self-image. It’s a cultural cycle that only amplifies the media message that looks determine success, and thin equals beautiful. Then there are other traumas of childhood, from the sad yet inevitable teasing that goes with any school-age experience, to the truly horrific cases of physical and sexual abuse where hatred and disassociation from the body results.
What next? Well, for many, it’s all about fixing the problem from the outside in. More than $50 billion are spent each year in health club memberships, and on home exercise equipment, diet pills, Botox injections and cosmetic surgery. And then there are the diet programs of every shape, size and design from Atkins to the Zone. Do they work? For about two to five percent of people, yes, they do. For the vast majority, the weight is regained, and for 33 to 55 percent of people, even more is gained than what was initially lost. Dieting, it seems, is not the answer.
Cosmetic surgery, for most, is too costly and poses the same health risks any surgery has, which includes severe infection and even death. And it doesn’t prevent the weight from being regained, and some even become addicted to it, never feeling completely “perfect.”
So does that mean there is no hope for happiness for those suffering from body image disorders? Of course not! But the fight to regain a sense of control and satisfaction with the body requires a multi-pronged attack to fight back. It means looking at the emotional roots of the issues; challenging the thinking that helps reinforce the anxiety, depression and compulsive behaviors that result; and finding behaviors that reinforce positive body image such as healthy diet and exercise programs. It also means regaining a sense of what the body feels like rather than looks like, which can include increasing a sense of sensuality through massage, movement through dance and yoga, and even increasing sexuality when ready.
This is a life-long battle for many, and it may require finding those professionals who can help you achieve your goals of increasing body image satisfaction, and ultimately personal satisfaction in life. That person in the mirror will thank you.
© Copyright 2008 by Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, therapist in Columbia, Maryland. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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