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Build Better Body Confidence

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Our lives are full of opportunities for self-comparison and judgment, and triathlon is not immune. Here’s how to protect your body confidence as you smash your goals.

by Grace Labatt, Experience Life

Have you ever logged off social media feeling less attractive, less fit, and less satisfied than when you logged on? If so, you’re not alone. Social feeds offer us countless daily opportunities to compare ourselves with idealized images of health and fitness. Rare is the Facebook feed without a diet or workout status update, along with an endless stream of manipulated images that look far too perfect to be anyone you know — even when they are pictures of people you know.
On Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram, the hashtag "#Fitspo" (short for "fitness inspiration") appears thousands of times a week, often accompanied by photos of abs so flat they seem concave.

While pretty pictures can motivate us, spending too much time on social media in search of health inspiration can also backfire, undermining our self-confidence as we compare ourselves — consciously or unconsciously — with unrealistic ideals.

So how can you spare your body image from self-destruction? You might start by wrapping your head around just how influential and potentially damaging these idealized images can be.

Made to measure

Fifteen years ago, seeing a picture of your former college roommate required flipping through a dusty photo album. Now, all it takes is a quick sign-in or the opening of an app, and suddenly you’re comparing yourself with her in real time as she poses in a bikini. You leave Facebook for a news site and there’s another bikini photo, this time of a movie star on the beach in Cabo San Lucas. From your perspective, they both look flawless.

Constant access to social media and online news sites means that most of us are now "deluged with celebrity images"daily, along with pictures of acquaintances in social situations, says psychologist Ray Lemberg, PhD.

What’s more, the Web "has exacerbated the degree to which we’re exposed" to modified, perfected images of bodies, says Melanie Klein, MA, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Santa Monica College in California.

And we all participate in the illusion-making. Who wants to post a picture that’s less than flattering? What mortal can resist those flaw-minimizing smartphone camera filters?

Yet this endless editing has consequences. Lemberg says he has seen "an increase in body-image concerns for both men and women” as social media has multiplied our chances for self-comparison.

This loss of body confidence cuts across age and gender. Steven Crawford, MD, codirector of the Center for Eating Disorders (CED) at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, notes that more middle-aged women, more males of all ages, and more older adults are being treated for eating disorders, while the number of children and adolescents seeking treatment is on the rise as well.

One in five adolescent-age boys now worries about his appearance, and half of them are actively seeking ways to increase muscle mass, according to Lemberg.

"While we cannot say that eating disorders are increasing as a direct result of social media, we do see the harmful effects of popular social-media trends among patients," says Crawford. "Trends and hashtags like #thighgap or #bikinibridge absolutely fuel the negative-body-image fire and can trigger dangerous weight-loss behaviors."

Research backs him up. A CED study surveyed 600 Facebook users, aged 16 to 40, and found that 51 percent felt more conscious about their body and weight after seeing photos of themselves on Facebook. Over a third wanted to change specific body parts.

Similarly, a 2014 study out of Florida State University found a direct relationship between time spent on Facebook and abnormal eating behaviors among female college students.

And a 2012 study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that for those users who rated high in "public self-consciousness," having a greater number of Facebook friends correlated with lower self-esteem.

The sum of this research suggests that for some of us, at least, the more time we spend browsing our social-media feeds, the worse we’re likely to feel about ourselves.

The fitspo phenomenon

"Fitspo" is the nickname for the category of ostensibly aspirational photos that often permeate social-media sites. Sometimes the hashtag is attached to pictures of ordinary people documenting their fitness progress, but more often it features images of women with glistening biceps and rock-hard glutes and men with overdeveloped pecs and six-pack abs.

Fitspo’s sickly older cousin is "thinspo," an online collection of pictures of emaciated women traded mainly by users with eating disorders.

While social-media platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest have attempted to ban Thinspo, Fitspo pervades the Internet. Advocates say it encourages fitness and combats the cult of thinness. But captions such as “Enjoy your pain; you’ve earned it” sound suspiciously like the celebrations of self-denial that characterize Thinspo. Celebrating suffering and self-denial is not usually a precursor to confidence and self-worth.

Fitspo posts are also often imbued with a not-so-subtle tone of shame. Statements like "Failure is not an option" or "What’s your excuse?" can leave the viewer feeling that the only explanation for his or her lack of extreme fitness is a failure of effort.

Case in point: When a supremely fit mother of three posted a photo of herself with the caption, "What’s your excuse?"in 2013, the image went viral and sparked a heated emotional online debate.

Ironically, you are much less likely to see those glistening bodies in a real gym. Certified personal trainer Jessi Kneeland, founder of the body-positive site ReModel Fitness, explains that professional Fitspo images usually involve entire teams of makeup artists and lighting experts. Models often use salt-manipulating diets and other tricks to achieve their vein-popping definition. And that’s all before the Photoshop work.

