Good day, members of The Well!
Today, let’s discuss body image. The topic of this post was inspired by one of my students as a result of an article review he presented in class.
Some background – I teach an Exercise Science Capstone course (team taught with my esteemed colleague, Sally). The course examines contemporary issues and topics in the field of exercise science that impact and influence the profession. It is a project-heavy course (as a capstone should be) and students engage in product reviews, article critiques, and various other hands-on research endeavors.
This week, one of our students (we’ll call him Jake) presented an article about body dysmorphia in men. Body dysmorphia (regardless of the individual it afflicts) is a preoccupation with one’s physical appearance and belief that there are significant physical flaws (hips too big, legs too short, etc.). Although conversations about body image and dysmorphia typically reference females, it is critically important that we not overlook the impact it has on males.
Distorted body image perceptions are just as real for men as they are for women – a point Jake pointed out very eloquently. He said “girls grow up with Barbie, but we grow up with GI Joe and He-Man. The exposure routes and outlets are different – you all have Cosmo and we have ESPN.” W.O.W. He is so right on target with that.
What this brought to light for me is that we don’t have distorted body image perceptions – what we are really suffering from is disordered thinking. And why? Why must we focus on achieving some socially prescribed standard, which, I must say, has not remained consistent throughout the decades. One quick scan of art and history will tell you the “ideal” has changed significantly. What is “ideal” now would have been scoffed at 100 years ago.
So what does this mean for us as teachers, parents, role models, mentors? It means we need to consider a shift in thinking and amend the messages we send to our children…and ourselves. How we speak to ourselves becomes our inner voice…and the inner voice of those who look up to us for guidance and support. Let’s make it a positive one!
The consequences: When we narrow the conversation of health to external variables, surface measures, or images we see, the most important and truest indicators of personal and mental health are overlooked.
As an educator, I witness this phenomenon each semester as my bright and eager exercise science majors are asked to answer two specific questions: “what does being healthy look like? And “what words would you use to describe health, healthy, and/or fit?” Semester after semester, the answers are consistent. When we think of what healthy looks like, it is easy to be drawn to the images portrayed on the covers of “health magazines” or on social media feeds and, thus, limit the responses to pictures of celebrities and/or well-known athletes. Further, when talking about health or being healthy and fit, similar words and terms are used: disease free, frequent exerciser, gym rat, healthy eating, thin, ripped, strong, etc. In other words, the images we see influence the ways in which we describe a state of being. This may not seem harmful, however, when the impact on youth and the ways in which language and images influence perceptions of body image are considered, we need to take a closer look at how health is illustrated and defined and start speaking about it in more accurate terms.
Instead of asking “what does healthy look like” – let’s ask “what does healthy feel like?” We may be surprised by the reactions we get simply by changing the language to shift our thinking. This is critical not only for our own personal perceptions of self-image, but for the perceptions of the youth we influence and guide.
Controlling or changing what the media does or doesn’t do is not within our circle of influence; however, controlling our own behaviors or attitudes about self-image and health certainly are!
Until next time. Meet you at The Well.