The Unhealthy Ideal

With the pressure to physically conform now greater than ever, Andy Love takes a look at body image, marketing and our unhealthy obsession with health


A quarter of adults in Britain are currently obese. The papers are still trying to find a culprit. Is it sugar? Is it fat? Is it an epidemic? Am I sick? Are you? Supermarkets have started filling their shelves with healthier alternatives, such as Tescoís ëHealthy Livingí range. It seems like a win/lose situation as it might seem great to see healthier food being advertised in stores, but the real people winning from our health anxieties are the marketing teams creating expensive ëhealthí products that could be seen as luxurious to those on a lower income. This battle to be healthier seems to leave us all confused and, according to Helen Bond, a dietician and spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, some so called ëhealthy barsí can have more sugar than a two finger KitKat, or be more calorific than a bag of Malteasers.

The American adult population is currently the heaviest in the planet; the average body mass globally was 62kg, whereas in the US it was 80.7kg. Despite making up only 5 percent of the worldís population, the US accounts for almost a third of its total weight. In contrast, Asia has 61 per cent of the population, but only 13 per cent of the excess weight. Weight loss struggles can be troubling and most people will be battling throughout their life (as not all of us are blessed with a fast metabolism). Can you say you have never said yes to a muffin with your latte? Many people try to go on diets on a daily basis but it becomes so easy to not do it, and the often found ignorance of nutrition can hamper most attempts. Friends can be truly beneficial in that step of the journey by offering solutions that have worked with people they know. A slimming program can be very helpful in order to know if you might be overweight and realistically give you a weight loss frame, along with providing nutritional information. Slimming up does not necessarily have to be about eating less; it is about knowing what, when and how much to eat. The mathematics of it is really simple ñ if food is body fuel, you need to burn more than you consume in order to lose weight.

Can it all be blamed on food, though? No, and according to Prof Ian Roberts, researcher from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, people do not necessarily eat more today than we did 50 years ago but we move less due to the use of machines. The body is a vehicle designed for your personal transportation and is fuelled by food. So if you have a big body you consume more food than a small body. If every country becomes as fat as the US then in mass terms it is like having an extra billion people in the earth feeding another half a billion. This media focus on obesity and a healthier lifestyle may seem an exclusive attack on fat, but it is making everyone anxious about their weight.

As Britney Spears once sang: ëIím Mrs. Sheís too big now Sheís too thiní. Why do most people feel so comfortable saying that someone is too skinny but shy away when someone is overweight? I do not see it as flattering, it is rude. Binge eating disorders can be as devastating as anorexia. After losing four stone recently I got bombarded with people saying I had gone too far, that I had to stop or that I am now ëtoo skinnyí. This can potentially be damaging as a psychological trigger (a potential trauma making someone act differently) as you could be making someone more insecure without knowing it. American Supermodel and TV presenter Tyra Banks spoke to HuffPost Live about similar experiences. Tyra grew three inches and lost almost two stone in three months when she was eleven, going from a ìcute and chubby little girlî to shooting up, weighing seven stone and ìlooking sick and frailî. Tyra was not sick but people thought there was something wrong with her;

ëI was the brunt of every joke, every bad thing. I hated my reflection in the mirror, I would try to stuff food down my throat to gain weight. Nothing would work. I lived at the hospital with needles in my arms trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Even though later I gained weight and became a supermodel, that girl always lived inside of me and I know what that felt like. Then to become a supermodel with all of this hair and make-up and glamour. Then I start projecting images that I know make my 11-year-old self insecure, I felt like I had and still have a responsibility to tell the truth and to talk about my pains, my issues. So my passion is girls and self-esteem.í

A research carried out by the American Psychological Association revealed that teens who think of themselves as underweight are more likely to face depression and turn to steroids. The main researcher, Dr. Aaron Blashill, believes that this study displays the often unnoticed issue of distorted body image among adolescent boys:

