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Because you’re worth it, too

Helen Bowden, M.S. | Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Feb. 22 to 28 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (EDAW), and a time to celebrate every body. It’s a time to depart from calorie-counting and dieting and to thank your body for all the wonderful things that it lets you do each and every day. “You are beautiful the way you are.” Now, there’s a message you rarely, if ever see on TV. In today’s world of mass media and advertising, we are constantly bombarded by images of ultra-thin women like Calista Flockhart and muscular men like Arnold Schwarzenegger.”So what?” you may be thinking, “That’s life!” Well, unfortunately, there is a well-documented connection between TV and fitness/fashion magazine consumption and body dissatisfaction/disturbed eating. Many men and women gaze upon those bronze, muscled Adonises and skinny, busty beauties and naturally feel inadequate by comparison. Nowhere in a disclaimer is all the suffering, starvation, hours of make-up and computer retouching that’s involved in creating these seemingly “perfect” images. We are not only guilted into believing that we should each want to become fitness gurus and aerobic queens, but also that looking like TV models is an obtainable goal if we only work hard enough.Why would the advertisers want us to feel badly about our bodies? So we’ll buy their products (of course), which are lauded as “the” answer to our body-esteem woes. That’s why Americans spend 30 to 50 billion dollars a year on weight loss products and 51 billion a year on cosmetics. One study showed that people were spending $180 per pound lost. Considering that 90 percent of those who lose 25 or more pounds regain the weight that they lose – and usually more – within two years, and 98 percent regain the weight within five years, it seems that an awful lot of people are being scammed. The reason: the body has an internal weight that it strives to maintain (a set point), and your metabolism actually slows down when you diet in order to conserve energy and stores up more fat to protect against future restrictive eating.Unfortunately, most women living in the United States feel badly about their bodies. Did you know that up to two thirds of women feel dissatisfied with some part of their bodies and that 80 to 90 percent of dieters are women? This trend has sadly infiltrated our youth. Several researchers have found that about 70 to 80 percent of 10-year-old girls are currently dieting. The irony is that most women view their bodies unrealistically and believe that they are larger than they actually are. In fact, one study showed that 70 percent of young women in the United States and England thought that they were overweight even though they were within their normal weight range.Here’s a newsflash – dieting, especially yo-yo dieting and restrictive eating, is associated with hypertension, increased serum cholesterol, kidney and heart problems, gastrointestinal problems and even death. People who are on very-low-calorie diets have a death rate 40 times higher than the normal population.One study by the American Cancer Society that followed 800,000 men and women for six years found no connection between weight gain and mortality rates. In fact, only weight loss was associated with higher death rates.But aside from the health risks, think about how much time you actually spend every day thinking or talking about calories, fat, weight and exercise. That’s a lot of time each week wasted. And the inevitable outcome is feeling more inadequate and dissatisfied with your body. What if, instead, you funneled all of that energy into discovering your talents, dreams and unique qualities that make you special for who you are, not what you look like? Are you an artist, writer, designer, photographer, director, musician or healer at heart? Want to find out? There are so many wonderful things inside you that have absolutely nothing to do with how you look, what you weigh or what other people see on the outside. You are like a precious gift – the wrapping isn’t the important part; it’s what inside that is valued. Wouldn’t it feel better to focus all that energy on shaping the internal you rather than the external you?So, what can you do? Well, for starters, believe in your power to make a difference. If you see an ad that negatively portrays men or women and perpetuates unrealistic body types, e-mail the company. The companies keep incident reports of all e-mails they receive and if they get enough of them, they will change their ads. Also, don’t buy products that are sponsored by companies that use thin-ideal or sexist advertising. If there’s one motivator to “big business,” it’s money.Invest time in exploring your strengths. Take a leisure course on something that you’ve always wanted to try. Make a list of all your great qualities that have nothing to do with appearance and remind yourself about them often. Take up yoga or meditation. In other words – participate in activities that make you feel good about yourself and your body. When you find yourself or others talking about calories, fat or weight, stop yourself, and refocus the conversation on something that is self-nurturing, not self-critical. And, if you find that you are becoming obsessed with food and exercise so much that it is interfering with your life and well-being, get help. Remember, you are so much more than a number on a scale.Helen Bowden, M.S.Notre Dame Counseling CenterFeb. 14