The Body Image Trap

October 14, 2022

Tad Taggart

As soon as I "lose these last x pounds" or "fit into size x pants" or "look like x" or "have six-pack abs", then I will be happy and confident in my body.

Do you feel like your life is on hold until you reach that particular body goal? You’re not alone – the lines between an individual’s body, body image, nutrition, and overall happiness blur all too often. At this point, we are conditioned to accept that a person’s body shape and size are entirely dependent upon they way they eat and exercise. Generally, the train of thought is often as follows:

1. If I eat and exercise just right, I can get the ‘perfect’ body.

2. Once I have the ‘perfect’ body, I will feel confident and secure in my body.

3. Once I feel confident and secure in my body, I will always be happy (because I’ll be more attractive to others, my spouse will love me more, I’ll be better at my job, I’ll be a better athlete, etc.)

4. To conclude, if I eat and exercise just right, I will always be happy (because I’ll be more attractive to others, my spouse will love me more, I’ll be better at my job, I’ll be a better athlete, etc.)

Unfortunately, to draw such a conclusion is a stark example of a logical fallacy known as a "non sequitur”. In other words, just because A=B and B=C, that does not mean that A=C. Or, in the example above, just because we assume 1=2, and 2=3, that does not mean that 1=3 (as demonstrated in #4). Number 4 sounds extreme, but it isn’t far from the promise of many diet-fads and weight loss infomercials. The messaging typically circles back to “You’re unhappy because you’re fat. If you’re not fat, you’ll be happy” which, by the way, this is another a logical fallacy known as “affirming the consequent”; just because A=B, that doesn’t mean B=A. To be clear, though, I don’t believe or endorse any of the messaging shared above related to eating, training, or striving for a particular body ideal. These statements rely on a number of faulty presumptions about your ability to change your body, your body image, and how these things truly influence your overall wellbeing.

Ultimately, the key presumption upon which these arguments rest is that your body image (or perception and satisfaction with your body) relies solely on the shape of your body and your ability to change it. If you were told your entire life that you had the ability (or even responsibility) to change your body, then it seems a no-brainer for you to assume that you are the only thing getting in your own way of being happy. But what if your unhappiness with your body size or shape isn’t because of the size or shape it actually is but rather because you have been told it “should” be a certain size or shape? Your dissatisfaction isn’t with the inherent shape of your body, it is with how it compares to the ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ body; if it doesn’t measure up, you feel like you’re falling short. For example, if you got a B on a test and knew that an A is a higher grade, of course you’d be disappointed. If you instead were focused on the work put into achieving the B and ignored that the A is the ‘ideal’, you may find more contentment in the grade you received, particularly since both are still a ‘passing’ grade.

Back to body image. Let’s further explore the idea of rooting our confidence in how our body looks. What about the physical outliers? Those that have limbs or other body parts that are different, nonfunctional, or missing altogether. How does their body image fit in with the narrative of “change your body to fit the ideal if you want to be happy?” These individuals are forced to face the reality of their body and that it will never fit the so-called “ideal”. But does this mean these individuals are the body image exception? Or that their approach to body image should be radically different than everyone else? Not really; at some point or another, we will all have to face the reality that our control over our body, how it looks and how it functions, is not entirely in our control. Even the most educated and diligent health and fitness experts cannot stop time from marching on. Eventually, your body will change and you will need to decide how you’re going to handle that. Even famed fitness guru Bob Harper thought he had fitness and health figured out until he suffered a massive heart attack.

To fully understand my point, you must fundamentally understand that body image (how we feel about and perceive our body) has two primary components. First, body image is what we actually see in the mirror - the reality of the physical form we face. Most people are familiar with this component of body image. The second, and arguably more powerful, component of body image is what we think and feel about the undeniable physical form. To look at our own body in the mirror and to perceive it as different than it actually appears is quite common. Many people struggle with seeing themselves as being skinnier, fatter, taller, or shorter than they actually are. Whether this perception is true or not, few are able to look in the mirror and feel that their body perfectly aligns with what culture would consider the “ideal” body. As a result, many people feel dissatisfied with their body and the perceived imperfections separating them from said “ideal” body. This ability to misrepresent the reality of our body and set unrealistic expectations exemplifies the power of how we perceive the body we are living in, regardless of how it actually looks. How you choose to see your body and how you choose to react to that perception is more profoundly impactful on your emotional state than the actual physical shape in the mirror. Further, ongoing shame or dissatisfaction in your body could perpetuate a variety of health issues. In fact, the very same health issues that are typically associated with being “overweight” are actually known to be caused and aggravated by stress from body shame.

