It seems that we are living in a society where it is becoming increasingly difficult to discuss certain issues for fear of offending someone. Yet, some of these issues need to be discussed.
Body shape is one of those issues.
Mission Australia’s National Youth Survey (1), for the last few years, shows that body image is amongst the top three concerns for young people. And it's no surprise either when you consider that according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), body or fat shaming is, in fact, the number 1 form of cyber bullying (2).
The issues around poor body image need to be addressed!
Thankfully there have been many steps taken to do this, including using models of all shapes, using untouched images as well as stating if they have been edited, and since early this year, Barbie dolls now even come in four different body shapes, including tall, petite and curvy.
What concerns me though, despite these efforts, is that the focus is taken off health, including mental health and appears to place our worth on our body shape.
And while statements like ‘loving your body’ are fantastic, there is so much more to a person to love than just their body.
We like different people for different reasons. We love them for their:
- Great sense of humour
- Loyalty and compassion
- Just being fun to be around
- Great communication
- Intelligence and creativity
The list goes on and on.
But in our ‘insta’ and ‘snapchat’ world, it is the physical image that is in the forefront and in real life it is the first impression we have of someone until we get to know a person as well. Which makes it both a target for ridicule and an inspiration to work towards.
But at what expense?
We seem to have become good at pointing the finger at people who have different body shapes, eat differently and have different exercise habits to us. If exercise and having a balanced diet is part of our lives, we may be frowned upon by people who do not exercise. Those that do not exercise and are overweight may be body shamed and ridiculed by those that do.
And then we go silent. Better not say anything as it might offend them and what they think of their body. It is this silence that causes problems, both for eating disorders and chronic diseases.
We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), chronic disease is Australia’s biggest health challenge. The four major disease groups are:
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
The four main common risk factors for these are:
- Physical inactivity
- Poor nutrition
- Harmful use of alcohol
These are all lifestyle risks and we have some control over these. The AIHW also notes that mental health related issues cause a significant amount of ill health and disability in the Australian population (3).
What we look like has taken priority over our physical and mental health.
We need to look after ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally. If we ignore the physical consequences of a high percentage of body fat, we risk developing the chronic illnesses mentioned above. The main indicator of cardiovascular disease is a high level of low-density lipids (LDL) or ‘bad’ cholesterol, low levels of high-density lipids (HDL) or ‘good’ cholesterol and high levels of triglycerides.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Health Survey, Biomedical Results for Chronic Diseases:
- These combinations are more likely found in people who are obese than those who are normal or underweight (36.2% compared to 14.1%)
- The risk of high blood pressure, blocked arteries, angina, heart attack (ischaemic heart disease) and stroke is increased.
- In 2011, 14.6% of all deaths registered in Australia can be attributed to ischaemic heart disease and it was the leading cause of death.
- Carrying excess body fat also interferes with the body’s production of insulin as well as its resistance to it. Obese adults are 7 times as likely to develop diabetes than those of normal weight (4).
On the other hand, being extremely underweight also has serious physical health consequences:
- Increased risk of osteoporosis due to loss of bone density
- Increased risk of heart failure due to abnormally low heart rate and low blood pressure
- Muscle loss and slowed metabolism
- Hormone disturbances and in females, loss of menses
- Fatigue and overall weakness
- Dehydration which can result in kidney failure
- Drying hair and skin
- Loss of cranial hair
- Development of fine layer of body hair in an effort to sustain warmth
To complicate things, both overweight and underweight people, and anyone in between could suffer from an eating disorder. These are serious mental health issues, where negative thought patterns about one’s worth manifest into destructive behaviours around food and exercise.
According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, the suicide rate amongst those that suffer from anorexia nervosa is higher than any other psychiatric illness (5).
The physical health consequences of bulimia nervosa, where in many cases the sufferer appears to have normal body weight, include:
- Risk of heart failure due to irregular heart beats caused by electrolyte imbalances
- Possible rupture of the oesophagus due to inflammation from frequent vomiting
- Tooth decay and staining
- Callous knuckles
- Stomach ulcers
- Irregular bowel movements
The sad part is, that for those that suffer from eating disorders, whether it be anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, muscle dysmorphia, or any other form of obsessive behaviour associated with diet and exercise, that their physical, social and emotional health is compromised. It becomes of secondary importance to adhering to strict regimes.
Does this suggest that we see and judge ourselves according to what we look like?
If so, what further damage are we doing by judging others according to their body shape? Are those with excessive diet and exercise behaviours hiding behind the notion that it’s ‘all in the name of health’?
Are those that do not take note of what they eat, never exercise and are overweight, hiding behind ‘I am happy with my body’ and not concerned with the consequences of health?
The reality is, all of these scenarios ignore HEALTH but instead are concerned only with BODY SHAPE.
To remain silent either way is also to ignore a person’s physical, mental, emotional and social health. To remain silent gives a sufferer of deeper issues a reason to not seek help. To keep criticising and shaming each other for what we do or don’t around food and exercise issues is not helping.
The real focus should be on our health and on balance so that no areas of our lives are compromised.