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Women's Weight Concerns and Body Image

Pressure to Be Thin
Pressure to be thin can come from many areas—standards of the sport or athletic activity, coaches, trainers, parents, friends, and magazines. Because of this constant pressure, many girls and women feel "fat," whether they are or not (most athletic girls are not). The statistics are frightening—70 to 80 percent of women feel they need to lose weight, one-fourth of college women have some bulimic behaviors, and up to 60 percent of girls and women have some components of eating disorders.

In fact, most young girls who are thin are not eating enough and begin dieting and restricting calories at an early age in order to conform to the pressures of a coach, parent, society, or themselves. By eating less than their body needs, they can stunt growth and prevent bone development. Between the ages of 8 and 13, healthy girls are growing 2 to 3 inches per year. Along with this growth comes healthy weight gain, at an average of 40 pounds. This is no time for dieting! A young girl's body needs fuel not only to be active every day, but to supply growing bones, muscles, and nerves. Adolescence is the time when body image begins to develop, but it can be difficult to maintain a healthy body image as the body grows and changes so quickly, including gaining healthy weight. Unfortunately, this is the time that many girls begin to diet, trying to stop the changes on the scale. There are various ways dieting can be attempted—taking diet pills, skipping meals, eating low-calorie diets, avoiding certain foods, or eating artificial meal substitutes. Some very deadly habits and serious eating disorders can begin this way, interfering with normal development and decreasing metabolism. These bad eating habits make it difficult to maintain normal weight and good health and are especially destructive to athletic performance.

Dieting at a young age is the start of developing poor body image. Mood can become directly related to weight fluctuations and dieting success or failure. Dieting itself can delay puberty and cause stunted growth, depression, difficulty concentrating, frequent illness, and injury, including fractures, pain, poor skin, brittle hair and nails, and irritability. These symptoms can cause a rebound effect of even worse body image, leading to further dieting, eating disorders, or overeating. These problems can interfere with participation in activities and even lead to dropping out of athletic activities.

Evaluating Body Image
Body image is affected positively and negatively by many events, including getting weighed at the doctors; trying on skimpy clothes; seeing a picture of yourself; spending time with someone much thinner or heavier than you; a coach, peer, or friend's comments; eating a large or small meal; or doing a challenging workout or athletic event. As a woman, the ups and downs of weight are normal; there are times in life when we eat more and less. Events such as an important competition or social event might lead us to slim down temporarily, and a battle to keep this weight off can be difficult. Pregnancy can also cause weight changes that are difficult to reverse. All these variations and events can lead to frustration, especially if you weigh yourself every day.

Body image and weight management problems become serious when this affects other aspects of life, such as not wanting to spend time with others when eating is involved, regularly skipping social, family, or work activities to work out, or cancelling social engagements based on weight. Your role in life as athlete, friend, and family member will not be affected by more or less pounds. It will be affected by happiness and self-confidence. Feel good about yourself, and understand that occasionally questioning how you look is normal.

If you have body image concerns, as most girls and women do, review the following statements and allow yourself to consider how positive you feel about your body image. Starred statements suggest a higher risk of eating disorders.

Statements to Consider When Evaluating Your Body Image

  • I seriously worry about my weight on a daily basis.*
  • I want to weigh 10 pounds more or less than I do now.
  • I have been on more than one diet in the past year.
  • I have or have had an eating disorder.
  • People tell me I am "too thin," but I always feel fat.*
  • Even though I weigh less than I have in the past year, I feel fat.*
  • I weigh myself more than once a day.*
  • I get anxious if I can't exercise more than one hour each day.
  • If I gain more than one pound, I get anxious or depressed.*
  • I feel guilty when I eat foods that contain any fat.*
  • I would rather eat by myself than with family or friends.*
  • I don't talk about my fear of being fat, because everyone tells me I am too thin.*
  • I'm afraid I won't be able to stop eating if I start.
  • I get very upset when people urge me to eat.
  • Sometimes I think that my undereating or overexercising is not normal.*
*More serious signs that suggest components of an eating disorder

Agreeing with many of these statements is a sign that you might have an eating disorder. Be aware that even women with an overall healthy body image occasionally agree with some of these statements. It takes some discipline to be successful in weight management; the danger is in letting this get out of control and letting it control you. Being able to recognize behaviors consistent with eating disorders and knowing that you need to correct thoughts and actions out of line with positive body image are key to maintaining confidence, happiness, and health.

From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon.


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