Beauty and the Beach…

By: by Jennifer Passanante, LCSW

Preventing body image distortion from taking the joy out of swimsuit season …

During a recent conversation with my almost 6 year old daughter, she began listing all of the things she was looking forward to about summer.  They included things like popsicles, playing outside late, catching fireflies in a jar, and wearing my “swimmy suit”. The moment we walked in the door from school, both of my daughters flew upstairs and put on their new “swimmy suits” insisting that it was hot enough outside to turn on the sprinklers and take out the baby pool.  As I watched them play joyfully outside, I wondered to myself just when or what causes women to lose sight of the joys of summer and start to dread this time of year because there might be occasion to put on  a swimsuit.

Female dissatisfaction with appearance begins at a very early age. Infants begin to recognize themselves in mirrors at about two years old.  Females begin to dislike what they see only at just a few years old.  The latest surveys show very young girls are going on diets because they think they are fat and unattractive.  In one survey, 81% of ten-year old girls had already dieted at least once.

For a large percentage of females, puberty only makes things worse.  The normal physical changes, (increase in weight and body fat, particularly on the hips and thighs) take them further from the cultural ideal of unnatural slimness.  A Harvard University study showed that up to two thirds of underweight 12-year old girls considered themselves to be too fat.  By 13, at least 50% of girls are significantly unhappy about their appearance.  By 14, focused, specific dissatisfaction’s have intensified, particularly concerning hips and thighs.  By 17, only 30% of girls have not been on a diet and up to 80% will be unhappy with what they see in the mirror.

Among women over 18 looking at themselves in the mirror, research indicates that at least 80% are unhappy with what they see. Many will not be even seeing an accurate reflection.  Most of us have heard that women with anorexia see themselves as larger than they really are, but some recent research indicates that this kind of distorted body image is by no means confined to those suffering from eating disorders; in some studies, up to 80% of women over-estimated their size.  Increasing numbers of normal, attractive women, without weight problems or clinical psychological disorders, look at themselves in the mirror and see ugliness and fat.

Research confirms what most of us already know; that the main focus of dissatisfaction for most women looking in the mirror is the size and shape of their bodies, particularly their hips, waists and thighs.

More women struggle with liking the reflection in the mirror at this time of year more than any other as we are bombarded by images of “perfect” bikini bodies in magazines and on television.  We are encouraged to start various weight loss or exercise program to “get ready” for summer.  With all of this focus on getting our bodies “ready” for summer, is it any wonder that women view swimsuit shopping (or summer clothes for that matter) as a torturous experience to be avoided at all costs.  We become verbally abusive to our bodies and point out every perceived imperfection we can think of.  Some of us may even avoid certain places or events for fear that people might catch a glimpse of our “imperfect” bodies and know that we have not logged enough hours in the gym preparing for the warmer weather.

For people with eating disorders, this time of year can be especially challenging.  Even those who have been in recovery for awhile can find themselves allowing their inner critic to speak loud and clear encouraging them to “just drop a few pounds” or “run a few more miles” before considering wearing anything that might expose their “flaws”.  A well intentioned summer shape up plan can quickly result in relapse as we try to meet the medias standards for what women should look like.

So how can we take care of our bodies during this especially vulnerable time of year?  Take some time to enjoy some of the simple pleasures that come with warmer weather and longer days by:

  • Painting your toenails a new color
  • Run barefoot in the grass
  • Find something cute and comfortable to swim in and enjoy floating in a pool, lake, or ocean
  • Enjoy a picnic with a friend
  • Watch the sunset
  • Go for an early morning walk

When we spend so much time focusing on our appearance, we can miss out on the experiences that make summer one of the best times of year.  So whether you choose to cover up, or show it all off, the most important thing is to live, really live in the body you have.  So get out there and enjoy the sunshine!