We Need to Talk about Body Image

What does it mean to have a healthy body image? As a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, I’ve learned from my interactions with clients, friends and family members that achieving a healthy body image isn’t always easy—and it means something different to everyone. So, in the spirit of what Silken Laumann is trying to achieve with this website—which is to “bring together the voices of Canadians to talk about whole health: mental, physical and spiritual”—I called upon several intelligent, strong and inspiring women in my life to share their perspectives on the topic. Here’s what they have to say..

Body image is something we all grapple with—it’s how we let it affect us that matters.

When asked what it means to have a healthy body image, many of the women I talked to used words like “confident”, “comfortable” and “content”. On the flip side, when asked how they would describe an unhealthy body image, words like “critical”, “uncomfortable”, and “unhappy” were used.

But many of these women also brought up an important point: even if we are generally pretty content or comfortable with our bodies, there may still be things we want to change. The difference between a healthy vs. unhealthy body image is what we do in the moments of dissatisfaction. Do we accept our flaws and try to focus more on the positive, like being in good health, or do we obsess about flaws to the point where our mood or behaviour is negatively affected? For example, going on a strict diet, undergoing reconstructive surgery, feeling down about our appearance, comparing ourselves to others, exercising compulsively or even avoiding social events.

Having a healthy body image means being confident and content with the body that I have, while also being okay with the fact that no body is “perfect”. There will always be things I want to change about my body. But it’s important to remind myself that everyone feels that way sometimes—every body is beautiful in its uniqueness.”— Leah

It’s never too early to encourage a healthy body image.

Over the years, the motivations behind my eating and exercise habits have changed, and, as a result, I feel balanced, energized, satisfied and free. My body may look different than it did when I was in my 20’s (part of that has to do with aging 10 years and having two kids), but, more importantly, my mental and physical health have improved, and I love my body now—everything from my C-section scar to my small breasts that my kids ate from. Does this idea of body acceptance, mindfulness and balanced living come with age and life experience? Or is this something we can teach our youth? What can we do individually and as a society to promote a healthier body image?

When I posed these questions to a friend, she had this to say: “Anything that portrays a wider variety of body shapes in media would certainly help. Also, using other measures of beauty would help—the glow of the skin, our energy, conveying a sense of fulfillment – to reflect and reinforce our outward confidence. There is no easy way to convince people of this, especially because the beauty industry is huge, and profit is the motive. But maybe these notions have to start in the very early years, with kids at home and in schools. Support companies that portray healthy body shapes. Support companies that produce clothing for little girls that is age appropriate and not pushing the fast-forward button on glamor or sex for very young kids.”

Another friend makes promoting a healthy body image part of her role as a mother. She explains, “Personally, I discuss many of these topics with my children—challenging them to be critical of what they are seeing on social media, how things are easily falsified, how just seeing these images can trick them into believing that they represent the ‘norm’. I also try to teach how and why they need to practice a healthy lifestyle.”

Achieving a healthy body image is a journey—and one that can be very difficult for some. But the sooner we start the conversation with today’s young people, the easier their journey will be.

Looking back, there have been times in my life I remember being very unhappy with my body image—although today I realize I was then incredibly fit and attractive! Back then when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see the real image staring back at me but only the criticism I reserved for myself. — Roxanne

We’re constantly being sold the idea of perfection, when in fact there’s no such thing.

A friend’s daughter is anorexic. I know when this girl looks in the mirror she’s not seeing what everyone else sees. She’s been bombarded through social media as well as peer pressure to look a certain way—she’ll never think she looks that way because she’s not capable of really seeing her image. She’s willing to do whichever extreme measure is necessary to achieve her perfect body. — Roxanne

We’ve always been exposed to images of the cultural ideal, whether it’s a supermodel on the cover of a magazine or a beautiful actor in a film. But with the prevalence of social media comes even more exposure to idealized images—and to what effect?

Every day, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and other social channels bombard us with more images and messages around eating and exercise than ever before, from the latest diet and juice cleanses, to trendy exercises and millions of products to make us look younger, skinnier, and apparently, happier. And while weight loss culture is nothing new (look no further than Weight Watchers, the Atkins Diet, and Jane Fonda exercise videos), has it become more damaging to body image considering the increase in images and messages we’re exposed to on a daily basis?

When I posed this question to a friend, she replied: “Absolutely, I would also assume with youth particularly. The images are usually manipulated, misleading the audience into believing they’re natural, and posted to the point of bombardment—creating the impression or benchmark for attractiveness that’s likely unachievable for most, and resulting in an unhealthy body image.”