Further flaw in the train of thought is revealed through our limited control over the shape and function of our body. No matter how many “good” foods you eat and how many “bad” foods you avoid, your body will continue to change. Further, our genetics, environment, socioeconomic status, and much, much more can have an even greater influence over our health and body size than our nutrition or fitness ever will. This means that point #1 (If I eat and exercise just right, I can get the ‘perfect’ body) is a flimsy foundation for the argument that nutrition and fitness can really lead to you feeling confident and happy with your body. At least, not permanently. Even more so, that foundation will crumble if your confidence is based entirely in how your body compares to the supposed “ideal”. No amount of “clean” eating can fix how you see and feel about your body.

Can embarking on a fitness journey be incredibly empowering? Absolutely. Can changing your diet to better support your physical health also result in mental health benefits. For sure. But (and this is a big but!) if the aim of achieving a particular physical change in your body is the primary driver of these changes, you’ll ultimately be disappointed. Either you will be disappointed and defeated when you never attain that goal (and maybe even say screw it to your whole health journey), or you may get near that goal, only to find that the satisfaction of reaching for this goal was overinflated and fleeting. Don’t believe me? Here’s a testimony from a personal trainer on her experience competing in bodybuilding and how it didn’t improve her body image as she anticipated.

And maybe you’re reading this and thinking “I am perfectly content with my body as it is, right now.” That’s great! I only implore you to question where this contentment comes from. Is it because you “check all the boxes” of fitness and nutrition to keep your body as close to the ideal as possible, or does your contentment derive from the inherent value your body holds? Can you be satisfied in the fact that your body is functional enough to be living today, reading this article? If you can say yes to the latter, I would say you’ve found a more solid foundation of positive body image, rooted in a strong sense of gratitude. If your answer more aligns with the former, you may find that this form of “positive body image” is vulnerable to times in your life where your body may feel like it is betraying you. Where it will gain or lose weight, despite your best efforts. Where it will be injured, change, or breakdown. Though it may not be pleasant to consider, that day where your body doesn’t do exactly as you wish will certainly come.

As you read this, I hope this doesn’t prevent you from pursuing a new health or fitness journey. The aim is for you to evaluate your goals and ensure that the goals you pursue will truly result in you feeling better, physically and mentally. My encouragement is this: to approach a health or fitness goal with a sense of gratitude towards your body, rather than a sense of shame. This will grant you the freedom to accept the unchangeable, find joy in the mundane aspects of health and fitness, and allow for room to discover authentic passion in the health and fitness journey rather than the destination.

Comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t try to live someone else’s life or satisfy someone else’s expectations. Life your best life, and live it for yourself.

To put this message into practice, I propose a new thought process as to how you can approach body image, fitness, and nutrition:

1. I will move my body in a way I enjoy so that I continue to feel inspired to do so.

2. As I continue to move my body, I will need to fuel and nourish it. I will choose foods that are nourishing for my body (nutrient-dense) and foods that nourish my soul (foods I crave).

3. As I nourish my body and soul, I will feel physically and mentally better, gaining an appreciation and gratitude for the life my body allows me to live.

4. Through the way I nourish and care for my body, I enhance my overall wellbeing, increasing my gratitude for my body and desire to care for and nourish it.

Notice the cyclical nature of these processes? It’s called a spiral of health and healing, and it’s a great place to be.

References:
1. Muennig, P. The body politic: the relationship between stigma and obesity-associated disease. BMC Public Health 8, 128 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-8-128
2. Fiscella, K., & Williams, D. R. (2004). Health disparities based on socioeconomic inequities: Implications for Urban Health Care. Academic Medicine, 79(12), 1139–1147. https://doi.org/10.1097/00001888-200412000-00004.
3. Baum, C. L., & Ruhm, C. J. (2009). Age, socioeconomic status and obesity growth. Journal of Health Economics, 28(3), 635–648. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhealeco.2009.01.004
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