ëTeenage girls tend to internalize and strive for a thin appearance, whereas teenage boys tend to emphasize a more muscular body type. We found that some of these boys who feel they are unable to achieve that often unattainable image are suffering and may be taking drastic measures.í

Dr. Menna Jones, clinical lead of the Service for High Risk Eating Disorders (SHED) in Cardiff, advises that the majority of people who have eating disorders tend to develop them early on in their lives. These tend to be adolescents and the likeliness of developing a disorder is likely to decrease year by year. In fifteen year olds, 1 in 100 develops anorexia and other eating disorders. Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is even more common than anorexia and also more likely to go undetected. It also tends to be developed later in life, affecting mostly young adults between the ages of 20-25. Young people of university age seem more likely to develop BED than anorexia, due to the changes in lifestyle. As opposed to anorexia which tends to develop earlier on in life, people are more likely to develop binge eating disorder and bulimia as they grow up.

Men can develop eating disorders as well, but they are usually less reported. 1 in 10 people who seek help regarding an eating disorder are male. For males, the usual culprit is a combination of trying to build more muscle without accumulating body fat – men can then become anorexic at a higher weight due to muscle development mass with a very low body fat. Dr Jones advises:

ëA minimum BMI of 18.5 applies to both men and women, but we find that male bodies become compromised at a higher weight than women. As we understand more about eating disorders with men, we become more worried with men at heavier weights. The gym and celebrity culture could be blamed as a factor, but there is also a combination of sexual experiences and life events that can affect their personality and and how people deal with stress. It is also a little early to say for certain if healthier products can be associated with eating disorders, but products displaying calorie and nutritional content tend to increase anxiety and preoccupations with controlling food and weight. Overall, statistics do show that the rates of eating disorder at several levels is increasing, but people are developing eating disorders at a younger age and suffer severe problems.í

Fat storage between men and women and from person to person works differently. Most people also tend to have unrealistic expectations from models and trainers who work out as part of their career. This may result in individuals opting for quicker alternatives like steroids and nutritional supplements as a fix. It also explains why some people may struggle with their expectations as a change in body definition can take time. Due to the ëfight on body fatí, some gym goers will try to decrease their body fat further to try and show muscles, but it is not as simple as that, as personal trainer Gareth Tamplin explains:

ëOur genetics will dictate, to a large degree, where we store our fat on our bodies. For women itís usually more around the hips and thighs whereas for men itíll often be the back and stomach. Taking abs as an example, you can have a body builder and a marathon runner who are both at 10% body fat but look completely different – the body builderís abdominal muscles will show through because the actual abdominal muscles are more developed.í

The available literature about healthy eating can also be quite misleading – displaying ëgoodí and ëbadí food groups tends to make people feel guilty about what they are eating leading to even more issues. This constant pressure also hits Hollywood, and actress Jennifer Lawrence has expressed her belief that it should be illegal to call someone fat on television. ëWhy is humiliating people funny?í she asks. Lawrence revealed that by Hollywood standards she is a fat actress and believes that the media should be held accountable for the effect it has on a younger generation. Is it truly surprising that so many young people pack up at the gym daily? Are we trying to be healthier or are we being fooled by companies trying to say we could become bigger, better, faster, stronger? And when does it end? Perhaps more curious and dangerous than the ëFat Britainí is the anxiety all of this is creating for everyone. When young boys get bombarded by burly superheroes and girls grow up watching Americaís Next Top Model, it may be a while until we learn that bodies come in different shapes, forms and colours. A lot of respect to people trying to be a better you, but here’s a tip from Dita Von Teese: “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach and there’s still going to be someone who doesn’t like peaches”. So you can either submit to someone’s criticism of you, or you can get on with the business of being your own amazing self.

Reducing how much people are eating and not eating with other people could be warning signs.

Help in Cardiff is available from SHED on 029 20336447, support groups run by Beat (www.b-eat.co.uk) and Cardiff Student Minds through Facebook and twitter


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