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Is your obsession with having the perfect body harming you?

In a culture that's obsessed with physical perfection, having the wrong fitness goals can lead to harmful behaviour 

Don't be obsessed with the aesthetics of a 'perfect' body.
Don't be obsessed with the aesthetics of a 'perfect' body. (Istockphoto)

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When it comes to fitness, your goals could have a huge impact on your life and mental health. If your goals are holistic, they tend to lift the mood and make you happy and confident, while also making you healthier. However, at a time when traditional media and pop culture, as well as the social media metaverse, is focused purely on body image, your goals can also push you towards a downward spiral and cause mental health disorders. These could lead to bulimia, depression, anxiety. This is also often accompanied by a loss of confidence and feelings of worthlessness, say health experts and fitness coaches.

“Throughout history, a lot of importance has been given to beauty,” says Pooja Naik, health psychologist and Coach at Cult Transform. “Society, social media, and culture affect our views, impacting how a person may view his own body. We all want to look our best as it helps us feel more confident, but what happens when it's solely focused on aesthetics and perfection? When we become hyper-focused on attaining a perfect body, we may also fall into a perfection trap. Perfection, often a recipe for dissatisfaction and stress where a person strives for approval and gives less importance to effort, courage and progress.” 

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When body image ideals become your primary goal, chances are you would start body checking yourself. Body checking behaviours include commonplace practices such as checking yourself in the mirror, pinching body fat, weighing yourself multiple times a day, comparing yourself to others (maybe even to photoshopped images) and taking photos of your body. “Most of us don’t realise how often we check our bodies. These behaviours can become so habitual that we do them unconsciously. By constantly inspecting and scrutinising our bodies, we are affirming to ourselves that it’s important to tightly control how we look. This may work in the short term but can leave us with some intended consequences. We become more insecure, embarrassed or anxious if our bodies change,” says health coach and nutritionist Shannon Beer. Try reducing these behaviours, you will likely feel a lot better, she recommends.

Many experts in mental health often see a rise in body image issues during the summer months. clients over-train at the gym, skip meals or excessively worrying about their bodies and food, notes Naik. In addition to that, “pandemic weight” seems to have worsened body image issues, making it challenging for people to cope.

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Naik suggests setting a goal beyond aesthetics by having a deeper understanding of why it's important that you maintain healthy habits at all times. “If losing weight is important for you, the questions you may want to ask yourself would be. ‘What does losing weight mean to me?’ or ‘How will it have an impact on other areas of my life?’ or ‘What will losing weight do for me?’ You may find that when you ask these questions, you truly understand the reasons behind your fitness goal,” she says. 

Also, having a positive body image helps. A 2019 study published in the journal Body Image found positive body image is associated with both psychological and physical wellbeing, including increased self-esteem, self-compassion, life satisfaction and health behaviours. Research also suggests that improving confidence and having a positive body image can help reduce weight gain and achieve broader health goals. Becoming aware that one's sense of self-worth goes beyond aesthetics and accepting one's body and what it can do can help have a more positive mindset towards fitness goals, explains Naik. “You can change how you look without changing how you feel, and you can change how you feel without changing how you look,” says Beer. 

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According to Naik, positive self-talk is another useful strategy. “Focus on what’s going well rather than obsessing over what’s lacking. Reframe negative thoughts with positive ones by highlighting what your body can do for you. While you may say things like ‘I hate my legs,’ you can change it to ‘I love that my legs help me move around, allowing me to do things on my own.’ It’s time to flip the old script with new positive statements,” she advises.

Having purely body image goals can cause some serious physical as well as psychological harm and even lead to mental health disorders, but the choice is still yours to make. It would be best if you enjoy the process and don’t become too obsessed, say experts. However, if you are overweight or suffer from a health condition, consider working towards long-term health where looking toned is a by-product, advises Naik. “It’s important to understand that each one of us can healthily transform our bodies without succumbing to society’s standards of beauty. Remember to embrace your body while working towards your fitness goals. Less comparison and more compassion is key to living a healthy and fulfilling life,” she adds.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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