Building positive body image in the information age

(Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health)

Woman looking in a mirror

In a world bombarded with messages and images about ‘perfect’ bodies, how can we help women to love their bodies?

Body image is how you think and feel about your physical self. And it’s not a new concept. Throughout time, humans have been compelled to judge themselves through comparison with others.

From childhood through to adolescence and adulthood, your body shape changes. So can your body image. This can be influenced by not only your health and personality, but external factors such as media, society and culture.

In the information age, every person every day receives on average 105,000 words of communication through media, internet and mobile phones apps. Add images and graphics to that, and each person is exposed to around 34Gb (gigabytes) of information a day – enough to overload a laptop within a week.

All this information can affect body image and behaviour, and often in a negative way. Having a poor body image can diminish your self-esteem and, in turn, your self-care.

In contrast, having a healthy body image means feeling comfortable about your body, which can help you to maintain good health.

An image-driven world

Jean Hailes ambassador and founder of the Wheel Women social and recreational women’s cycling group, Tina McCarthy, says social media has enabled “the everyday person” to have a voice and influence, “whereas it was previously in the hands of big companies with big advertising budgets”.

While that is often a good thing, other times it gives a platform to “the social media influencer, frequently unqualified in health, but happy to spruik wellness and beauty messages to highly impressionable followers,” says Ms McCarthy.

“And the problem is that what’s capturing people’s imagination is not important in the scheme of things,” she says.

Trends such as the objectification of women (eg, the ‘pornification’ of social media – where images are increasingly sexual), and celebration of skinny bodies are worrisome developments in the world of social media and can worsen a negative body image, says Ms McCarthy.

“But it’s difficult to tell women to just ‘get over it’, especially when there is so much pressure to look a certain way in this modern world,” she says.

Snippets of the real world

Ms McCarthy says Wheel Women aims to improve women’s body image by showing that women of all shapes, sizes and levels of fitness can ride a bike, and as much as what suits them.

“In between the ‘snippets of perfection’ on Instagram, we are showing ‘snippets of the real world’ – and this is a powerful message,” says Ms McCarthy.

“We are about providing a non-judgemental place for women to do what they can manage – whether that be one ride per month or one ride per week.”

Ms McCarthy is also an ambassador of ‘This Girl Can – Victoria’, a State government campaign that celebrates and supports Victorian women embracing physical activity in a way that suits the individual.

The message for both Wheel Women and This Girl Can – Victoria is “just go out and have a go; you don’t have to be perfect,” says Ms McCarthy.

“If you are loving what you are doing, you will do more of it, and your happiness and inner glow will radiate.”

The inner self-critical voice

Jean Hailes psychologist Gillian Needleman says that body image is the voice of negative criticism.

“Unfortunately, humans are hardwired to the primitive self-critical voice – it is an automatic thought,” Ms Needleman says.

As that voice won’t ever go away, we need to challenge our self-criticism and learn how to manage it.

“If we lose the strength of conviction and belief around the self-criticism, we can reduce its power,” she says.

First and foremost, you need to see your body as more than just your ‘casing’ or physical appearance, says Ms Needleman.

Your body is the result of many factors, such as genetics, environment, diet, exercise, type of work, if you have had children and how many. It is important to reaffirm that you are more than the sum of your physical parts.

“We are not one dimensional, yet negative body image forces us to view our body in this manner,”  Ms Needleman says.

“Looking at your body and the role it plays for you as a functioning, complex entity is a great way to start to challenge the critical voice.

“The more you accept your body, the kinder you are to it – and this is beneficial for overall health and wellbeing as it will impact how you treat it.”

Modelling positive body image

The following mantras may be useful for minimising negative body image:

1. Right here, right now

  • Take me as I am
  • I am doing my best for now and I will continue to try to maintain my health.

2. Body appreciation

  • My body is a complex entity that does many things.

3. Wellbeing rather than looks

  • My health is the most important thing
  • I have so much more to offer the world than my looks.

4. Self-love

  • My body is my friend
  • I accept myself as I am.

Ms Needleman says another way to gently shift the mindset is to write three gratitude statements each day, noting down what you have appreciated about your body.

She says remembering that “no one is perfect” is also a simple but important way to remind yourself to be kind to yourself.

Find more information about body image.

A healthy eating plan that’s right for you   

(Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health)

a sandwich

Healthy eating can seem confusing. In the media, there seems to be a constant battle between what we should and shouldn’t be putting on our plate. Whether it’s for health, weight loss or both, history is peppered with culinary conflict.
However, a familiar pattern keeps repeating – a particular food or food group is considered the ‘problem’; and limiting or excluding it from our diets is the ‘solution’.

Accredited Practising Dietitian Ms Kim Menzies says that over the decades, the ‘problem’ food or food group has changed from one to another.

“Thirty years ago, it was fat. Then it was sugar,” she says. “Now, it is foods high in carbohydrates that are being ‘demonised’.

“We live in a society where diet is based around this black or white thinking. There is no middle ground and that is concerning.”

