| Mirror, mirror, on the wall

A critical look at our socially constructed physical ideals

Facebook tells me I’m fat almost everyday. Or at least, that is how it makes me feel.

Call it lack of self-confidence or a distorted body image, but with the constant bombardment of advertising for “Oprah’s miracle acai diet” or ways to cut down the flab on my mid-section, I can’t help but feel like there’s something I need to improve. As a result, I end up spending altogether too much time scrutinizing myself in the mirror.

According to the Wardenburg Health Centre at the University of Colorado, women overestimate the size of their hips by 16 per cent and their waists by 25 per cent, but the same women can correctly estimate the width of a box.

Yet women are not the only ones who struggle with the way they look, or how society tells them to look. The same study from the Wardenburg Health Centre discovered that one out of four men is on a diet at any given time, compared to one in three women.

Most people – both men and women – have things about themselves that they would change if they had the chance. Dr. Kim Gammage, Associate Professor of Physical Education and Kinesiology at Brock University, said that this need to perfect ourselves relates to society’s normative gender ideals and how many of us strive to fulfil them.

“There are a couple of major differences between men and women,” said Gammage. “First, the ideal is different: for women it is thin, toned, not too muscular, and young. For men, the ideal is muscular, with a V-shaped torso, broad shoulders, narrow waist. Women tend to be more concerned with the lower body – hips, thighs, buttocks – while men tend to be more concerned with the upper body – chest, arms, back.”

Gammage added that the other major difference between men and women’s bodily self-perceptions is the direction of dissatisfaction.

“Women pretty consistently want to be thinner than they are and often will overestimate their body size, while men are more equally divided between wanting to be thinner and wanting to be bigger, more muscular,” she said, noting that such differences impact the ways that men and women attempt to control their bodies.

“Women are more likely to use diet – dietary restraint [or even] eating disorders – to achieve the ideal. Men are more likely to use exercise… [or] use steroids and supplements,” Gammage said.

Women, as it seems, are fuelling the $40-billion diet industry, which includes diet food, drugs, and special programs. I’ll admit it – I, too, have been guilty of trying fad diets in place of just eating healthier or exercising more. The problem is that for many students who juggle work, education, and a social life, it’s just easier to pop a fat burner after lunch than to go to the gym. As I can attest, the results are certainly faster than working out three times a week, but I quickly began to understand that I was doing damage to my body.

Gammage argued that supplements and fad-diets can lead to a slew of physical and mental problems.

“From a body image perspective, any extreme dieting can be dangerous, [but] from a physical perspective, [quick-fix products] don’t give the body all the nutrients it needs. From a more psychological perspective, it can lead to feelings of deprivation, which can lead to binging,” she said. “Also, if people attempt to diet to lose weight and fail, it can lead to poor body image, depression, anxiety, etcetera.”

So why do we continue to purchase the latest diet aids or starve ourselves for months before a bikini-clad reading week? We all know how we should be living a healthy lifestyle, but many of us just can’t seem to follow through.

For Gammage, it is not about education, but rather our own behaviours.

“I think in most health matters, education is not the problem. You would be hard-pressed to find people who didn’t know they should exercise, not smoke, eat low-fat, etcetera, and yet they still do not follow through with [healthy] behaviours,” she said, adding that people’s attitudes toward certain behaviours or the attitudes of friends and family are often more important than simply the knowledge of healthy habits.

Dr. Brian Roy, also an Associate Professor of Physical Education and Kinesiology at Brock, believes the school system is implicated in creating the diet craze.

“I feel that not enough attention is paid to health in both primary and secondary school. Much more time is spent on math, history, and English, as compared to the single largest expense of the provincial government: health,” he said. “If people were better educated in the area of health, perhaps the costs of health care would be reduced. Curricula should include more emphasis on health and healthy living.”

While there is little that can be said or done to change the way people think of their bodies, Roy noted that there are small, relatively easy things that each of us can do to improve on a basic level of health.

“Things such as sleep, diet, and physical activity are all very important in contributing to health,” Roy said. “Time management is [also] a key skill that is necessary to facilitate health, and allows for adequate amounts of sleep.”

So, next time you log on to Facebook and Kim Kardashian is staring you in the face, promoting the latest celebrity diet, try to not to reach for the measuring tape. Turn off the computer and get some shut- eye instead.