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In Pursuit of Perfection: Body Image and Adults

There are many reasons that the currently high rate of negative body image is troubling.  Research in 2015 by Dr. Rebecca Puhl and colleagues at the U of CT Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity showed that weight-based bullying was the most prevalent reason for bullying among children in the four countries they investigated – Canada, USA, Iceland, and Australia.

More troubling is research that suggests that young people with obesity who are teased by peers because of their weight are two to three times more likely to engage in suicidal thoughts and behaviors.  Among adults, negative body image increases the risk for poor self-esteem and depression.  In addition, when people are distressed about body image, they are more likely to practice unhealthy eating behaviors like severe restriction or binge eating. Even self-consciousness about body weight for some people means they avoid participating in physical activity.

There are many factors that drive negative body image. Most often cited – and significant – is the media portrayal of the thin body ideal, which in recent years has evolved into not just thin, but impossibly thin and muscular.  With digital capabilities today, it’s rare to see an untouched photo of any celebrity, or any person promoting a product.  With a pretty simple online search, you can find examples of altered photos, including some from high-profile ads or magazines, which are both fascinating and disturbing.  Unfortunately, the “perfect” body ideal is so prevalent, most of us accept those images as real, and while the models have become progressively less like the general population, body dissatisfaction has become more prevalent.

This is not only an issue for women – men are increasingly affected by negative body image as well.  You don’t have to look far to find male models and celebrities portrayed with no perceptible body fat and six-pack abs.  We start hearing and seeing these ideals from a young age. Just consider the Disney characters:  The heroic men are all so muscular and fit looking, they might as well have just stepped off the stage from a Mr. Universe competition, and the heroine’s waists are so small, they’d have no room for a ribcage.

An ultimate goal to help change the ideal is to have more truth in advertising and media.  The #truthinads campaign had some success in getting clothing producers to promise to stop using digitally altered photos of models in their catalogs. It’s also important that we each make an effort to educate ourselves, and to talk about the unrealistic expectations that we feel pressured to match.  That includes supporting each other as well as catching ourselves when we start to complain about our own body shape or size.

As parents, we can also help our children to foster a positive body image. First, consider how you talk about body image in front of your children.  Many kids learn that it is ok to criticize others or even themselves from their parents’ behavior.  Teach your kids to see advertising and media images critically and realistically.

If you are a parent with your own problems with body image, you can start to help them but receiving help yourself. You want to teach your children to celebrate their bodies for what they can do rather than for how they look. You may benefit from seeing a therapist or counselor about your struggles to accept and love your own body.

Spokesperson Background:

Dr. Jeannie Sykes is a registered dietitian at Cone Health Family Medicine Center. She received a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from the University of Vermont in 1976, and a Master of Public Health Nutrition from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1980. Dr. Sykes earned a Ph.D. in Nutrition from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1986. She has worked at Cone Health Family Medicine Center since 1990.