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The Importance of Body Image

Negative body image has become so common that many people who work in this field refer to it as a “normative discontent”. Because obsession with appearances are so much a part of the fabric of our society we can fail to see how problematic our attitudes towards our bodies are because “everybody thinks this way don’t they”? Our society is obsessed with thinness. We are bombarded daily with unrealistic beliefs that thinness is healthy, easily achieved and attainable by all.

Thomas Cash did a survey of 33 thousand people in the States in 1972, 1985 and again in 1996. Women’s overall dislike of their physical appearance rose from 23% to 56% in those 24 years. For men, their dislike of their appearance rose from 15% to 43%. Despite many of these individuals being at a healthy weight Cash found that ½ of the women and ¼ of the men believed that they were overweight. Overall body image and self-esteem are more closely related to what people believe about their weight than to their actual weight.

Children as young as 6 are now found to be expressing body dissatisfaction and weight preoccupation and by the end of elementary school half or more of girls are dissatisfied with their weight and shape. This statistic is comparable to adolescent girls and adult women. A study in Ontario of 400 grade 7 and 8 girls showed that 60% were dieting to lose weight while other surveys conducted with North American teens show similar and even a higher prevalence of body dissatisfaction and dieting.

These statistics have profound implications in that how we feel about ourselves has a tremendous influence on our behaviors ranging from what we eat, the physical activity we do, drug and alcohol use, and even risk taking. For some body image dissatisfaction leads to severe eating problems. As the prevalence for body image dissatisfaction rises so does the prevalence of eating disorders and in particular the incidence of bulimia. Men are increasingly affected as a recent study from the University of Toronto found that 1 in 6 anorexics are men. The worse we see ourselves, the worse we treat ourselves.

People with poor body image are at higher risk for depression and low self-esteem. They are also more likely to have poor health due to severe dieting and use of steroids for example. Because they don’t like the way they look people with poor body image avoid social situations which can lead to social isolation. Can you see the vicious cycle? Isolation, depression, and low self-esteem are all significantly related to poor health.

If this and the previous blog on body image has made you realize that you or a loved one is struggling please refer to coming blogs that provide further information on what causes poor body image and what we can do to improve it. If you would like to speak to a therapist, we would be happy to help you.

Written by: Shawna Atkins, Ph.D., OPQ


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