Body Image: What Is Healthy?

Let’s talk about body image and self-esteem.

First, I would like to preface this blog post by sharing a few things about myself. I am a 30 year old woman. 5’2″, about 103lbs, and consider myself to be relatively fit (not ripped, not without fat, but strong, agile, and generally able to do stuff). I have never had children and I prioritize physical activity as a regular part of my life. My petite stature is a combination of genetics and lifestyle, which is, I suppose, true for anyone. I’d like to think that I offer an objective point of view, but let’s be honest, my view is subject to my own experiences and biases. However, I do try my best to be as open and adaptable as possible.

As a woman who is both a counsellor and involved in fitness activity and promotion, I contemplate the topic of body image regularly. In relation to myself, and in relation to others. As people, and especially as women, we care about how we look. If you say you don’t, you are likely not being honest with yourself. If you disagree, I respect that, and you are certainly a rare breed. However, in general, we care. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many ads screaming:

“Sign up for this program and get a flat stomach!”
“Subscribe to our blog and firm -up your butt!”
“Lose weight by eating this awesome superfood!”
“Take this pill and you will be beautiful!”
“Buy this bra and you will look like this….”

Or whatever. You get the idea. (PS – I am aware that I am writing a fitness blog for my fitness business, and that I am not immune to producing such ads.) As a counsellor who works in health promotion, I am not ignorant to the fact that it may often seem as though I am promoting mixed messages:

  1. Don’t care about your body image.
  2. Care about your body image.

So, how do I reconcile this? I’d like to think I am not a hypocrite. In fact, I sincerely believe I am not (at least in this context), and that these messages are not opposite at all. Let me explain.

Your Body Doesn’t Define You

As a counsellor, I work with people to boost their self-esteem and to promote a self-image that is accepting, non-judgemental, and uninfluenced by unhealthy messages in society that claim “your worth is determined by your outer beauty, and beauty looks like this __________” (insert photo of “perfect” looking woman). I believe what I preach, which is that you should not derive your worth from your appearance. Regardless of how you look, this does not lead to a happy and healthy place.

It only makes sense to acknowledge and accept that there are aspects of your body that you cannot change, and that your body is only part of your whole self. To obsess over it is to miss out on spending time on other aspects of yourself that make a difference to the quality of your life.

You are more than your body. You are your body, mind, spirit (or whatever word you choose to use), and all of the intricacies in-between that come together to define you. You also have limited control over your physical appearance. Our bodies are all different shapes and sizes, and even if we all lived in an identical manner (eating, sleeping, exercise, etc), the end result would not be one body type, but a range of sizes and shapes.

It only makes sense to acknowledge and accept that there are aspects of your body that you cannot change, and that your body is only part of your whole self. To obsess over it is to miss out on spending time on other aspects of yourself that make a difference to the quality of your life.

Caring About Your Body’s Physical Condition Is Healthy

I recently read an article that discussed why thin women should care about fat activism. The idea was that women who are “thin” spend as much or more time thinking about being fat as “fat” women do. While the article did have some good points, I was bothered by a few things:

  1. The dichotomy being set up as people being either “thin” or “fat”. This is false.
  2. The assumption that women who are “thin” naturally obsess about their weight. False again.
  3. The idea that the only reason people want to lose weight is for their appearance (and not for other health concerns). Again, not true.

I would also like to make a distinction that was not made in this article. Thin and fit are different. Someone may be “heavy” yet “fit, or “thin” yet “unfit”. One image I love that illustrates this well is the photo below of female elite athletes from various sports:

What I would like to highlight about this photo is that all of these women are “fit”, but not necessarily thin, or even remotely the same. My point? Physical health looks different on different people, and appearance isn’t everything. Taking care of your body (exercising, eating well, etc) has value because it changes you and what you are capable of, mentally and physically. Personally, I do it because it enables me to do things I enjoy: run, play sports, climb mountains, go on long canoe trips, snowboard, hike, etc).

But what if someone chooses not to live this way, that is, they choose to not care for their body? Or if they just do it less than others? Is this person any less valuable?

You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do… However, recognize there are consequences for any choices that you make.

No, a person who is less fit is not less valuable (I hope you know this)! Your values are your own. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, and you don’t need to feel badly about that. However, recognize there are consequences for any choices that you make. How much (or little) you invest in physical activity level and nutrition practices will most certainly impact your mood, ability to do certain activities, and physical health (including your appearance). There is no “right” or “wrong” amount, just personal awareness of actions and consequences, and making an informed decision. There is no harm in caring about your physical health, and even your appearance (heck, I take pride in my fitness!), but letting it define you: well that’s risky business.

Finding a Healthy Balance

Satisficing is defined a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met. It’s different than optimizing (weighing out all options, pros/cons and picking the best one) and maximizing (picking the option that will give you the most “bang for your buck”, so to speak). How does this relate to body image and healthy living?

The point is to find a lifestyle that works for you (and this strategy can help). If you’re maximizing your health, you are only ever going to eat the most healthy foods and exercise the exact recommended amount for the fitness level that you desire. If you’re optimizing your health, you are assessing and weighing out all of the alternatives (what you like, what is practical, what is reasonable, realistic, etc) and then carefully choosing the option that gives you the greatest overall benefit.

These both take a lot of energy, and aren’t wrong, but can easily turn into obsession over body image and fitness. The satisficing approach will mean that as soon as you find something that is working for you, you stick with it (without all the assessment stress). It doesn’t have to the best option, just one that works for you.

My Advice

Invest in yourself by identifying your true values. Inform yourself about what day to day choices are consistent with the values that you hold. Once you have done this, have confidence in carrying out these actions, knowing that you don’t need to defend them to anyone. You are making an informed choice about yourself that is reflective of your values, and that is something you should feel good about. Fit, unfit, thin, fat, or anywhere in-between.

(In the meantime, I will resume my role in promoting healthy living and physical fitness, as this is consistent with my values. Thanks for the chat.)