Conflicting cultural and health messages make body image and health goals challenging in the age of social media.
In a city where every season is bikini season, Phoenicians seem to be expected to be thin and Instagram-ready at a moment’s notice. “In the Valley, the pressure to lose weight is greater than ever,” says Dr. Robert Ziltzer of Scottsdale Weight Loss Center.
Yet messages about body positivity and loving your body at any size are equally on the rise, from mainstream marketing like JCPenney’s #HereIAm campaign using models of all body types to local positive body-image campaigns like that of Arizona Girls’ Athletic Foundation. Fat-acceptance activists are reclaiming the word “fat.” The messages can seem contradictory. Does loving your body stand in the way of, or help achieve healthy weight? Is body positivity hollow hashtagging or the path to health? Experts says it’s the latter.
Finding body positivity is an uphill battle in an epidemic environment. According to the CDC National Center for Health Statistics, Arizonans experience obesity at lower rates than the national average: 29 percent compared to 36.5 percent nationally. (Arizona’s percentage is lower than the national average among white adults; it is higher than the national average among African-American and Hispanic adults.)
The pressure to lose weight weighs heavily on patients, Ziltzer says. It can drive people to straitjacket-like diets and supplements that are detrimental to their health before seeking out doctor-monitored healthy weight-management tools, including nutritional adjustment, exercise and, if necessary, prescriptions. “We’re seeing people try to do things out of desperation,” Ziltzer says. “Our average patient has done a dozen diets when they come to see us.”
Among obese patients with a BMI of 30 or higher (see below), doctors draw a line between those who resign themselves to their weight and those who adopt genuine body positivity. The former leads to feelings of helplessness and surrendering to their obesity – the first domino in a line of associated diseases like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer – while the latter can lead to lasting change. “If you radically accept your body, you appreciate the instrument of your body versus the ornament of your body,” says Dr. Lisa Galper, a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and long-term weight management, and consults with Scottsdale Weight Loss Center. Those who consider their bodies an instrument – a tool for their lifestyles – are more likely to appreciate and care for it in the long run.
Body-shaming can be detrimental to achieving healthy weight for obese patients. “The worse you feel about your body, the worse your health will be. Shame and guilt kill willpower. If you feel good about your body, you’re going to be more successful in weight loss,” Ziltzer says.
Galper puts it a different way, asking, “Who wants to help someone they hate?” Instead, she says, “change happens faster and more easily in a climate of self-acceptance.” Radical self-acceptance can lead not only to life-saving changes in body mass index, but also an improved psychological outlook.
Holding on to body shame is equally detrimental to patients recovering from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, a psychological disorder involving calorie restriction that the National Institute of Mental Health reports has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. Melody Pierce, who holds the title of Miss Arcadia and is a vocal eating disorder awareness advocate, was diagnosed with an eating disorder at age 10 after her father’s death plunged her into a controlling pattern of calorie restriction. Now 21, she’s been in recovery for five years.
“The message that helped me the most was that we matter in this world. It’s learned behavior to hate yourself. If you learned it, you can unlearn it,” she says. Although the lifestyle and fitness (aka swimsuit) portion of her pageant competitions horrified her, she now says, “It’s the best thing I could have ever done for myself… I had to go up on the stage and love my body 100 percent.” She says of every contestant’s experience, “We’re not judged on bodies; we’re judged on confidence. That’s what you have to be.”
Galper has, at least anecdotally, observed the quest for ideal bodies has risen along with social media and the staged, filtered and re-touched images posted there. “With regards to the unbelievable consumption of media… it’s probably true that we’re getting more fixed on images and on how our own bodies are not competing,” she says. However, she and Pierce are quick to remind that social media is a curated experience.
“You can make social media reflect the rest of the world,” Pierce says. The search results for #bodypositivity certainly do.
BODY MASS AND BODY ACCEPTANCE
The CDC defines healthy weight and obesity by body mass index (BMI), a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters. Dr. Robert Ziltzer says people of “normal” weight can be obese if their BMI is high.
BMI < 18.5 A Underweight
BMI = 18.5 to <25 A Normal
BMI = 25 to <30 A Overweight
BMI = 30+ A Obese
Tips on cultivating radical body acceptance, from Dr. Lisa Galper:
♥ Avoid upward comparison (comparison with people you perceive as better).
♥ Focus on what you give to the world and on what your body lets you do.
♥ Use your body; move it. Data suggests that feeling connected to your body improves body image.
♥ Speak to yourself in the same loving way you’d encourage your child.
♥ Go out into the world. Isolation leads to negativity. Cultivate community.
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