Decoding diet differences

There’s healthy eating – and then there’s fad diets. Some of today’s popular diets have a common thread of strictly limiting the intake of carbohydrates or particular food groups – these range from the ketogenic (or keto) diet to low-carb and paleo diets.

The paleo diet focuses on unprocessed foods and is high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, meats, fish and naturally-derived fats.

On the paleo ‘no-go’ list are grains. This includes wholegrains (such as rice, oats, barley) and other grain products (breads, biscuits and flour-based foods). Other foods not allowed are all dairy products and legumes, such as beans, chickpeas and lentils – which Ms Menzies notes are a great source of not just carbohydrates, but protein and other important nutrients.

The keto diet, on the other hand, strictly limits the amount of carbohydrate consumed so that the body goes into a state known as ketosis.

“Ketosis occurs when the body does not have access to [the sugar known as] glucose,” says Ms Menzies. “Glucose is derived from carbohydrates and is the brain’s primary and preferred energy source.

“It takes 3-5 days of following the diet for the body to transition into ketosis. But because the body’s preferred source for energy is glucose, it means you need to be really clear on the amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrates being eaten [to stay in it]. That’s why it’s a very strict diet.”

Generally, 60-85% of your daily calories on the keto diet come from fat, 20-25% come from protein, and what’s left comes from carbs – usually around 20-50 grams. One slice of bread or one small potato or ½ cup of cooked pasta is equal to about 15g of carbohydrate.

This means that your day is primarily fuelled with fat and protein-based foods such as butter, eggs, meats, seafood, avocado and full-fat cheese, cream and yoghurt.

Low-carb fruits and vegetables such a green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower and berries are permitted in the keto diet. However, higher carbohydrate foods such as potato, sweet potato, corn, most fruits, milk, bread, biscuits and pastries are avoided to stay within the ketogenic state.

Can you commit?

If you’re aiming to lose weight through any diet change, Ms Menzies advises asking yourself this all-important question – can you see yourself still on this diet in three months’ time?

“If you’re unsure or the answer is ‘no’ then any weight loss that’s been achieved through the diet will probably return, plus more,” she says.

“This is particularly the case if the new diet involves an extreme change to your normal eating pattern.”

“It’s highly likely there will be a fair bit of weight loss initially, but on the reintroduction of carbohydrates [or if you stop the fad diet], any excess energy consumed will be stored and we’re going to see weight gain.”

“The body compensates to prevent ‘a famine’ occurring again, protecting itself by storing more weight.”

Research: the long and short of it

While there is good evidence that limiting carbohydrates and following a paleo or keto diet can result in initial weight loss, these results only tell part of the story.

There aren’t many high-quality research trials that look at their long-term weight-loss success, says Ms Menzies.

“That’s because, in terms of the keto diet, there is such great variation in what is defined as a ‘keto diet’, but also because people drop out of the studies because they can’t stick to it,” she says.

It is also unclear how these diets are impacting other parts of our health in the long-term.

“What is this doing to our bodies? In the whole area of gut flora – we just don’t know,” says Ms Menzies.

Furthermore, research shows that the weight-loss results of a low-carb, high-fat diet compared to a low-fat, high-carb diet are quite similar – potentially suggesting neither of these nutrients were a ‘problem food’ to begin with.

The ripple effect

Another important factor to consider with these type of diets is what Ms Menzies calls the ‘ripple effect’, as a sudden and strict change to eating habits does not come without complications.

Does the new diet mean you no longer eat what your family eats? Do you need separate meals? Can you afford a diet that focuses more on expensive items such as meat, butter and eggs and one that forgoes cheaper foods such as legumes, fruits and vegetables?

“For the keto diet particularly, there can be stress involved in trying follow it; recording your food, understanding the percentages,” says Ms Menzies.

“Eating out or sharing a meal with friends can also be hard because the strictness of the diet limits the diversity of food choices.”

It’s therefore important to consider that food is more than nutrients on a plate. It’s often one of the ways we enjoy time with family and friends, how we connect with others and the world around us.

A way of eating that works for you

The Mediterranean diet is one such way of eating that provides good nutrition, has no strict rules, and is easy to stick to.

It’s also backed by solid long-term evidence that it can reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and various cancers, as well as prevent memory decline and aid weight loss.

“The Mediterranean diet does not limit fat, but focuses on unsaturated fats – the ‘healthy fats’. It includes wholegrains, dairy and a wide range of foods,” says Ms Menzies.

Rather than excluding certain foods or food groups, the focus of the Mediterranean diet is what you should eat more of. And importantly, that food is also a celebration, a way of connecting to others – where rules and guilt don’t apply.

If you’re trying to eat healthier, it often comes down to what works for you on a daily basis, as well as long-term. That will be different for every woman, and also likely to change not just with the seasons, but your life stage.

So, if you’re trying to eat healthier foods, don’t forget the importance of also nurturing a healthy relationship with food; one ruled by calm and connection – not conflict.

Find more information on healthy eating plans.