LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates Smart Behavior
Body Image and Self Esteem.

The following is a chapter Ronda wrote for the 1999 edition of the American Aerobics and Fitness Association (AFFA) book, FITNESS THEORY AND PRACTICE.

"Mirror Mirror on the wall...who's the thinnest one of all?"

In the new millenium, the adage that beauty is only skin deep is outdated. In fact, we are a nation obsessed with how we look. Whether we're seven or seventy the results of a body fat assessment, the number on a bathroom scale or a reflection in a mirror slips too many of us into paroxysms of shame and guilt about an imperfect body.

A 1997 poll of 4000 readers of Psychology Today reported 56 percent of women and 43 percent of men surveyed were dissatisfied with their appearance. Now studies report that two out of three women have mixed feelings or become depressed when they see themselves nude in a full-length mirror. How we see ourselves, or, more importantly how we perceive others see us can say a lot about our mental and physical well being. If our perception is inaccurate (most see themselves as "too fat") it can seriously interfere with our sense of self worth.

This distorted view in the mirror is an apt metaphor for the way our body image shapes our life. Thin continues to be "in." Our culture's relentless insistence, reinforced by the media, that only the slim are beautiful and thinness is a visible sign of virtue places a heavy burden on society. These messages, combined with that distorted eye and ear, become a core part of our identity. The inner conflict aroused can interfere with our self worth and lead to low self esteem.

Self esteem is how we feel about ourselves. It is this awareness of self that separates us from other living creatures. It is such a critical issue in our development that enhancing the self esteem of school children has become a priority in some states. We've learned that the acquisition of high self esteem is about unconditional love, validation, affirmation and empowerment. Behavioral science reveals that body image and low self esteem problems often have their origins in childhood if these needs are not fully met.

Each of us is born lovable and filled with the potential to take the risks, throughout our life, that make our contribution to the world. Early messages from caretakers shape our reality of this world. If we live in an environment where we hear, "you never can be too rich or too thin" it's inevitable that will become the message imprinted at the core of our being. With that belief firmly entrenched, some children grow up striving to achieve an elusive perfection that will make our caretakers love us more. An inability to measure up, especially when we are compared to others, can damage that core image of the self. As a result, there are American five year olds who believe it's bad to be fat, eight year olds preoccupied with their appearance and too many nine year olds on a self imposed "diet". Adolescents, preoccupied with their changing bodies experience their natural increase in fat deposits that comes with normal development as unwanted weight gain. Teens, struggling to carve out a "self" are bombarded with images of models, TV celebrities and movie stars whose air brushed photos and personally trained bodies evoke the message that a great body equals success. Fitness professionals are not immune to the agony of being in a line of work they believe requires a slim image--an image too many strive for, cannot achieve and suffer the self-imposed consequences.

Our bodies are highly charged. As adults, our belief of who we are as women too often comes from what we believe others think about us rather than how we feel about ourselves. Surveys, like the one above, continue to reveal that most of us are so preoccupied with attaining or maintaining a fashionable thinness that dieting becomes a way of life--even for women who are underweight. We are intrigued by ads that promise a pill or product can make us thin with little or no effort. If we diet, the shame and guilt that follows failure to maintain weight loss can lower an already fragile self esteem. Women who go to greater lengths, using the binge-purge behaviors of eating then vomiting, using laxatives or exercise to burn off calories awaken each morning filled with hope that today will be different. By day's end, when it's not, they feel trapped in a shame-based inescapable cycle that requires professional health for recovery.

Men, previously immune to the unrealistic standards that have been tormenting women for years are now being treated for disordered eating patterns. The lean teenage male with a poor self image listens to a dad who worries about having a pot belly. Both will try anything to increase muscle mass. More of them are responding to ads urging them to "lose the spare tire" and "abdominize" themselves into sculpted washboard wedges. Psychologist Thomas Cash, Ph.D. reports in his study, which explored attitudes about balding, that our culture perceives bald men as less assertive and less likely to be successful. Like women who are overweight, the balding men were vulnerable to developing a negative body image and feeling less worthy. For men and women, what begins as a means to a trimmer body becomes an end in itself--a symbolic way to control their lives.

There are clues to warn us when our body image may be compromising our self esteem. These include:

The good news is that we can change our attitudes about who we are in relation to our bodies. Like anything else we learn, we can learn to accept our body--today. The challenge is to acknowledge that it is not an enemy and deserves more compassionate treatment. We can learn to notice, without judgment, how our body and our body image changes from day to day. We can explore the role our physical, emotional, social and intellectual health plays in shaping how we feel about ourselves. We can begin to find ways to feel good about ourselves by focusing on our good physical, mental, social and spiritual strengths. When we spend time making the world a better place, with a smile, an extended hand, an effort to make someone else's life a little better or by easing the suffering of a child or the loneliness of an aging acquaintance we discover that we feel better about ourselves--and it has nothing to do with what we look like or weigh or how long we worked out.

For women who continue to struggle with self esteem issues finding resources that can guide us through the process of becoming less self critical of our appearance, less preoccupied with mirrors, scales and body composition assessments, calories and dress size becomes important if we want to be happy. With that support we can re-learn we have worth, begin to trust ourselves more fully and become self accepting of our true, loving self.

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LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates
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