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Body Image in Perspective

People with negative body images are more likely to join your fitness center - but they're also more likely to leave it.

"How is it that some women who train with me are so confident, even though their bodies are far from perfect? And others seem obsessed with losing weight, and are always talking about how fat they are? I read somewhere that more than half of all adult women are dissatisfied with the way their bodies look. I wonder about the other half? What are the differences? Why do you suppose some people feel at home in their bodies, while others are always at war with theirs?"

Body image means just what it says, the image people have of their bodies. Body image is not just how a person sees her physical appearance, but also includes her judgment of what she sees. This judgment includes how much a person is satisfied with her appearance, along with the emotional experience associated with this judgment. This emotional experience will vary in intensity depending on the extent to which a person values appearance as a measure of self-worth.

People judge themselves by comparing themselves to others. When you compare yourself to someone you feel is better than you, you judge yourself as inferior. When you compare yourself to someone "worse" than you, you feel better about yourself. Unfortunately, when it comes to body image, we often compare ourselves to the bodies we see in the media, and we rarely find that our appearance meets this standard.

Body image contributes to a person's self-esteem. Some people place a great deal of importance on their appearance, and, thus, a negative body image may have a negative effect on self-esteem. Many researchers note the damage that results from negative body image, when women and men experience emotional distress that drives them to waste time worrying about their appearance, and to engage in risky behaviors as they attempt to change their appearance. These behaviors include harmful weight-control measures such as drug abuse, smoking and purging behaviors, such as vomiting. Many eating disorders begin with a negative body image that evolves into obsessions with food and weight.

Is negative body image good for business?

A desire to improve appearance may bring clients to the fitness center, but a negative body image may also lead to early drop-out. Clients begin a new exercise program full of hope and resolve, but those who are unable to manage negative emotions and stress are more likely to discontinue their programs. Sticking to an exercise program takes a great deal of self-control and organization. Clients who feel stressed and negative have a harder time summoning the energy to face their reflections at the fitness center.

Most fitness professionals aim to encourage a productive concern for healthy weight in their clients, and to help them focus on a healthful lifestyle. Unfortunately, some clients with negative body images will use your words to feed their body wars. Guide your discussions in positive directions, and emphasize the process (healthy diet and exercise programs) rather than an unrealistic product (an unachievable perfect body).

Physical activity often improves body image

Now for the good news: Participation in physical activity may improve body image. Many clients lose a little weight or improve muscle tone, which enhances physical appearance. However, this improvement in body image often occurs with no apparent change in physical appearance. How can this be? People who participate in regular exercise may begin to appreciate their bodies in new ways. They may feel stronger, more confident, have better posture or be proud of themselves for sticking to their exercise programs. Athletes who achieve performance goals, such as completing a race or enjoying sport competition, feel good about their accomplishments. People who exercise regularly may feel less stressed and more energetic, and have reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.
Agras, S.W., S. Bryson, L.D. Hammer and H.C. Kraemer. Childhood risk factors for thin body preoccupation and social pressure to be thin. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 46 (2): 171-178, 2007.
Choate, L.H. Toward a theoretical model of women's body image resilience. Journal of Counseling and Development 63 (3), 320-331, 2005.
Grabe, S., J.S. Hyde and S.M. Lindberg. Body objectification and depression in adolescents: The role of gender, shame and rumination. Psychology of Women Quarterly 31 (2): 164-175, 2007.
Tiggemann, M., and A. Slater. Thin ideals in music television: A source of social comparison and body dissatisfaction. International Journal of Eating Disorders 35 (1): 48-58, 2004.
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