Tips from Nancy Clark
BODY IMAGE: Are you imagining the wrong body?
"I dread the bathing suit season."
"I may be 40 but I still fight for the figure I had when I
"I have been exercising for an hour every day for three months
and my thighs are still fat. I hate them!"
Few of us naturally possess our desired physique. Sad but true,
most of us are ordinary mortals, burdened with bumps, bulges, fat
and fleshiness. And even though our bodies are actually good enough
the way we are (assuming we are fit and healthy), many active people
spend considerable energy covering up their perceived blemishes
with baggy clothing. Or they try to reshape themselves with rigorous
diet and exercise programs. As one avid exerciser confided "I
have struggled for years feeling imperfect, wishing I'd been born
with a better body."
As active people, we all know what we are supposed to look like.
Women, regardless of age, are supposed to be sleek, slender and
slim; men are supposed to be bulky, muscular and trim. Having grown
up in the era of Ken & Barbie, Weight Watchers, Twiggy, and
omnipresent ads with pencil-thin models, we have been living with
those hard-to-change messages starting at an early age.
In general, about one-third of all Americans are truly dissatisfied
with their appearance, women more than men. Women most commonly
complain about their thighs, abdomen, breasts and buttocks. Men
are dissatisfied with their abdomen, upper body and balding hair.
Sometimes the problem is imaginary (such as the obsessive marathoner
who complains about her fat thighs); sometimes it is real and ranges
from a mild complaint about the "spare tire" that hangs
over your belt to a major preoccupation with "jelly belly"
that results in relentless dieting and tough exercise akin to punishment.
Even athletes are not immune from the epidemic of body dissatisfaction.
Despite their fitness, many perceive themselves as having unacceptable
bodies. Some, in their desperate efforts to change their physique,
develop unhealthy eating patterns and even eating disorders. They
harshly judge themselves from the outside in, rather than lovingly
accept themselves from the inside out.
Ideally, what you look like on the outside should have little to
do with how you feel on the inside. But body dissatisfaction can
easily lead to self-punishment. In fact, the best predictor of who
will get an eating disorder relates to who struggles most with body
image. This can easily include baby boomers fighting middle age
spread, as well as daughters experiencing body changes at puberty.
If you struggle with feeling completely good about yourself, take
note: weight issues are often self-esteem issues. You shouldn't
let your significant accomplishments, such as success with family,
community and work, get overshadowed by what-should-be-insignificant
cellulite or love handles. Your value extends far beyond your looks;
appearance is only skin deep. Your real beauty is in the love, caring
and concern you offer to your friends, family and peers.
So what should you do if you are dissatisfied with your body? You
might think the solution is to lose weight, pump iron or do thousands
of sit-ups. Yes, these will enhance your health and fitness level.
But keep in mind that so much of what you look like (your height,
musculature, and to a certain extent your weight) is under genetic
influence. You can slightly redesign the house that Nature gave
you, but you can't totally remodel it ... at least without paying
a high price.
Unfortunately, this "outside" approach to correcting
body dissatisfaction tends to be incomplete and inadequate. The
better approach is to learn to accept your body for what it is and
love yourself from the inside out. If you are overweight but healthy
and fit, you are OK. There is simply more of you to love. Yes, even
you can proudly wear a bathing suit.
To stop struggling with your body, first try to identify when you
got the message that something is wrong with your body. Perhaps
it was a parent who (way back when) lovingly remarked "You
look good, honey, but you'd look even better if you'd lose a few
pounds." Or the siblings who teased you about your "thunder
thighs." Next, you need to take steps to be at peace with your
body, redefine your goals, and to like yourself. This includes renaming
your disliked body part (for example, "round stomach"
is a more loving name than "repulsive gut"), identifying
the parts of your body that you do like and giving yourself credit
for your good parts with positive body talk. You'll drive yourself
crazy if you dwell on the negative. Focus on loving all the good
things your body does for you. Those strong legs (formerly fat thighs)
let you be active and fit.
Your body has been and will continue to be your house throughout
your life. It has likely been good enough for your family, friends,
teammates and co-workers. And although it may seem not perfect enough
for you, perhaps now is the time for you to make it your home.
Books to help you be at peace with your body are available through
bookstores or the Gurze Eating Disorders Bookshelf Catalogue (800-756-7533;
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, nutrition counselor at Boston-area's
SportsMedicine Brookline, designs food plans to help active people
eat well and feel good. Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Second Edition
($20) contains more information. It is available through www.nancyclarkrd.com
or by sending a check to Sports Nutrition Services, 830 Boylston
St., Brookline MA 02467.
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