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The Perception Of Our Body Image Is One Of The Strongest Predictors Of Our Health

These days, it is not unusual for girls as young as age 8 to try to emulate the look of fashion models and Hollywood stars--a trend that may be linked to eating disorders not only in young children, but later in life. Parents, the media, and society in general play a huge role in shaping our perception of our body image. The way we experience the internal state of our body also influences how we perceive our body from the outside, as for example in the mirror, and it may be the biggest predictor of our health.

In one study to examine the impact of desired body weight on the number of unhealthy days subjects report over one month, researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health found that the desire to weigh less was a more accurate predictor of physically and mentally unhealthy days, than body mass index (BMI). In addition, the desire to lose weight was more predictive of unhealthy days among women than among men.

"Our data suggest that some of the obesity epidemic may be partially attributable to social constructs that surround ideal body types," said Peter Muennig, MD, MPH, Mailman School of Public Health assistant professor of Health Policy and Management. "Younger persons, Whites, and women are disproportionately affected by negative body image concerns, and these groups unduly suffer from BMI-associated morbidity and mortality."

Approximately 66% of the more than 150,000 U.S. adults studied wanted to lose weight, and about 26% were satisfied with their current weight. With respect to BMI, 41% of normal weight people, 20% of overweight people, and 5% of obese people were happy with their weight. Older persons were also more likely to feel positively about their weight than were younger persons. However, in all models, perceived difference was a stronger predictor than was BMI of mentally and physically unhealthy days.

The researchers emphasize that there is a large body of evidence suggesting that social stress adversely affects mental health as well as physical health. "Our findings confirmed that there was a positive relationship between a person's actual weight and his or her desired weight and health, be it physical or mental," observed Dr. Muennig.

Dr Manos Tsakiris from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway says: "We perceive our own bodies in many different ways. We can look at our bodies, feel touch on our bodies, and also feel our body from within, such as when we experience our hearts racing or butterflies in our stomachs. It seems that a stable perception of the body from the outside, what is known as "body image," is partly based on our ability to accurately perceive our body from within, such as our heartbeat."

Psychologists measured how good people are at feeling their body from within by asking them to count their heartbeats over a few minutes. They then measured how good people are at perceiving their own body-image from the outside by using a procedure that tricks them into feeling that a fake, rubber hand is their own hand.

Looking at a rubber hand being touched at the same time as one's own unseen hand creates the illusion that the rubber hand is part of one's body. The less accurate people were in monitoring their heartbeat, the more they were influenced by the illusion. The study shows for first time that there may be a strong link between how we experience our body from within and how we perceive it from the outside.

Both boys and girls who say that their fathers are concerned with their weight are more than twice as likely to become constant dieters compared with their peers, one year later. Boys and girls who report that their mother was constantly dieting were also more likely to become concerned with their own weight and diet frequently.

"The weight-related issues of parents are transmitted to their children, therefore it is important that parents remind themselves that they serve as role models and therefore should attempt to adopt the diet and activity patterns they would like their children to emulate," Field said in an interview with Reuters Health. "Parents should try to refrain from making negative comments about their weight and the weights of others."

Messages About Exercise May Backfire

Although well-intentioned, exercise promotion may have the unintended side effect of making women more dissatisfied with their bodies--possibly raising their risk of eating disorders, researchers suggested in a 2001 report in the
Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

In a study that followed US college seniors in an exercise promotion program, the investigators found that the program appeared to increase women's "drive for thinness," but did nothing to improve their dissatisfaction with their bodies. These women ended up being more likely than female students not in the program to agree with statements such as "I feel terrified of gaining weight."

"These results suggest that physical activity interventions may have some negative consequences of increasing concerns about thinness in women," Marion F. Zabinski and her colleagues at San Diego State University in California write in the November issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

This unintended effect, they note, arose despite the fact that the program was designed to help prevent dieting and obsession with over-eating, and instead promote realistic fitness goals and the "importance of self-acceptance."

Mirror Fasting

Dr Phillippa Diedrichs, a research psychologist at the Centre for Appearance Research in Bristol, pinpoints an increased pressure in our society to look a certain way as the reason why people go to extreme measures to avoid their own reflections. "The appearance ideals we have today are unachievable for most people, so when people compare themselves to them they fall short and feel dissatisfied with the way they look."

She believes, however, that "mirror-fasting" would not have a long-term positive impact on body image. "When working with people who have issues around body image we actually encourage what we call 'mirror exposure technique' -- the direct opposite of fasting," she says. "We encourage people to look in the mirror and take a less critical approach to what they see and focus on the things they like."

Kate Fox, a social anthropologist at the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, agrees the concept is not constructive: "It's true that avoiding something in such a dramatic and drastic manner can only be temporarily liberating. It's throwing the issue of appearance into sharp relief in the same way that crash dieting often serves to make people obsess even more about food. To me, it smacks of narcissism more than looking in the mirror like a normal person."

Dance Therapy Counteracts Body Image Issues

Although dance therapy is a relatively new profession, it is based on the assumption that the body and mind are in constant reciprocal interaction. Motion influences body image and leads from a change in body image to a change in psychic attitude. Perhaps the most profound catalyst in dance therapy is rhythm. We have all experienced the healing effects of movement, whether it is dancing the electric slide, Bollywood dancing, working out at the gym or even taking an aerobics class. Dance/movement therapy works from the premise that the mind and the body are inseparable, such that a change in one effects a change in the other. Movement therapy is a kind of psychotherapy based on the concept of using the body as a healing force for emotional distress.

The dance/movement therapist intentionally taps into the healing nature of movement by using the art of dance as an observation/assessment tool and then as a means of choreographing responses to issues and movements members bring to a group. The dance/movement therapist responds, echoing and answering each person's movement, thus promoting feelings of self-worth. By utilising the physical elements of breathing, posture, gesture, tension, release, space, force/weight and time, patients gain numerous benefits.

A number of quantitative studies have reported change in psychological variables such as depression, anxiety, body attitude, eroticised affection, self acceptance, integration of movement and anxiety for subjects without psychiatric diagnoses. People can identify and express their innermost emotions, therefore bringing those feelings to the surface. Authentic movement is a self directed process which individuals may discover a movement pathway that offers a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious. Emotions of the body are intricately connected and one directly influences the other.

April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.

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