So, is there body perfect? And if so, what is it? If we are to base this on the ever-growing social media platforms, then I have no idea! Depending on what year you look at you will get a different message, a different trend. Big butt, small butt, have a thigh gap, be ‘Thick’, big biceps, slender arms, 6 pack, dad bod, at the very least we have to be exceptionally tanned, and seen only in perfect lighting to create all the right shadows. I think the blurb below around ‘what is health?’ relates perfectly to the constantly changing, but ever unattainable, view of body perfect.
What does Beyoncé think starving herself for Coachella is teaching young women? What is the motivation for (INSERT FIRST NAME) Kardashian selling detox tea to men and women struggling with self-confidence? What does the unqualified fitness celebrity/influencer, promising extreme weight loss in 28 days, think they are doing? Creating a positive body image for their millions of fans is certainly not it. Irresponsibly lining their pockets to the detriment of so many is more likely. Those with global reach should be doing more to promote body positive.
So, What Is Body Image?
Body image is a multidimensional construct addressing of how we think, act, and feel about our physical appearance. Those with poor body image may for example, perceive themselves as unattractive or overweight, insufficiently muscular, or too thin and frail. As a result, these individuals are at risk for developing conditions such as depression, stress, anxiety, eating disorders, and muscle dysmorphia (1,2,3,4,5).
Poor body image, or in extreme clinical situations, body dysmorphia, is rapidly on the increase. In 2014 it was reported to affect up to 72% of women and 61% of men (6), and, has continued to increase since. To compound the issue, the problem is starting to effect individuals at a younger age. One such study, conducted last year right here in Melbourne found that children as young as eight are vulnerable to poor body image, as hormone levels rise with the onset of puberty (7). Others have suggested that children as young as 3 are affected by poor body image. Check out this article and associate resources on the topic here.
Where Does Our Body Image Come From?
The development and progression of poor body image can be attributed to multiple sociocultural influences, such as celebrities and the mass media as I mentioned above, as well as the influence of those around us from birth that includes parents, friends and work colleagues (8). There are two strongly recognised frameworks for how poor body image is potentially established (9): The Sociocultural Theory and Social Comparison Theory.
The Sociocultural Theory
This theory proposes that poor body image develops through the media’s representations on what they perceive to be the ideal male and female physiques. This can be delivered to us through processes which are blatantly “in our face”, such as a fitness guru guaranteeing 10kg loss in 28 days to “achieve this perfect body” (more on that here), or through more subtle and subliminal messages we gather through the selection bias that occurs in print, TV, film and advertising, where certain body types are more commonly seen and portrayed as ‘beautiful’, ‘sexy’, ‘hot’ (pick your latest social media term for attractiveness). The Sociocultural Theory also proposes that pressure from parents and peers who place a strong emphasis on physical attraction and its relationship to success in other aspects of life is a clear factor. Because of these messages we internalise that it is somehow advantageous to get through life looking like ‘Body Perfect’, and therefore we are disadvantaged for not having that look. This leads to behaviours dangerous to our long-term health such as extreme dieting or exercising and steroid use in order to achieve the unrealistic targets (10,11).
The Social Comparison Theory
This theory focuses more on how we compare ourselves to others who are either further from an ideal, a downward comparison, which enhances self-perception (12), or compare ourselves to those who are closer to the ‘ideal’ body, an upward comparison, which decreases positive self-perception (13). The more frequently you utilise an upward comparison, the higher levels of poor body image will develop (14).
Enter Resistance Training
Research is still at early stage regarding resistance training and mental wellbeing, (more about movement and mental health can be found in my article here), but early indications show resistance training to be exceptionally valuable. A recent meta-analysis on all clinical trials using resistance training to combat depressive episodes demonstrated that this type of exercise “significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults regardless of health status, total prescribed volume of resistance training, or significant improvements in strength” (15). Given the adverse effects poor body image has on our physical, social and mental health, we would be silly to not spend significant time in our lives doing things that can improve our body image, and resistance training in particular is an incredibly effective mode (16,17). And that’s ignoring all the other immense benefits resistance training has for your health!
