Kate Upton's curves, Stacy Keibler's abs, Giselle's post-baby bod -- these are some of the latest "top stories" to hit the magazine covers in recent months. With a growing model/celebrity-driven media -- think TMZ, People, US Weekly, Page Six, not to mention the 24/7 buzz of the Internet -- we face a daily onslaught of celebrity "body" news. Open a magazine, switch on your computer or TV and you'll find full-blown discussions over a pound gained here, baby weight lost there, sculpting, toning, and my all-time favorite: the inside scoop on the cellulite of the stars! Just this month, my hometown paper did an article (a "most-read") on a "dimple" on the butt of Victoria's Secret model Candace Swanepoel. Yikes!
I am a realist. I know we live in a highly visual world. People (especially women) are judged as much by their physical appearance as by their capabilities or personality. I don't expect our cultural fascination with beauty (however beauty is defined) to fall out of favor anytime soon. Nor do I think that the occasional perusal of a fashion magazine or gossip site is inherently bad. But is there a downside to this body and weight obsession? Are we putting our health at risk -- mental as well as physical -- by continually focusing on size and shape and buying into an esthetic ideal (something under size 4, if not size 0!) that is not attainable for most women?
I was curious to see what the scientific literature says about the impact this "body blitz" might be having on women. In the last decade, researchers have tried to understand the relationship between media images, body satisfaction, and even eating behaviors.
The findings are fascinating... and in many cases consistent. In one meta-analysis (using data from 25 studies), researchers found that body image was significantly more negative after viewing thin media images than after viewing images of either average size models, plus size models, or inanimate objects. Another study concluded that media exposure can influence body dissatisfaction, aspirations for thinness, as well as disordered eating, particularly for teens and young adults.
I'm not suggesting that we should tune out all celebrity/model-related media. Sometimes looking at fashion and celebrities can simply be fun -- or at least a mindless way to pass the time on a long flight. I think that what's important is that we learn to become critical consumers of the media and put the images that we see into what I like to call a "perspective filter." First, know that much of what we see is big business. Simply put: When it comes to advertising and celebrity imagery, someone is usually trying to sell you something. Most likely they are using manipulated photos and fairy tales to do it. Recently I saw a fragrance ad on TV featuring a gorgeous couple on some dreamy island paradise wearing very skimpy swim attire. Just as this beautiful twosome was about to share "a moment," they cut to a close up of the perfume. The takeaway: Wear this fragrance you'll not only be hot, you'll have a smokin' hot sex partner. There are a million examples of this sort of advertising.
Also remember that many of the celebrity and fashion images that we see show stars and models who have been "beautified" by make up artists, hair stylists, clothing experts, and of course, Photoshop. In most cases we are seeing pictures that are much closer to digital "art" than real life.
I love the idea of a healthy life. For me, this encompasses not only healthy eating, but also a positive body image. A look a the research shows that while there is not a clear link between looking at celebrity-thin actresses and fashion models and eating disorders, there is definitely a correlation (for many women) with increased body dissatisfaction. Being perpetually unhappy with your body, regardless of where you fall on the weight spectrum, is not healthy.
I don't know about you, but rather than spending my days feeling badly about my body or beating myself up over something I ate, I'd rather feel good. As someone who has a pretty-darn positive sense of herself (yes, I'm not afraid to say this, and I wish that more women felt this way too), I will impart to you a few "body happy" secrets that I discovered a long time ago. I'm not advocating these for everyone -- just sharing what works for me:
1. Focus on your awesomeness. Take a cue from Stuart Smalley of Saturday Night Live fame. (You know, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.") How much time do you spend focusing on what you don't like about yourself? Imagine if you took even a fraction of this time to emphasize what you do like.
2. Limit the time you spend with celebrity-centered TV, Internet, and magazines. Again, I'm not saying eliminate... and this may not work for everyone. But based on the research (and certainly from my own personal experience), the less we see of these celebrity-perfect images the happier we'll feel about ourselves. And next time you do flip through the TV channels or celebrity mags, remember that most of what you're seeing is not really real!
3. Free yourself from the opinions of others. Easier said than done... but trust me, this one's a gem. Regardless of what the fashion magazines are saying -- or whether curves are "in" "out" or "in between" -- your body is special and unique. Treat it that way. Celebrate it and love what you've got. There is no such thing as a perfect body, perfect weight, or one-size-fits-all beauty.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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