Unhealthy body image and eating disorders affect women of all ages: What you can do to feel more confident in your skin
You are not alone. It is difficult to ignore the enormous amount of information from television shows, movies, magazines, video games, and various social media platforms telling us what the media believes an “ideal” woman should look like. But these advertised women are not the norm, in fact, and 95% of us are not realistically capable of achieving their body types because of our genetics. Trying to mimic what we see can cause low self-esteem and lead to serious health issues such as depression and eating disorders. With a market full of diets, makeup and clothing advertised to make women feel insecure, it can be challenging to stop ourselves from comparing and trying to adjust our reflections to mirror we see. But we can start by realizing that the media is driven by a motivation to sell products and does so by promoting unrealistic beauty standards. What you see may not be what is healthy for you.
What is unhealthy?
You may be at risk for an unhealthy body image if your only view of yourself is through the lens of your appearance, if you describe your body using negative language, feel sad when thinking of your appearance, constantly compare yourself to models or actresses, or frequently think about ways to improve your body or looks.
Teenagers who attempt to diet without proper guidance may develop disordered eating habits. This includes fasting, skipping meals, extreme dieting, binge-eating, inducing vomiting, and abusing diuretics, laxatives, or stimulants. When disordered eating becomes severe, it turns into a medical illness called an eating disorder which can be life-threatening if not addressed. Eating disorders are not recognizable by a person’s weight. A person with a normal weight can be suffering from an eating disorder.
People with eating disorders are highly critical of their bodies. Eating disorders you may have heard about are Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge-eating disorder. People with Anorexia are usually very underweight and have a distorted body image which leads to excessive dieting and sometimes exercising. A person with Bulimia is usually normal or overweight, and will binge on food and subsequently induce vomiting, abuse laxatives, or exercise excessively to prevent weight gain. A person with Binge-eating disorder will binge on food but not vomit, and is usually overweight or obese.
Eating disorders are stereotypically known to affect adolescent women, but recent research has recognized their prevalence in mid-life as well. A longitudinal study conducted by the Icahn School of Medicine assessed over fifteen hundred women and found both chronic and newly onset eating disorders to be a problem women face in mid-life.
What are the risks?
The study found that the risk factors for these eating disorders correlate with the incidence of events during childhood. Unhappiness during childhood was linked to an increased risk for Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge-eating and purging disorders. Childhood sexual abuse was associated with all eating disorders. Death of a carer increased the likelihood of purging disorder. Parental separation or divorce during childhood was associated with increased incidence of Bulimia, Binge-eating disorder and certain forms of Anorexia.
What is healthy?
You can calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI) using your height and weight with this online calculator. If your BMI falls within the range of 18.5-24.9, you are considered to be at a normal, healthy weight. If your BMI is above this range, you may need to lose weight. Talk to your doctor to come up with a plan. Losing weight requires that you burn more calories than you consume. Making long-term healthy lifestyle changes will help you keep the weight off longer than a “fad” diet will.
What can you do to maintain a positive body image?
Unfortunately, the cause of a negative body image is not limited to the media and can also stem from comments made by friends and family. You can help by letting others know that their comments are unhelpful, hurtful and not appreciated. You can also ask others to imagine being subjected to the same criticism. While you may benefit from making lifestyle changes to improve your health, you are not obligated to take everyone’s opinions about your body into consideration. It is important to remember that there is a wide range of normal when it comes to your body’s appearance. Breast and labia size varies from woman to woman and these differences are normal. Different women with the exact same BMI can appear totally different in appearance and all be normal.
To focus on body positivity you can start by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Physical activity can help with stress relief, help you sleep, and help ease depression and anxiety. Shifting your values to your achievements, rather than appearance and finding role models and friends with similar values is another excellent way to maintain body positivity. Limiting your daily media consumption can help you make this shift in your self-concept.
Many of the women who participated in the study reported it to be the first time they had ever spoken about their eating difficulties. The road to recovery is easier when you reach out sooner. If you have any concerns, please reach out to someone on your healthcare team. We are here to help you!
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