When you look in the mirror, what do you
see? Your perception of how your body looks forms your body image.
Interestingly, a perfectly-toned 20 year old fitness model could
have a very poor body image, while an average-shaped 50 year old man
or woman could have a great body image. Regardless of how closely
your actual figure resembles your perception, your body image can
affect your self-esteem, your eating and exercise behaviors, and
your relationships with others.
Read on to learn…
What factors influence your body
Whether or not it’s possible to
achieve the “ideal body.”
Is the “ideal body” really your key
to health, success, beauty, and happiness?
What can you do to improve your body
Why are so many people unhappy with
In American culture (and particularly in southern California), there
is a lot of emphasis placed on body weight, size, and appearance.
And, we are conditioned from a very young age to believe that
self-worth is derived from these external characteristics. For
example, being thin and/or muscular is associated with being
“hard-working, successful, popular, beautiful, strong, and
self-disciplined.” On the other hand, being “fat” is associated with
being “lazy, ignorant, hated, ugly, weak, and lacking will-power.”
These stereotypes are prevalent in our society; and they are
reinforced by the media, our family and friends, and even
well-respected health professionals. As a result, we often unfairly
judge others and label them based on their weight and size alone. We
feel great anxiety and pressure to achieve and/or maintain a very
lean physique. And, we believe that if we can just be thinner or
more muscular, we can be happier, more successful, and more accepted
The media sets unrealistic standards for what body weight and
appearance is considered “normal.” Girls are indoctrinated at a very
young age that Barbie is how a woman is supposed to look (i.e. no
fat anywhere on your body, but huge breasts). NOTE: If Barbie were
life-size, she would stand 5’9” and weigh 110 lb. (only 76% of what
is considered a healthy weight for her height). Her measurements
would be 39-18-33, and she would not menstruate due to inadequate
levels of fat on her body. Similarly, boys are given the impression
that men naturally have muscles bulging all over their bodies. Take
a look at their plastic action-figures (like GI Joe Extreme) in toy
stores. If GI Joe Extreme were life-size, he would have a 55-inch
chest and a 27-inch bicep. In other words, his bicep would be almost
as big as his waist and bigger than most competitive body builders.’
These body ideals are reinforced every day on TV shows, movies,
magazine covers, and even video games. In Santa Clarita, where the
population is relatively young and the warm climate promotes use of
revealing clothing, the exaltation and expectation of extreme
leanness is even more exaggerated.
And the media’s portrayal of what is “normal” keeps getting thinner
and thinner for women and more muscular and ripped for men.
Twenty-five years ago, the average female model weighed 8% less than
the average American woman. Currently, the average female model
weighs 23% below her average weight. Similar trends are seen with
men. The average Playgirl centerfold man has shed about 12 lbs. of
fat, while putting on approximately 27 lb. of muscle over the past
With these media images and body ideals, it’s little wonder that
women and men feel inadequate, ashamed, and dissatisfied with how
they look. Only 5-10% of women have the genetic make up to ever
achieve the ultra-long and thin model body type so pervasive in the
media. Yet that is the only body type that women see and can compare
themselves to. Similarly, all boys see is a body ideal that for most
men is impossible to achieve without illegal anabolic steroids.
There is a physiological limit to how much muscle a man can attain
naturally, given his height, frame, and body fat percentage.
Unfortunately, however, the action figure heroes on toy store
shelves and male fitness models on magazine covers and ads suggest
Family, Friends, and Romantic Partners
In college, you may feel great pressure to be thin or super muscular
in order to be accepted by your peers and attractive to potential
romantic partners (especially in communities near Los Angeles, one
of the most weight, diet, and fitness-crazed cities in the world!).
If you’re living with a lot of other students (especially women) in
a sorority/fraternity house or residence hall, the pressure may be
even more intense. In these group living situations, you may be
surrounded by negative “body talk”…in the bathroom, in the dining
halls, in your dorm room…there’s no escaping the comments (“Yuck!
Look at my thighs…I’m so fat! I really need to go on a diet!”). All
these comments can make you crazy! They can make you start worrying
about your own weight and make you start feeling self-conscious
about your own body, even though you never worried about it before!
Your mother, or other family member, may have done the same thing
while your were growing up by making constant comments about her own
weight (or yours) and enforcing lots of food restrictions on herself
(or you). Early on, you may have gotten the message that you need to
be thin in order to be accepted and loved by your parents.
If you’re an athlete, you may feel tremendous pressure to lose
weight or body fat so you can make a specific weight class (i.e.
wrestling, crew, boxing), race faster (i.e. running, cycling), or
look more attractive to the judges or audience (i.e. gymnastics,
dance, cheerleading, figure skating). The pressure may come from
you, your teammates, your coach, and/or your parents. In any case,
the message is clear, “you need to have a certain body to perform
well and be considered a good athlete.”
Weight and height measurements are routinely done at health clinics;
and you are often assigned a certain label (“underweight, healthy
weight, overweight, or obese”) based on these measurements. Your
clinician may even encourage you to lose weight, to see a dietitian,
or to consider drugs or surgery based on these numbers, without even
asking about your eating and exercise habits or considering your
level of fitness. The clinician, of course, has good intentions.