Another friend commented: “I think social media is just another source for the promotion of non-typical body shapes (i.e. model thin/tall/busty). It is no different than the women’s magazines for past generations. The only difference is the proliferation afforded by social media. Women can’t outrun them.”

Well, we may not be able to outrun them, but there are things we can do to cultivate a healthy body image.

Learn to ignore the sales pitch—trust in your body to tell you what it needs

We’re being bombarded with unrealistic body images and exposed to a diet and exercise culture that promises to yield unachievable results. Consequently, our relationship with food, eating and exercise is being negatively affected. Eating and food has become something to be avoided, counted, and obsessed over versus something that nourishes and brings us pleasure. For some, exercise is a means to an end—a way to achieve the “ideal” body image rather than something that gives us energy and makes us strong, happy, and more balanced individuals.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that changing our diet and adopting an exercise regimen are necessarily bad—but it all depends on the motivation behind the actions and how it makes us feel. Why are we avoiding pasta? Does it cause unpleasant symptoms, or do we in fact love it but choose not to eat it because it’s higher in calories? Does changing our diet leave us feeling hungry and deprived, or satisfied and energized? Why do we do a spin class? Because we love the energy it gives us or because it burns the most calories? The motivation behind our eating and exercise habits and how we feel is important to tune into. Be honest with yourself.

As one friend explained, “Instead of finding activities that give us joy or make us feel good, we focus on the latest thing or the one that promises big or quick results. The truth is, when we find activities that give us joy, we do them without hesitation—making the overall impact of our activities that much greater and long lasting.”

When I was in my mid-twenties, my motivation for eating and exercise was to maintain a low body weight. I wasn’t paying attention to how my habits were making me feel: exhausted, anxious and unbalanced. I was a strict calorie-counter Monday through Friday, mostly eating 300-calorie microwaveable meals. I exhausted myself in the gym six days a week, only to binge on desserts, greasy food and alcohol on the weekends. I was on autopilot to remain thin and stay within the cultural ideal. And even after everything I put my body through, I still wasn’t satisfied with my appearance. I was never thin enough, never fit enough.

I ended up taking a course to become a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, and after becoming educated, I approached eating and exercise completely differently. My eating habits changed to support a more balanced lifestyle. I became more in tune with my body, and food and exercise choices were based on what my body needed to feel good. Now, if I want a piece of pizza, I have it, enjoy it, and pay attention to when I’m full. I don’t eat it because I’m starving and deprived, nor do I feel guilty afterwards. If I want a fresh salad, I eat it because my body wants it, not because it may be lower in calories than another choice.

The commercialization of the ‘health’, weight loss, and diet industry has made the ‘right’ way to eat elusive. The new magic solution is right around the corner and makes basic principles of nutrition and wellness get lost in the mix of trends or fast fixes. We are not encouraged to use our intuition and listen to our bodies and how they experience the effects, good or bad, of the things we eat. — Trish

With a few simple changes, a healthy body image is well within reach for everyone.

Engaging in a conversation with a few different women about body image revealed a number of practical solutions to help shift the focus in a more positive direction when it comes to participating in social media, eating and exercise:

  • Support companies like American Eagle and Aerie who use all body types in their advertising and inspiring public figures like Aly Raisman, as seen in their recent #AerieReal campaign.
  • Be aware of the images we expose ourselves to on social media. Unfollow the people or companies whose images make us feel insecure, unhappy, or like we need to change.
  • Support other women instead of giving into feelings of competitiveness, envy, jealousy and insecurity.
  • Promote the idea of mindful eating. How do certain foods make you feel physically and mentally? Put your cutlery down between bites to taste your food and give your body a chance to digest before you get too full, so you can learn what “satisfied” means.
  • Improve your knowledge of the types of healthy food that you could include in your diet (e.g. understanding the different types of healthy fats and the recommended amount to include in your diet, or which carbohydrates are high in fibre and therefore don’t have as large of an effect on blood sugar levels, thus helping to prevent Type 2 diabetes)
  • Reframe your idea of exercise. It doesn’t have to be in a fitness centre. Instead, it can be sports you enjoy, walking, hiking, a push-up challenge with friends, yoga, or biking with your kids.

Awareness is the first step toward achieving a more positive body image.

Body image is a big, complicated topic, and there is no quick fix. This article is not exhaustive by any means, but it’s my contribution to an important conversation. It may just be a whisper right now, but the more voices that start speaking the louder it will get, and the sooner we’ll see a change.