The Perfect Body: Are We Chasing The Unobtainable?
by Jake Gifford
Thigh gaps, washboard abs and round glutes, our society has become obsessed with these physical attributes and achieving the perfect body. Thanks to Social media, strangers' bodies are thrust forcefully upon our eyes for us to judge, strive for or criticise our own. However with the dim light that's continuing to shine on the consequences of our quest for the perfect body, the question is whether this is a sensible pursuit for the general population or an unobtainable obsession that we need to disconnect from.
The Desire To Belong
As humans we all desire to belong, to be socially accepted and part of a group in some shape or form. The aspiration to feel wanted, valued, accepted and approved can often leave us feeling pressured to be a certain way in order to avoid criticism or exclusion which can be deemed undesirable.
A somewhat blinding spotlight is often shone on body image and the way we look. From fashion cloaking the surface, right down to our very own flesh and bone, we're often placed on a hierarchal platform to be judged by onlookers and people whom we interact with.
Western society places a large value on attractiveness and a certain thin ideal, with our body shape often being strongly associated with power, success and happiness, traits which many people long for and look to connect with. As a result of this hyperbolic value there's this perception of a huge discrepancy between the way we look and the desired look, perhaps because many of us don't perceive ourselves to carry those traits.
Consequently this discrepancy leads to feelings of guilt, shame and low self-esteem steadily bubbling from underneath the surface and ultimately we've developed a compensatory mechanism, cloaked in the form of a need to present ourselves as perfect to others. This mechanism serves us to hide our flaws, defects and imperfections in order to avoid rejection, shame and sense of self-inferiority which leads to heightened levels of anxiety, depression and disordered behaviours.
Changing our bodies: what previously might have seemed like a positive and desirable goal to achieve, has been masqueraded as health in order to hide the struggle for power and acceptance within society and social groups.
Our desire to change our bodies has always subconsciously been about extrinsic factors, which is why most people fail. It's become less about health or fitness, rather our existential desire to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, accepted and not looked down upon.
The Dark Side Of Fitness
Fitness can often be perceived as the birthplace of the modern day Greek Gods and Goddesses. This perception is often perpetuated by social media with its a flood of images of scantily clad individuals accompanied with clichés for captions such as "strong is new the skinny" or "nothing feels as good as skinny feels".
It comes as no surprise that ripped physiques are something many often associate with the pinnacle of fitness and something to aspire to. Whilst I make no mistake that getting to low levels of body fat and high levels of muscularity requires a high level of dedication and attention to detail; it is not something that should be the face of health and fitness. Health and fitness goes beyond the way we look.
The prevalence of social media has led us to believe fitness is the consequence of a healthy relationship with food and exercise. Something that we should all strive for in order to be better people whom lead better lives. A plethora of fitness regimes and diets have presented themselves as solutions to our maladapted relationships with our bodies, food and exercise. Despite this huge array of availability there's never been a successful long-term solution, at least for the majority.
One of the many problems is that fitness industry has a dark secret, one that it will firmly deny and viciously defend like a mother bear defending its cubs. For many, fitness has just become a crutch to a previous issue, an imperfect solution to a complex problem and coping mechanism for issues that go beyond the small bubble of the industry.
The fitness industry utilises its image to hide array of abnormal behaviours and disordered eating patterns. A shift from counting calories to counting macros and logging within MyFitnessPal, we've been told that we no longer have to diet again to achieve our body ideal despite the irony in simply setting ourselves a different set of rules and restrictions that are deemed acceptable within a different social group that we're drawn to based on values.
Those that compete within physique shows to fulfil their aspirations often stay silent on the ill-effects both physically and mentally which are often associated with competing. Orthorexia, body dysmorphia, dizzy spells, low libido, these physiques perceived by society as the pinnacle of fitness are far cry from a representation of health, yet are used in the marketing and soliciting of diets and programs to a population that has succumb to the pressures of needing to fit in.
You'll often find that those who are in remission from eating disorders often find solace in fitness as inevitably it's often a way to place rules and restrictions on food which provides them with a sense of security whilst also being considered acceptable in the eyes of prominent figures within the industry. Partaking in some of the strange behaviours in the industry can lead to acceptance within a group and numb the pressures placed upon themselves to look thin.
This is what health and fitness was never meant to be about, an unsustainable, unobtainable, long term goal with consequences that far outweigh the perceived benefits. A solution that often undermines and reinforces problems that go way beyond the type of exercise we do or food we eat.
For many, fitness has been simply a way to mask disordered behaviours and convince themselves that these behaviours are perfectly normal. The perception of health has been a veil to hide its shift to the cosmetic industry.
The Disappointing Reality Of Weight Loss
Slimming clubs and diet groups are rife wth people of various demographics all with a similar aim. On the surface, all these people collectively want to reach a target weight they have set themselves whether that's based on previous years or what they deem acceptable for themselves.
Quietly lurking beneath the desire to achieve an arbitrary number, lies broken confidence, battered self-esteem and the inability to accept one's self. However, the goal of weight loss can often provide us with a sense of purpose and something to work towards which can temporarily offset these feelings with promise of a better future.
Weight loss takes us back to the power-struggle associated with body image and our efforts to disassociate ourselves with negative feelings and personality traits. It's our desire to be deemed more acceptable within the eyes of society, our peers, our family, our friends and we're often willing to suffer short-term in order to achieve that.
The majority of people who embark on a weight loss program without consistent hands on intervention will often fail long-term. Those that exude the motivation to suffer for the cause will experience the short-term rewards of weight loss as the number on the scale goes down.
The harsh reality is that often those feelings of low confidence, low self-esteem and guilt aren't always mitigated and instead can be heightened, distorting our relationship with food, exercise and what we see in the mirror. This can often leave many people feeling deflated, anxious and depressed when they reach their target weight and consequently they'll downward spiral into self-loathing and lack of self-care which can often lead to weight regain.
This is ultimately why weight loss as an end goal is never a very good one. The reasons why we are partaking weight loss aren't necessarily always associated with our goal weight, rather there may be something deeper engrained in us that needs focussing on such as building our trust with food, our need for belonging and learning to enjoy the process.
People have this expectancy that losing weight will immediately solve all their problems and make them happy. This often leads to frustration when they fail to obtain a goal weight or disappointment when they achieve their goal but aren't any happier.
We can sit here and pretend that our efforts to improve our body image are in the pursuit of better health. We can also sit here and believe that improving or maintaining our body image is the key to boosting our self-confidence and happiness.
And as much as this might seem counterproductive or bizarre coming from a personal trainer, it's important to realise that life never occurs in a vacuum and that if we want more people exercising and engaging in healthy behaviours, we've got to do it for the right reasons, not for what society pressures us into, no matter how much people hark on about how right they are.
- Pressure to change your body is unlikely to lead to lasting changes in happiness, confidence or well-being.
- Whilst healthy behaviours are important, don't embark on them at the expense of your mental health.
- Reframing your approach to improving your health by focussing on factors outside of image would be a favourable approach.
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About the Author
Jake Gifford, MSc is a personal trainer based in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Jake encourages people to reject diet culture and discover the benefits of exercise beyond the way you look. You can also find him on Instagram @thephitcoach