I have been thinking a lot about this lately. In this tech-driven society, many of us are bombarded with images of what health ‘looks like’ (and magazine media long before that). Self-acceptance is a radical act in the age of social media. Body image is defined in many ways. Nwanze, Marire-Nwankwo & Nwankwo (2023) described it in two halves: a) the mental image of how the body looks (shape, size, weight), and b) the thoughts, feelings and attitudes that create behaviours concerning the physical self. Jo (2023) wrote a fantastic thesis titled Social Roles as a Moderator of the Relationship Between Internalization of Body Shape Ideals and Body Dissatisfaction Among Women in Middle Adulthood and writes about body dissatisfaction as a risk factor for psychological distress and depression, disordered eating (restrict, binge, purge) and excessive exercise.
Many people see movement and diet as part of maintaining the ‘ideal body weight’, and sure they are important factors, but are they the best motivators?
Intrinsic motivation is born from within and involves doing something for its inherent satisfaction; extrinsic motivation comes to us from external influence and involves doing something based on external punishment or reward (Nickerson, 2023).
This simple little affirmation ‘move for mind and mood, not for the mirror’ came to me in the last few inner autumn stages of my cycle (luteal phase). Personally, this is when I feel I need the most motivation to move my body, and ironically when it makes the biggest difference. I have been putting a lot of mental energy into creating new neural pathways. When I see my bloated belly in the mirror, I practise seeing it as beautiful and full of blood (the uterus expands pre-bleed and needs my compassion rather than criticism). Instead of letting body dissatisfaction be my motivation to get up Kemp Hill, I remind myself of the emotional regulation and well-being that will come after the movement. Before movement, I can feel lethargic, resistant and sometimes irritable/on edge in this part of my cycle (which feels like energy that needs to be used). I go for a walk, do yoga or an at-home weight training regime and check in again - a completely different person. This is what I aim to remember, this is what I want to be my motivator - that contented, clear, energised feeling I get after moving my body. It makes a big difference in my ability to do the thing I (sometimes) don’t want to do. I am also taking mental notes on how food feels in my body. For example, I have mostly avoided gluten for many years and recently got a blood test for celiac which came back negative. I realised that I don’t need a blood test to tell me that when I eat gluten I feel bloated, foggy and have sluggish digestion. Just as, when I have too much caffeine I feel anxious. When I eat too much sugar I feel sick and cravings become worse. Conversely, when I eat whole foods I feel energised. When I eat protein I feel full. Let that be my motivator.
I see many people in the clinic who are dissatisfied with their bodies, often admitting confusion about diet and carrying many “I know, I should be doing…..”, much shame surrounds this topic. To be honest, this extends way beyond the clinic into personal relationships too. External pressure fuelled by reward and punishment is coming at us from all angles. In 2019, the weight loss industry’s estimated worth was more than US$200 billion (Purtill, 2017). People who are dissatisfied with their bodies make great consumers. Diet culture has changed over the decades but we seem to be getting similar messages over time - for women - lose weight, tone up, for men - gain weight, bulk up. There are a stupid number of programs, supplements and products for sale promising these results.
I am also not disregarding that being overweight is linked to greater health risks including hormone disruption, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (to name a few), however, I am promoting a refocusing of our approach to health and vitality. Can we remember what a miracle it is to live inside the complexities of our human bodies? Can we thank our legs and feet for taking us on so many adventures? Our bellies and digestive centres for processing all that we put in our mouths? Can we free ourselves from criticism and judgement and gift ourselves self-compassion and acceptance? Perhaps we then shift into working with our bodies, rather than against them (I know, it's a journey!).
Where to start (from what I have read and experienced in myself). Aim for 8 hours of sleep per night. Move your body (walking and weight-training are ideal). Eat a protein-rich breakfast, preferably before caffeine! Go for whole foods, organic where possible. Think about cutting or reducing inflammatory food groups including dairy, sugar, and gluten. Practise self-acceptance - try body/health positive affirmations. Drink 2L water a day. Relax your nervous system (breath-practice, meditation, yoga, singing etc.). Check in regularly with your body and develop a habit of self-inquiry - 'What am I feeling? What do I need?' Seek support if you need it. We people have complex relationships with our bodies, moving them and what we put in them. Food, eating and over-exercise can be addictions like any other and are often old coping mechanisms to self-soothe. To quote Gabor Mate “Ask not why the addiction but why the pain?”
If you or someone you love experiences body dysmorphia and disordered eating, I recommend this website as a great resource for support - https://butterfly.org.au/
Love to all of you and your beautiful amazing bodies!
Jo, J. H. (2023). Social Roles as a Moderator of the Relationship Between Internalization of Body Shape Ideals and Body Dissatisfaction Among Women in Middle Adulthood. Retrieved from https://etd.ohiolink.edu/acprod/odb_etd/etd/r/1501/10?clear=10&p10_accession_num=ohiou1686229826712895
Mate, G. In the realm of hungry ghosts. (2018). London.
Nickerson (2023). Extrinsic Vs. Intrinsic Motivation: What’s The Difference? Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/differences-between-extrinsic-and-intrinsic-motivation.html
Nwanze, P. I., Marire-Nwanko, V. C,. & Nwankwo, B. E. (2023). Relationship between social media, body image dissatisfaction and self-acceptance. African journal for the psychological studies of social issues, 26(3).
Purtill, J. (2017). 95pc of diets fail in five years. So why is the CSIRO selling $149 diets? Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/why-is-the-csiro-selling-diets-when-they-fail-in-five-years/8975124