This falsification can discourage the pursuit of real fitness. Crawford explains that if people find that no matter how hard they work, their bodies won’t look like the pictures they see, then they’re more likely to give up on exercise and health behaviors altogether.

Or, he says, the belief that our bodies should conform to an unrealistic standard can make some individuals more vulnerable to extreme behaviors, like excessive exercise and disordered eating.

There’s an insidious question provoked by constant exposure to these photos: If everyone else can look like that, why can’t I? And we’re even more likely to ask it when viewing pictures of our peers.

Here’s the nonshaming answer: All the tools we now use to manipulate the pictures we post obscure the reality outside the image, which is that no body is perfect (no matter how great the photo) and no two bodies are exactly alike.

When we define our fitness by how we measure up against our online idols, there will always be another glowing image that puts our real-time efforts to shame.

Happily, there are some people who are using social media to support healthier goals and to celebrate the uniqueness of real bodies instead of unattainable ideals — and you can be one of them.

Positive body image in the digital age

Tired of demoralizing, mind-manipulating online fitness images and experiences? Here are some suggestions for finding (and creating) healthier inspiration.

Seek and share honest images

Although "we are inundated with unrealistic standards of beauty," says Klein, we now have "the power to be the media, to set a precedent, to create a paradigm shift."

In addition to teaching sociology, Klein is co-founder of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition. The group’s website promotes broader ideals of beauty in the yoga community, hosting photos of a range of dynamic yogis, many of whom don’t conform to the now standardized image of lean, lithe practitioners. Klein’s goal with the site is to create a "safe space for all body types."

Other sites provide equally powerful myth-busting. The 4th Trimester Bodies Project website features photos of postpartum women in their bras and underwear, embracing the changes brought by pregnancy and breastfeeding. Its slogan is "Every body is beautiful." (Notably, many of these images were blocked or removed by Facebook, which deemed them inappropriate.)

One of the great powers of social media is that it allows us to create and define our own standards for beauty, and to refute standards that don’t serve us. We do this every time we pin definition-broadening images on Pinterest, refrain from making Facebook comments on someone’s weight or “hotness level,” or create our own body-positive pages.

Maintain your perspective

Posting endlessly or exclusively about weight loss or gain, what you’re wearing, or what you’re eating (or not eating) can inadvertently "contribute to a manic cultural space where we are further obsessed and consumed with our bodies,"Klein says.

As far as self-esteem is concerned, it helps to keep body goals in a larger context. If you know that you get support from tracking your fitness journey online and receiving feedback from others, do it, but make sure you also post about your other interests from time to time. This helps offset the temptation to become obsessed with your fitness progress or appearance — or other people’s approval.

And where you can, post content that bucks the whole trend of body-fixation: Instead, put greater emphasis on the internal qualities that make us beautiful — like generosity, intelligence, and compassion.

Keep it positive

"Bodysnarking" is the practice of criticizing other people’s bodies, often with a nasty mocking tone (think words like "cankles"). Online body criticism is "cowardly and ugly," states Beverly Hills–based personal trainer Gunnar Peterson. Those who engage in it are "hiding anonymously behind their computers or phones." And sadly, it’s become nearly ubiquitous across the media ranks — dozens of websites seem to exist solely to stalk less-than-flattering images of celebrities and then pounce on the "flaws" of their subjects.

Media trends aside, putting others down to feel better about yourself was not invented with the Internet, but the commenting feature makes it easier than ever to indulge this insecure impulse. If you can, think of the snarkers as misguided, then ignore their comments and refuse to join the slander.

Just as powerfully, you can decide not to snark yourself. Rather than compare yourself with Fitspo, a friend, or those famous-person photos, compare your body with . . . your body. Embrace your unique shape and workout preferences, and take pride in what you accomplish. When you set goals, make them achievable.

Klein suggests asking yourself, "What is it about my body that I’m grateful for?" Instead of focusing on what you perceive to be wrong with you," she says, "focus on what is right or good or working."

Read the rest of the tips, see the "myth of the after photo," and find realistic inspiration at Experience Life.

Experience Life is the best whole-life health and fitness magazine you’ve never heard of — until now! We aim to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenge the conventions of hype, gimmicks, and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. No six-pack-abs-in-five-day promises. Just real, in-depth coverage of health, fitness, nutrition, and optimal-living topics to help you reach your healthy-living goals. Visit ExperienceLife.com to explore 10-plus years of archives, to sign up for our newsletters, and to subscribe to our print or digital editions. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.

Originally from: http://www.ironman.com/triathlon/news/articles/2015/08/build-better-body-confidence.aspx#ixzz45jMM67BP


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