After all, clinicians are taught in their medical training about all
the perils of the “obesity epidemic.” And, they are reminded again
and again that obesity is a “disease” that can (and should) be
aggressively treated with drugs.
While weight measurements may actually reflect bad eating habits, a
sedentary lifestyle, and poor health and fitness, they don’t always.
In fact, there are many large, “overweight” (but fit) men and women
who eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and enjoy excellent
health (as indicated by their optimal blood pressure, blood
cholesterol, and blood sugar levels). And, there are many “healthy
weight” men and women who don’t.
If you have been a victim of this type of weight prejudice by the
medical community, it’s understandable that your body image and
self-esteem would suffer. After all, you are being told by one of
the most powerful and respected members of society that you are
“diseased.” The guilt, shame, and self-loathing associated with such
a label does nothing to support healthy eating, physical activity,
and good health; and, in many cases, it does just the opposite.
Is it possible to achieve the “ideal body?”
In desperate attempts to achieve the “ideal” weight and shape, many
students turn to disordered behaviors such as restrictive dieting, a
variety of fat burning or muscle building products, exhaustive
exercise, and/or cigarette smoking. They may starve themselves
because they hate their bodies, eventually overeat because they get
over-hungry, feel incredibly guilty after eating, and then try to
get rid of the unwanted calories.
Keep in mind that your weight and body composition are determined by
a number of factors. Some of these factors (such as your calorie
intake and level of physical activity) can be manipulated. But other
factors (such as your body type, bone structure, the way you store
fat, and other genetic variables) cannot be manipulated. Most people
simply lack the raw materials to build the “ideal” body, regardless
of how strict they are with their eating and exercise regimens.
Consider this, only about 5-10% of American women have the
ultra-long and thin body-type that is seen almost exclusively in the
media. Women who attempt to achieve this body type (but lack the
genetic material to do so) are setting themselves up for years and
years of yo-yo dieting, weight fluctuations, disordered eating, and
Similarly, the body ideal projected to boys and men in most muscle
magazines and through cartoon action figure heroes is impossible to
achieve without illegal anabolic steroids. In most cases, if a man
claims to have achieved this ideal with hard training and strict
diet alone, he probably didn't. There is a physiological limit to
how much muscle a man can attain naturally, given his height and
body fat percentage. In other words, it’s physiologically impossible
to gain unlimited pounds of pure bulging muscle mass while
maintaining an ultra lean, ripped body (with only 3-7% body
fat)--even when following the “perfect” training and diet program.
Once you reach your maximal muscle mass, any further gains will come
from both muscle AND fat. So, men who have greater muscle mass/size
tend to have higher body fat percentages as well (e.g. 10-15%).
Thus, it is important to be realistic when determining how you want
to look to avoid sacrificing your health and happiness for an
Is the “ideal body” really your key to health, success, beauty, &
Health & Fitness
What does a number on the scale really tell you about how healthy or
fit someone is? When you step on a scale, the weight that you see
doesn’t tell you anything about your body composition (i.e. how much
is muscle, bone, or fat). Keep in mind that muscle is denser and
weighs more than the same volume of fat. So, if you are very
physically active and have more muscle, you SHOULD weigh more.
In addition, weight (or even body composition) isn’t the best
indicator of health and fitness. Your eating habits, exercise
patterns, and metabolic measures (like blood pressure, blood
cholesterol, and blood glucose levels) are more important indicators
of your health. And, your fitness level is better measured by your
cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, muscle endurance, and
flexibility--not by your weight and body fat.
Compare these two female students. Which one is healthy and fit?
Cathy is “obese” based on her height and weight (she stands 5’2”
and weighs 180 lb, Body Mass Index = 33.). Despite her weight, she
is training for a triathlon, exercises hard for 6 hours per week,
and fuels her body with about 1800-2000 calories from wholesome
nourishing foods. She is trying to lose weight, but realizes that
restricting her calorie intake too low will impair her health and
Michelle is underweight at 5’2” and 96 lb. (Body Mass Index =
17.6). She consumes fewer than 1000 calories a day, smokes and
drinks diet sodas and coffee all day to suppress her appetite, and
barely has the energy to walk to school, let alone work-out.
Compare these two male students. Which one is healthy and fit?
Eric is 5’6” and 142 lb. He runs around the track and climbs the
Drake stadium stairs for about 30-45 minutes 3 times per week, and
he lifts weights for about an hour 2 times per week. He eats a high
fiber diet (with plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains) and
also makes sure to eat adequate protein from chicken, tuna, and low
fat milk products. He just had a wellness exam at the Student Health
& Wellness Center and was told that his blood pressure and
cholesterol levels were optimal.
