Spring break offers students a week of fun and adventure with their friends, yet it can also be a source of anxiety stemming from body issues.
Advertising and the media contribute greatly to promoting what we should feel is the ideal body.
Train your inner coach and remember the golden rule to spread body positivity
Most young students have relatively healthy bodies, yet too many teens and collegians often hide unhealthy body issues that are magnified when planning that annual spring break trip. Women in particular are constantly exposed to youthful, super-slender "Barbie Doll-like" images that they are explicitly or implicitly urged to emulate. By presenting a so-called “perfect” body image that is difficult to achieve and maintain, the cosmetic and diet product industries are assured of steady growth and profits. And it's no accident that youth, along with thinness, is constantly hyped as an essential criterion of beauty. In fact, it’s a safe bet many companies in the cosmetics and fashion industries employ specialists who focus entirely on projecting that “perfect” body image you should aspire to, in hopes of “guilting” you into purchasing their products.
This constant exposure to what your body should look like can make enjoying spring break an emotionally challenging, even traumatic experience. Feeling like you actually look good in your swimsuit, being around friends and feeling comfortable can seem as stressful as taking your mid-term exams. Many students respond to this situation by committing to restrictive diets and demanding exercise programs. In some cases, the psychological impacts of a negative body image can grow into a food-related disorder such as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, binge eating, body dysmorphia and food phobias.
Body positivity is increasingly recognized as a part of mental health, which in turn is essential to whole health. To avoid unnecessary and unhealthy anxiety, and to help ensure your spring break trip is everything you’d hoped it would be, here are some tips:
The “media” ideal vs. the healthy ideal. Be sure to separate what advertising and the media promote as the ideal body from what should be your healthy ideal body. Your healthy body ideal is as unique to you as your fingerprint and should reflect what you do on a daily basis to both look and feel your best. Your healthy ideal should include realistic fitness goals that promote an active lifestyle; a healthy, balanced diet; and a mindset that is accepting of both muscles and adequate fat tissue.
Use self-coaching to help stay focused. We’ve all faced the challenge of eating until we’re no longer hungry, but we are unable to resist a second helping of tantalizing food. Or perhaps it’s the self-guilt of skipping a workout or staying up until 2 a.m. to binge watch your favorite TV show and sacrificing a healthy night’s sleep. Remember, self-coaching, or the conversation you have with yourself, can have a dramatic impact on your actions. Train your inner “coach” to offer sensible, healthy and productive advice, and follow these promptings. If you competed in athletics or sports, you likely listened to your coach and took their advice seriously to optimize your performance and achieve your goals. Self-coaching for your ideal healthy body is no different.
Make exercise a rewarding experience. All too often we tend to force ourselves to work out and exercise as if it’s something we HAVE to do. This can lead to feelings of guilt and take the enjoyment out of what should instead be a rewarding activity that is healthy, energizing and fun. To help make exercise something you look forward to, try incorporating workout routines you enjoy, such as swimming, dance classes, barre or yoga. By doing what you enjoy, you will find exercise is fun and it need not feel like a chore or punishment.
A great start is to eat smart. Listen to your body and hunger cues, rather than your emotional inner voice that may be telling you, “let’s skip breakfast today.” Eating smart includes avoiding meal-skipping that you think will help shed weight, which instead could lead to binge eating later in the day. Try to stay on a regular schedule, especially during those stressful class loads and exam-cram periods when you’re most likely to eat on the fly and settle for unhealthy junk food or fast food. Also, remember to eat a well-balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables to ensure your body is getting the important vitamins and nutrients it needs.
Stop the fat talk. If you have not engaged in fat talk yourself, chances are you have heard it as part of the conversation around you. When we talk about ourselves and others as if our bodies define who we are in society, it can lead to poor self-image and self-esteem. Whether it’s a friend or parent who says those shorts make it look like you’ve gained weight, or you’ve overheard a friend talk about someone else who’s put on extra pounds, fat talk can be habit-forming and lead to greater anxiety and negative self-awareness. Try to eliminate or help curb this type of conversation by refusing to engage in it. Instead, try taking the positive approach. When someone makes a derogatory remark about what someone else is wearing, maybe say something like, “I think that looks really good on her. If she is comfortable wearing it that’s what really matters.” Infusing a positive spin on conversations like this can help create a better overall environment that’s conducive to a better body image for both you and your friends, making that next spring break trip or pool experience all that you’d hoped for.
If you are the parent of a teenager who seems overly concerned about their weight and appearance, check out these practical recommendations to recognize, and reduce the risk of, serious body image problems.
Providence St. Joseph Health and Well Being Trust are forging partnerships to make overcoming the stigma of mental health issues a nationwide health priority. Learn more about how Well Being Trust is advancing mental, social and spiritual health by helping people #BeWell.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.