Finding body love: bathing suits and all

Allison Remcheck

Spring brings heightened body awareness

Around Spring Break, more people come in to talk about dislike for their bodies, said Tracy Masterson, assistant director of the Kent State Psychological Clinic. Approximately 7 million women and 1 million men struggle with eating disorders. MICHELE ROEH

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Say goodbye to abominable-snowman puffer jackets, itchy sweaters and mountain-people snow boots.

Spring is quickly approaching and bringing with it skinny tank tops, skimpy shorts and teeny bikinis – as well as body anxiety.

Tracy Masterson, assistant director of the Kent State Psychological Clinic, said around Spring Break, more people come in to talk about dislike for their bodies.

From those who just target various body parts to hate to people who have developed eating disorders because they truly don’t have an accurate view of what they look like, Masterson said both males and females become preoccupied and distressed with their body image.

“In college, it’s just a time of people being evaluated a lot on their looks,” Masterson said.

This concern about body image varies around the world, Masterson said, and Americans have particular issues, probably because of an unrealistic perfect body portrayed by the media. Even within the United States, some cultures are less likely to feel pressure about their bodies. African-American women, in particular, Masterson said, usually have much healthier views of their bodies.

“There’s this media ideal that you have to be as skinny as Britney Spears before the baby,” said Taryn Myers, clinical psychology graduate student and therapist at the clinic. “But for a lot of women, that’s not very attainable.”

Eating can become a control issue with some people, Masterson said, and this is when severe eating disorders – such as anorexia – develop.

“It’s about control,” she said. “They tend to be really high achievers in other areas too.”

People with eating disorders say they spend 70 to 80 percent of their day thinking about their body, Masterson said, but the people around them may not know it.

“It’s kind of like a secret that they may not tell to other people,” she said.

Even men can develop eating disorders, she said. It usually starts when males have to maintain a certain weight for a sport, such as wrestling.

Some people have addictive personalities that makes them more prone to eating disorders – either eating too much or exercising too much, Masterson said.

“They may choose exercise, but they may have just as easily gotten into gambling,” she said.

A poor body image oftentimes coincides with other depression or anxiety, Masterson said.

When someone starts to feel poorly about his or her body, Masterson said exercising in moderation, eating better and getting more sleep can often help.

People should try “to appreciate that we’re all individuals,” she said. “Confidence itself is so attractive.”

Myers said people have a tendency to focus on body parts they dislike but should instead focus on body parts they do like, for instance, their hair or eyes.

“Being unhappy with their body is a general part of being unhappy with themselves,” she said.

Self-esteem is difficult to teach her patients, Masterson said.

“I really have to challenge their level of commitment,” she said. “It’s really easy to keep feeling bad. You have to be committed to not think negatively. It’s trying to teach them how to hold on to the positive.”

Positive speech isn’t intuitive for most people, Masterson said. She trains her clients to talk about what they do well.

And speaking negatively about oneself serves a purpose, Masterson said.

“It gets you something,” she said. “If they really can change it (and they don’t), they’re probably getting something from this behavior.”

Friends should work together and stop criticizing each other and themselves, so the whole group becomes more confident, Myers said.

And if a friend is showing bad eating or lifestyle habits, talk to him or her about it, she said. Try to phrase it in a non-offensive way, by saying, “I care about you, and I just wanted to talk to you about why you’ve been making some unhealthy choices lately,” she said.

“Do you worry about offending them?” Myers said. “Or do you care about their health more?”

Masterson said people can improve their body image by working with their self-esteem as a whole and finding something they are good at or doing volunteer work – anything to keep their minds off themselves.

She also asks her clients to log their thoughts through a week, and write down their first thought after events happen, and think about if they were vulnerable in the situation. Then they should write down ways to counteract the negative thoughts. This teaches them to combat their automatic negative thoughts about themselves.

People should seek counseling, Masterson said, “when they are not finding pleasure in the things they would normally find pleasure in; when something you might do might be scary to you.”

Myers said people should pay attention to what their body is telling them.

“Listen to your own body rather than the people around you or the media,” she said.

Contact features correspondent Allison Remcheck at [email protected].