Ron is 5’6” and is extremely muscular at 170 lb. He is in the
weight room 6 days a week for 2 hours each session. He never does
cardio because he’s afraid of losing mass and size. Ron eats a very
high protein diet, stays away from starch and sugar, and supplements
his diet with designer whey protein shakes, a “fat burner” pill
(before workouts), and creatine monohydrate (after workouts). At his
last wellness exam, he was told his blood pressure was elevated
(probably related to the stimulants in the fat burner product and
lack of cardio exercise), his blood cholesterol was borderline high
(probably related to all the saturated fat and partially
hydrogenated oils in the sports bars he eats, as well as his very
low fiber intake), and his blood creatinine levels were high (from
all the protein in his diet).
Describe a good friend or a good parent. What characteristics does
he/she have? Now, describe a good doctor, lawyer, or teacher? What
are they like? As you imagine these model people, what part (if any)
does body weight or percent body fat play in determining their
quality or effectiveness? Probably not much.
Beauty & Attractiveness
While body size and shape certainly contribute to physical
attractiveness, they are not the only factors, and they certainly
are not the most important ones! How you present yourself in social
settings also plays a big role. Are you outgoing and upbeat, with a
friendly smile and welcoming posture that attracts people to you? Do
you dress to impress, have a unique style, stand tall, and carry
yourself with pride and confidence? All of these characteristics
also contribute to your physical attractiveness.
Imagine a pair of twins standing across the room. One is smiling and
dancing and exuding a sense of confidence and openness. The other is
standing with his/her arms crossed and has a disgusted, angry
expression on his/her face. Which one would you think was more
It's not uncommon for people to think that they would be so much
happier if only they could lose weight or have a more muscular
physique. After all, our society equates thinness and extreme
leanness with happiness. Logically then, people turn to diets as the
solution to all their life problems. Unfortunately, however, weight
is not the problem, and dieting is not the answer. True happiness
comes from within. It comes from nurturing your soul and spirit with
healthy relationships, communication, boundary setting, and
relaxation. While finding true happiness internally can often result
in better self-care of the external body (i.e. healthier eating and
physical activity patterns), focusing only on the self-care of the
external body will do nothing to heal the inside pain.
What can you do to improve your body image?
De-emphasize weight. Don’t get hung up on numbers.
Weight doesn’t tell you much. Is it muscle, bone, or fat? Muscle
weighs more than fat. Weight isn’t the best indicator of health or
fitness. Your eating habits, exercise patterns, and other lifestyle
choices are more important. Weight doesn’t define who you are or
what you are worth as a person.
There is no such thing as one “ideal body weight” based on your
Each one of us has a healthy weight based on our body type, bone
structure, muscle mass, genetics, what weight we feel our best at,
and what weight our body tends to want to maintain at.
There is a physiological limit to how muscular you can get
Many of the super-muscular male bodies you see in the media are just
the products of drugs. It is not possible to be that muscular and
that lean without chemical assistance. Instead of thinking of it as
a limit, think of it as your personal best.
Realize that you cannot change your body type. Learn to love and
respect your body and to work with what you have.
Invest time and money in yourself, rather than the diet and
supplement industry. Spend your extra money on flattering clothes,
fitness equipment, haircuts, massages, and other personal
indulgences--not on diets.
Stop weighing yourself. Focus on how your clothes fit and how you
feel. If you keep trying to achieve an unrealistically low body
weight for you, you’re setting yourself up for failure, depression,
disordered eating, and decreased quality of life.
Stop comparing yourself to others.
Celebrate your body and the marvelous things it can do when you
are fit and well-nourished. So often, we take these things for
Move and enjoy your body. Go walking, swimming, biking, and
dancing. Do yoga, aerobics, and weight training…. not because you
have to, but because it makes you feel strong and energized.
Surround yourself with people who have a healthy relationship with
food, weight, and their bodies. It will make a difference in how you
feel about yourself. Also, remember to set a good example for others
by refraining from “fat talk” when you’re with friends and family.
Stop your negative thoughts and statements about yourself. Focus
on what you love about yourself. Compliment yourself. Talk to your
body the way you would talk to a good friend.
Reclaim your own inner strength. Focus on the unique qualities and
personality traits that make you a special and successful person.
Nurture your inner self. Enjoy things you find relaxing (e.g.
music, bubble baths, fragrances, candles, massages, reading,
writing, napping), be close to nature (e.g. garden, sunsets, beach,
stars), and/or seek spiritual connection (e.g. prayer, meditation,
inspirational reading, reflection). Feeling good on the inside is
key to feeling good on the outside.
Examine the degree to which your self-esteem depends upon your
appearance. Although it may seem natural to wish you looked like a
fashion model or a body builder, basing your happiness on this
desire may lead to failure. Unrealistic goals can prevent you from
exploring ways to enhance your life.
Broaden your perspective. Talk to people you trust, read books
about body image, or write in a journal. These activities may help
you to recognize emotionally destructive thoughts and put body image
Recognize that “fat-ism” is a form of discrimination similar to
sexism and racism. Assumptions that body shape determines
attractiveness, personality, and success are incorrect and unjust.
Combat discrimination when possible. Question assumptions and
generalizations that promote the belief that one “type” of person is
better than another.
Sheri Barke, MPH, RD
COC, Student Health & Wellness Center