I recently attended the "Appearance Matters" Conference at the University of Bristol, which heightened my knowledge of the research behind self confidence and physical appearance. Within my role at Edinburgh Leisure, I feel we do a great job targeting teenage girls, and vulnerable young people to help them improve confidence within the realm of health and physical activity, but also to teach understanding of general confidence and build self esteem.
The Health 4U Program targets third year girls and teaches various components of health and wellbeing as well as communication, dealing with stress, mental health, photoshopping, energy balance etc. I believe its a great tool for young people to have a better understanding of these components and learn in an interactive way. During the lessons, we use some videos created by the Dove Self Esteem Project.
Thirteen million young people reached through the Dove Self Esteem program, with providing education to help build self esteem. I also use the videos for psychology particulary when working with coaches on building self confidence and helping them understand some of the issues that young people may face. The presenter from the Dove Project noted:
Only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful.
9/10 would change something about themselves
6/10 opt out of activity because of body image
These startling figures makes me even more keen to try to teach young people about self acceptance and feeling good about themselves. In a world were society defines what is beautiful, and what is normal, its even more important to teach young people to love themselves for being themselves. The thin ideal is hard to obtain and can lead to maladaptive perfectionism as these ideals are unrealistic, and when people cannot obtain them, and their self confidence comes from their appearance, then they will rarely have the feeling of self satisfaction. The Dove Project use fortune cookies with self esteem messages in them, and I received one of my favorite quotes.Check out their website for more information and great resources for working with young people about self esteem and body image.
Most of the time, we think about negative body image, and how people feel negatively about themselves. How can we encourage a positive body image rather just eradicating the negative? When a person has positive body image, they have an appreciation for their body which led to health related behaviours. I find that with my psychology I try to promote individuals strengths, rather than just working on how we can improve their weaknesses. Therefore, by knowing what a positive body image, we can find ways to teach young people how to have confidence and have positive body image, rather than just helping those with severe negative body image.
Promote a positive body image by:
Also, in line with my approach to psychology, would be looking at body image in line with goal setting, One study examined the motivation and goals for body image, and compared the differences between those with health goals and those with appearance goals. Those who had appearance goals had a feeling of "have to" and a feeling of pressure to look a certain way. This promoted guilt and shame, and could become maladaptive. This is my fear for those purely wanting to lose weight to look a certain way. What happens when you weigh what you want to weigh? Will you feel good about yourself? Will that make you a better person? Will it be healthy?
Those who have health goals feel like they 'want' to be healthy, and health is a personal importance to them rather than a need. They are motivated internally, and living a healthy life is just part of their every day. Having the 'want to' feeling is more adaptive and can result in more self satisfaction. Those with "health goals" were more likely to engage in healthy eating, and decreased binge-eating, whereas those with "appearance goals" were motivated by drive for thinness and engaged in binge eating.
Health and becoming healthy, to most people, would be mainly eating better and exercising. And usually for the most part, the people I know see it as cutting calories and losing weight. To me, there are four aspects of health: physical, social, emotional and mental and I believe all are linked.
When January rolls around, it's the kick start to the year and people quickly address the physical side. Facebook statuses and tweets are about going to the gym, being starving and eating no more chocolate. The gyms are chaos, and you are lucky if you get yourself on a treadmill. The other day, I heard a woman say, "I can't wait until February so the new year resolution people stop coming!" Is she right? How many of us kick start the year with a health kick? And how many of us end the year with a blow out?
To me, it's not about dieting. It's not about starving yourself for part of the year. It's not about letting your weight continually yo yo. It's about having a healthy lifestyle that's just part of your day to day. It's not about restricting one type of food: chocolate, carbs, fats. Sometimes people even restrict food: baby food diet, water diet, detox diet. Our bodies need a balanced diet but not a diet diet. We must fuel our bodies enough to function. Our bodies are just like a car. If we don't put petrol in, how can you expect the car to go anywhere?
Nevertheless, it does make me happy that people have a fitness focus for the start of the year. And I hope that people maintain it. Not the obsessing over calories or the things they can't have, but to enjoy fitness, and have it as part of their daily living.
As part of your daily living, exercise and eating healthy adds to other aspects of health. It can help you have routine. It can help you have a focus. It helps promote self esteem. How good does it feel when you have had a stretch of eating well and working out? However, when it becomes obsessive, we start to stress our bodies out. We start to isolate the one aspect of health and forget about other ones eg socializing, interacting with others, being happy. And we rely on 'getting thin' to be happy. Does having a slim waist line change the person you are? Does it make you a better person? Yes it shows you are a person who has stuck to routine, challenged yourself and had a focus. However, when our self esteem relies on what weight we are, then I believe this to be a problem. We need to first and foremost, look at ourselves and our character. That we will always have. Underneath the skin, and muscle. Are we good people? Are we caring? Are we kind? Are we good friends?
So when we choose exercise for losing a few pounds, we can often feel bad when this doesn't happen, when we put weight back on or when we never reach the weight we want to. This hurts our self esteem. Especially if we have unrealistic expectations.
By making exercise and healthy eating about being healthy and a daily routine, we allow it to happen naturally. We can lose the obsession with numbers of calories and pound, and merely live a healthy lifestyle in moderation.
Some people do need to have a little more structure. A plan to when they are working out, perhaps keeping a food diary, or use a fitness app. There are many resources out there to help you plan your work outs, help you understand what you should be eating but the way we explain to our kids - it's all about energy balance. We want to balance out what we put in, and the activities that we do.
Fitness and exercise should be for life. A part of your everyday. Just something you do. For health. Not just for shedding pounds. For feeling good. For releasing good hormones. For socialising. For being happy. For knowing that if we put good things in your body, we can feel good.
So here is to healthy choices and living a healthy life rather than dieting and starving ourselves.
Tracy Donachie, MSc in Performance Psychology.