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Why having a positive body image is crucial to wellbeing

A fitness coach explains why our negative perception of our body, the result of years of conditioning, is holding us back from living our best lives

Our environment, and people in our lives, shape how we feel about our bodies.
Our environment, and people in our lives, shape how we feel about our bodies. (Unsplash)

There are few things more certain to me than this. One, I can only commit to one, maybe two, social media platforms at a time. Two, I wouldn't go back to high school for love or money. Three, I shudder to think of what it would be like to be back in high school using social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, or Instagram.

Regardless of how I feel about high school, I still feel nostalgic for rolls of film, authentic smiles, and unposed happiness. And, if someone took a bad picture (which was inevitable), if you were fast enough, you could chase the person with the photo, grab it, and rip it up before anyone saw it.

So much has changed, yet a few fundamental things haven't changed since childhood.

One of those things is how our environment, and people in our lives, shape how we feel about our bodies. Although social media exacerbates feelings of negative body image, it's not a rare unicorn. If we millennials managed to grow up action-packed with negative body associations, it's safe to say it existed before social media was invented. Only the triggers have changed.

The topic of body image has been an interest of mine for some time, particularly in women and girls. It always amazed me that beautiful and unique women would find it acceptable, if not encouraged, to be self-deprecating when boys are encouraged not to. One of my favourite comments is from Glennon Doyle, who says on her podcast-- We Can Do Hard Things-- that while is acceptable for fifty per cent of the population to leave the house without makeup,  the other fifty per cent is expected, by the world, to wear it When I heard it so black and white, it made me wonder if my insecurities were inherited as some form of a gift from marketers and not created by myself.

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If you're wondering the same thing, then I urge you to listen to the song called House with No Mirrors by Sasha Alex Sloan. It's essentially a dreamy "what if" song, written by a girl who imagined how free she would be if she never saw her reflection. In this song, she imagines eating when she felt hungry, buying jeans without caring about the size, going to parties less self-consciously, but the one line that triggered me was, "maybe I would dream bigger if there was nothing to see."

Then, it occurred to me. What if our negative body images, gifted to us from birth through marketing, our friends and family, and our environment, is holding us back from living authentic and inspiring lives?

It turns out; I'm not wrong. According to research conducted by Dove's Self Esteem Project, when young girls don't like how they look, seventy per cent of them won't be assertive or stick with their decisions. Eighty per cent will avoid participation in clubs, teams or even avoid seeing friends and family. In addition, Psychology Today found that having a poor body image could affect someone's academics, professional career, and overall quality of life.

Could you imagine what the world would be like if those girls weren't burdened with an unnecessary negative body image? It's almost science fiction.

So, where do we focus our efforts to change the world? Unfortunately, as research shows, we will have to go back a long way.

According to Dove's research, children as young as three can conceptualise body size and express "thin norms". By the age of five, some children can associate the term "dieting" with a solution to weight gain. And, by 5-8, children gain a perception of their mother's body dissatisfaction. Some studies even say that some children as young as seven have enacted some form of dieting behaviour.

But it's not just the mother's perceptions of her body that a child recognises. It's also how their fathers, brothers, and male friends relate to a woman's body. When a child or teenager hears comments from someone, they love associating a woman's attractive appearance with her worth or value; that ideal sticks in their minds. To be loved and valued, I must first be attractive.

It's then reinforced by what we see in our environment. For example, if you've ever shopped for clothing for a young person, you'll notice there are very few "Pretty Princess" t-shirts for boys and "Champ" shirts for girls. Halloween costumes and cartoon dolls send questionable messages as well. And, according to a report released by Common Sense Media, even on television, girls are represented with uncharacteristically small waistlines, wearing sexy attire, having a thin frame, while being referenced as "attractive" more than men.

If you thought I was going to stop there, you're wrong. Disproportionally speaking, girls post more on social media platforms than boys. And, girls also experience more stress over what they post and experience anxiety that someone will post an "ugly" picture of them. Instagram has an age limit of 13 years old; however, kids as young may have 11 or less have access to it. According to Tech Times, teenagers are the lifeblood of Instagram's success - and are encouraged to use the platform 3-4 hours a day. It's important to attract teenagers to the platform; they allocated 390 million USD of their global marketing budget.

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So how can we encourage women and girls to thrive in their confidence?

We can't always change the influences of the world around us, but we can take charge of what we say and see in our own lives. We must watch how we reference our bodies in front of the children who love us. Rather than talk about how "fat" a particular body part is, why don't we reference how strong it is? And, when talking to our children, rather than commenting on their appearance, let's also highlight the unique strengths that make them special. And let's not do it just for them; let's do it for ourselves as well.



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