I‘ve been thinking a lot about body image in recent weeks. Why do so many of us struggle to love our bodies?
The more I studied the topic of negative body image and the never ending attempt to attain physical “perfection” the more disturbed I became. It is sad that a large marjority of people are dissatisfied with their bodies and often go to dangerous lengths to change it. I admit that I’ve been guilty of body dissatisfaction and I have purposed in my mind to start changing that.
This episode is all about body image. I want to show you how the Western concept of beauty is influencing the world and suggest three ways to improve your body image. You will also be inspired to hear how real people from the MTA community are using running to change the way they look at their bodies.
What is Body Image?
According to Wikipedia, body image refers to “a person’s feelings about the aesthetics and attractiveness of his or her own body.” Your body image is shaped in part by what is culturally popular and this perception can be different from how others actually perceive you.
Throughout history people have always cared to some degree about their level of attractiveness and worried about their ability to live up to the standards of society and what they believe the ideal body is. These cultural norms were unique for centuries until the widespread invasion of the western media. I took a trip to Papua New Guinea in 1995 and the cultural idea of beauty in the tribal areas was that a woman was attractive if she had big thighs (or was heavier in general) and had a large nose. However, as television and other media sources have become more available in these areas the standards are starting to change. Eating disorders are on the rise in places in Africa and the Pacific that had not previously had these conditions.
What’s ironic is that once upon a time in America skinny was uncool. It wasn’t until WWII in the westernized world that being thin was seen as desirable. Often what is rare in a culture is valued. In the last few decades the average BMI (body mass index) has been on the rise in the industrialized world those living in poverty often are heavier because they lack access to healthy foods. In modern times with cheap food sources and sedentary jobs it takes more work to attain a thinner, more muscular figure.
Men’s body image is a topic of increasing interest in academics and popular press and some current research indicates that many men wish to become more muscular than they currently perceive themselves to be. Research also indicates a relationship between their ideas of masculinity and the desire for additional muscle mass. Some studies have suggested this relationship between muscle and masculinity may begin early in life, as boys’ action figure toys are often depicted as super-muscular, often beyond the actual limits of human physiology.
Studies have found that females tend to think more about their body shape and endorse thinner figures than men even into old age. When female college students were exposed to pictures of thin women their body satisfaction decreased, but rose when exposed to larger models. In addition many women engage in fat talk (speaking negatively about the weight-related size or shape of one’s body), a behavior that has been associated with weight dissatisfaction, body surveillance, and body shame. In addition, women who overhear others using fat talk may also experience an increase in body dissatisfaction and guilt.
Three Ways to Improve Your Body Image
Examine your focus and thought patterns.
Your world view also helps shape your body image. I believe that I was created by God and am loved by Him unconditionally. My looks and my performance are not the basis of my identity. This affects how I look at myself, other people and the world around me.
You may have a different world view and that’s fine. However, I urge you not to base your identity on the cultural ideals presented in the media or on the approval of others. This will leave you discontent almost every time. Improving your body image has to start in your head and heart. Be careful about the messages you internalize and the thought patterns you dwell on. Make a conscious effort to be more positive about yourself and other people.
I asked people on our Facebook page about how running has impacted their body image. Here are some of the responses I received:
Running hasn’t really changed my body that much but it’s changed the way I look at it. I view it with so much more respect now that I know what it’s capable of. I never have days where I feel “fat” anymore because I know this is the size I’m meant to be. -Andria
Running has changed my life. It has reminded me that goals can be achieved with hard work. I can now call myself a marathon runner. If I can do that I can achieve anything else in life. -John
3 years ago I was fat, lazy and old. Now I am a Titanium Maniac, and I am much more mobile now, despite being 52. And I know I can do whatever I choose to do, because I have already proven that several times…. Sub 24 hour hundred miler, 52 in 52 weeks, 8 in 8 days. Self Esteem has everything to do about Self… You make it happen. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise… Jim
The second thing you can do to improve your body image is to go on a media diet.
Advertising is centered around making people feel anxious- that they’re not powerful, smart, strong or beautiful enough. The solution they give you to solve that anxiety is to buy a product. Global spending in the beauty industry in 2011 was over $200 billion and it was one of the only industries that continued to have sales increases during the economic recession. This figure doesn’t even take into account spending on clothing, jewelry, cars and other items people buy to attain a certain status. Americans currently spend more on beauty than they do on education.
