How Body Image Concerns Lead to Eating & Weight Worry

By Marsha Hudnall on 03/15/2010
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The title of this post might seem a bit elementary. I mean, isn’t it obvious?  On the surface, maybe yes, but Kathy Kater, LICSW, who I had the privilege of hearing speak at the recent Binge Eating Disorder Association conference, talks about it in a way that illuminates the problem so clearly, I thought it worthwhile to share some of her points here.

Kathy is the creator of BodyImageHealth.org, where she provides a “Model for Healthy Body Image” and a curriculum for kids titled “Healthy Body Image: Teaching Kids to Eat and Love Their Bodies Too!”  I’m going to share below what Kathy presents as “four toxic myths that underlie the culturally mediated risk factors for most body image, eating, nutrition, fitness and weight problems.”   She shared this at the conference but it’s on her site along with many other insightful pieces.

Myth 1: Image is valued over substance
What it means: “How I look” is more important than “who I am.” An essential criterion for the “right” look is a slim/lean body.

How it works: Mass marketing of ultra thin role models as if they were normal has been very effective in creating tremendous appearance anxiety and fear of fatness in individuals who naturally want to be normal and fit in.

Myth 2: Denial of biological diversity
What it means: Anyone can be slim if he or she works at it. Fatter people eat too much and/or are inactive. Fat is bad/wrong and inevitably unhealthy.

How it works: For the drive to be thin to be widely embraced, biological diversity of size and shape has had to be denied. Instead of accepting that weight is influenced by many factors, and that wholesome eating and fitness result in diverse BMIs, the current norm is to mistrust the body’s ability to regulate weight if/when the end result is or might be visible fat.

Myth 3: Denial of the effects of externally prescribed hunger regulation
What it means: Dieting is an effective weight loss strategy.

How it works: Since restrictive eating commonly results in short term weight loss, this is routinely presented as evidence that anyone can be slim(mer) if they “work at it.” “Dieting” continues to be viewed as the primary means to achieve this, even though the basis for its dismal success rate has been well documented and understood since 1950. At least 90% of weight lost through any type of weight loss plan is regained, often with added pounds.

Myth 4: Discounting the value of health; complacency about choices that do not result in the desired lean look
What it means: Eat, drink and be merry… Healthy choices for health’s sake (versus appearance) are too much work!

How it works: When appearance, the drive to be thin, denial of biological size diversity, and the diet mentality dominate, the primary purpose of eating and fitness is lost: “Why eat healthy (or be active) if it won’t make me thin?” Given a market flooded with entertainment foods and sedentary pastime options, the number of people who routinely override their internal weight regulatory system, are poorly nourished, and lack basic fitness increases exponentially.

Kathy presents this as a cycle, with each myth feeding into the next, and the last one restarting the cycle over again as it feeds into valuing image over substance.  Her solution:  Help people connect with health as a value in its own right, and to take the steps needed to support this value:

  • Eat well. Satisfy hunger completely with wholesome foods that provide the varied nutrients your body needs on a regular basis.  Enjoy entertainment eating after health needs are met.
  • Make fitness an active choice. Spend time and energy in activities that promote lifelong vitality. Enjoy sedentary entertainment after fitness needs are met.
  • Accept the size and shape that results as your natural predisposition. Choose role models that make you feel good about who you are.

One of the reasons I love what Kathy has to say is because it agrees with what we’ve been saying at Green Mountain for years.  But more than that, it just makes sense.  And while it can be hard to take this approach in a society that is so otherwise focused, maybe this FitBriefing we wrote several years ago on accepting our wonderful selves can help get you started.

We’d love to know what you think about what Kathy says.

8 Responses (Add Yours)

  • Margot says:

    This is so useful–such a a clear, concise, compelling summary of a lot of things I’ve come to believe in my own struggle to eat healthfully and STOP starving/binging, seeing my body as a collection of flaws, and seeing other people (especially other women) through a distorted lens. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Heather says:

    I agree with most of what was laid out here. The part that makes me uncomfortable is “biological size diversity.” While I certainly agree that not everyone is going to be super-skinny, every person I have ever met who has argued “genetics” was overewight.

    My parents were fat. All of their siblings and parents were fat. I was fat. I very easily could have looked around and said, “Well, it must be genetic.” No. Everyone in my family ate too much and was sedentary. When I changed my eating habits (what and how much) and started exercising, the weight came off. Aside from my brother, who has always been fit, I am the thinnest person in my family.

    Now, the point I am hoping that was being made: even as a slender, fit woman, I don’t look like the women you see in magazines. I will never be a 5-foot-7 hipless stick woman (which is OK), and that *is* genetic. But genetics didn’t make me fat.

  • Marsha says:

    Hi, Heather,

    Thanks for your comment. The point that is being made is pretty much what you describe you did for yourself — starting to take care of yourself and then accepting the body that results.

    While it doesn’t appear to be the case for you, in some instances, genetics do make a person fat. They can be perfectly healthy when they are fat, too. The focus of this post is more about where our efforts are put — on taking care of ourselves or on trying to get to a certain number on the scale? The latter can lead to big problems. The former seems ideal for our health.

  • Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by ichange: How Body Image Concerns Lead to Eating & Weight Worry http://bit.ly/9jSVrU

  • love2eatinpa says:

    really good stuff. i’m thinking about getting that book for my daughter. did you read it, marsha?

  • Marsha says:

    It’s a curriculum for students in grades 4-6, love2eatinpa. Although it says it can be adapted for other ages. I guess the question would be if it can be used individually. I don’t know why not, but then again, I’m not an educator per se. I’d contact Kathy to find out if you’re really interested. And, no, I haven’t read it but I have read many pieces from it. They have all been excellent.

  • Sagan says:

    Fantastic post. There’s so much that contributes to poor body image, and we really need to learn how to combat against it. I think that a combination of accepting ourselves with striving to maintain a healthy lifestyle is what will be really great for us all.
    .-= Sagan’s last blog post..Disordered and Emotional Eating =-.

  • love2eatinpa says:

    thanks, marsha! my daughter is in 4th grade, so that is perfect!

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