10 Reasons Why Resistance Training Is Critical for Positive Body Image
- Resistance training, and exercise in general improves self-esteem (18) – We can’t change what the world perceives as ideal, but we can find ways to be less negatively affected by it. Resistance training, unlike other types of exercise, when planned well with an expert coach, can increase muscular strength and mass. These are changes which match the ‘body perfect’ ideals in men, and improvements in ‘tone’ in women. Even without ever reaching the extremes of the mass media reported ideals, positive improvements in how we feel knowing we are going in the direction towards them will improve self-esteem.
- Resistance training improves self-efficacy – Self efficacy directly impacts the way we think about ourselves and our body image (19). Succeeding in a task boosts confidence; we gain a sense of ‘mastery’. This confidence we gain impacts us in all walks of life. A well-structured resistance training program will challenge you, but when designed by a highly qualified coach, it will be programmed to allow constant success and progress in the face of adversity. This creates self-efficacy and improves positive perception of body image.
- Strength Training develops autonomy in your own health – Resistance training, with its unique ability to develop muscle, improve physical performance in the gym environment and in life, gives you self-governance, the freedom of self-control, thus building autonomy. Recent research suggests that autonomy may play a role in the degree to which we internalise the ideal physique, and that an inverse relationship exists between levels of autonomy and the degree to which one is influenced by sociocultural pressures. The more physical autonomy you have, the less susceptible you are to develop poor body image (20).
- Your physical capacity is more important than your physical appearance – It changes the objective and subjective measures of how you rate your self-worth when you start to realise how you feel in your physical capacity and movement, has a greater impact on your life than the size of your jeans. Training programs targeting physical function may be the most effective to improve body image in women (21), which is why resistance training is far more effective than any other type of exercise. And in particular for female adolescents, early research has shown that resistance training has immensely positive effects on self-perception (22).
- The load on bar, not load on scale – Regular resistance training, when using a detailed and structured plan allowing for constant progress, changes the way you see what is important when you value yourself. As those performance numbers go up and your confidence grows, you soon realise that the weight on the bar and sense of achievement is a far more relevant number to observe and see change in than the weight on the scales.
- Reduction in injury rate – Strength training unequivocally reduces your risk of getting injured in sport and in life (23), and the improvements to your mental health (24), through a myriad of chemical responses to training, cannot be understated. Injury and/or pain can have negative effects on your body image through general reductions in mood, feelings of frailty, inability to succeed in tasks, and the potential loss of muscle and increase in body fat from forced inactivity. These physical changes lead to further ‘downward comparisons’ (The Social Comparison Theory) and negative body image.
- Resistance training is social – When you are out in the real world, in the gym and off your phone, you get to see real people of all walks of life, of all shapes and sizes, doing amazing things with their bodies. This directly impacts the development of our body image and our perception of physical attractiveness through the sociocultural theory. We are exposed to the true norms of society, and not the photoshopped version of beauty.
- Resistance training creates dissociation and distraction – Both dissociation and distraction play important roles in positive mental wellbeing, which you can read more about in the previously mentioned link for mental wellbeing, and the huge body of work on this by Psychologist Albert Bandura. As an added bonus, when you have a set of dumbbells in your hand, you can’t scroll through Instagram to see the latest fitness guru selling detox teas and 10kg in 28 days, making you think that that is what it takes to reach body perfection.
- When you lift, you get to do squats – Cause hey, squats make you feel awesome! You can read more about my love of squats here and here.
- When you lift, you get to do deadlifts – Same point as squats!
Maybe I stretched points 9 & 10 to get a nice round number, but come on, squats and deadlifts.
It’s going to be a long journey to change an image-conscious world, so unfortunately poor body image is not going away as long as someone can make money from convincing you that your worth is linked to your BMI so buy this thing. But there are lots of actions you can take to improve your body image: ignore uneducated influencers and online trolls, get nutrition advice from qualified dietitians, get exercise advice from highly skilled coaches to teach you sustainable approaches, speak with a counsellor or Psychologist if you are really struggling, lift heavy stuff & be proud of what your awesome body can achieve, whatever weight, height, shape, size, age and ability that comes in.
Before you put down your phone and go lift some heavy stuff to improve your body image, check out this fantastic interactive piece to go with the above photo from Sydney Morning Herald on body image – just click here. Happy lifting!
Written by Head Performance Coach & Exercise Scientist David Smith
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