Exercise physiologist Heather Hausenblas, who conducted a study on exercise and body image said this,
“Negative body image has grown to almost epidemic proportions in the past 20 years, with as many as 60 percent of adults in national studies saying they don’t like the way their bodies look. Americans spend billions of dollars a year for products designed to change their body size and shape, including diet pills and various cosmetic procedures. Body dissatisfaction is a huge problem in our society and is related to all sorts of negative behavior including yo-yo dieting, smoking, taking steroids and undergoing cosmetic surgery. It affects men and women and all ages, starting with kids who are as young as five years old saying they don’t like how their bodies look.”
If you’re going to make peace with your body you will need to ignore much of the media bombardment and realize that you are good enough.
I was bulimic in for a couple years in high school and struggled with my body image long before that, actually before I can remember. Feeling “fat” in preschool is my oldest memory, actually. Running gave me a connection to my body I never had before. We’re allies now! Not enemies. It’s not about looks, it not about weight…I could gain weight running and I wouldn’t give it up. It’s about working with my body to do the best we can and it took running for me to discover that. -Jayne
When I started running 3 years ago, I refused to run in daylight. I was ashamed of myself and the weight I had put on; I didn’t want people to see me and think “That fat boy can’t run!” Now, after having lost 60 lbs, I don’t care when I run or what people think because I am running! I love how I feel knowing I am improving myself, my life and setting a better example for my children. I am still not where I want to be but I take each day and make the goal of being better than the day before. Progress, although slow, is still progress. -Nathan
The third thing you can do to improve your body image is to focus on strength.
One way to combat poor body image is to concentrate on being strong and healthy, and strong and healthy comes in all shapes and sizes. Direct your attention toward living a healthy, balanced life that includes proper sleep, stress control, hydration, exercise, and eating a healthy, balanced diet. When you start to take better care of yourself you gain energy and have a more positive outlook on life. This starts a cycle where you’re able to feel good about yourself and achieve your goals. Seek to become the strongest version of yourself.
I am doing the Flying Pirate Half marathon next week, and since the beginning of the year have lost 25 lbs with training. My self esteem has exploded. -Kenley
Research also shows that exercise improves body image and health. Running can give you a sense of control over your life which builds self confidence and increases the quality of your life. Promising research also shows a link between running and a healthier brain. Cardiovascular exercise pumps oxygen and glucose rich blood into your brain which can spark the growth of fresh nerve cells and new blood vessels staving off the decline of many brain functions. Being satisfied with who you are is one of the best ways to improve your mental health.
I’ve personally found that exercise, particularly running is one key to developing a positive body image and self esteem and finding my inner strength. When you start looking at your body as strong and capable then it’s about more than just looks. So run bravely ahead. Don’t wait until you feel good about your body before becoming a runner, before signing up for races or before taking on challenges. There is no one way that a runner looks. People are not going to be judging you at races based on how you look. And if they do, it’s their problems, not yours.
I suffer from bad social anxiety and i didn’t even want to run because of people looking at me. I’ve been running for about 3months now and will be doing a 5k on sunday and half marathon in 11 weeks for charity with 100’s of people watching. There are more benefits from running than most people realize. -Steve
Absolutely, I am down 60lbs, returned to running marathons, look better and feel better that I ever have. Oh and I can beat all my kids racing! Now I am sharing my story with others via talks and my blog -B.J.
I dropped 100+ lbs using running. I changed shape, and have been a lot happier with my appearance. It’s a great ego boost. -Eric
I know that running is not the magic formula for solving all body image woes. Unless you make a conscious choice to accept your body, it doesn’t matter what weight you are. The fact is that losing 5 pounds isn’t going to make you any happier. You have to decide to be happy now and live life to the fullest. I’ve experienced this personally. We all have figure “flaws.” Instead of focusing on how big my thighs are I can appreciate the fact that they’ve carried me through many marathons.
I used to think I had big thighs. Now I think of them as powerful, they got me through a 100 mile race. I think they look dang fine. No complaints now. Sandy
Running has changed me in that I don’t care if my body isn’t perfect- it gets me where I need to go. That is enough! Emily
It is time to come to peace with your body, no matter how old you are. Start by examining your focus and changing negative thought patterns. Eliminate negative media and people from your life. This may mean that you need to find different tv shows to watch or even block certain people on Facebook. It may mean that you need to ask friends not to complain about their body in front of you. Finally, focus on becoming the strongest version of yourself. Running can help you find that inner strength. It can help you live a full and meaningful life.
Leave a comment below about how running has impacted the way you look at yourself. Angie
Sources for Body Image Podcast