Embrace the power of balance over the ‘summer body’ hype

Faced with an abundance of ‘summer body’ messaging across social media and marketing platforms, many individuals may find themselves engaging in excessive behaviours in pursuit of perceived perfection. This potentially has harmful effects on self-image and overall health. 

Peta-Lyn Foot, manager at the Centre of Psychotherapy Excellence (COPE) and an occupational therapist at Netcare Akeso Crescent Clinic in Randburg, notes that while the realities of modern media are built into our environment and are therefore difficult to escape, we do have control over the amount of time we spend consuming this content. 

“General expectations around body aesthetics are largely informed by ideals portrayed in the media and social media which, in many cases, create the benchmark for self-worth. Often the imagery that is used is idealistic and unattainable, and when viewed repeatedly on an ongoing basis, can wear away at a healthy body image. 

The impact on teens

“Teens, in particular, are at a vulnerable stage of development where they are still establishing their sense of identity and often base much of their self-worth on their appearance. A strong desire to meet these elusive and unattainable standards can result in eating disorders and other behaviours masquerading as healthy practices,” she says.  

“This may include restrictive diets, for example, where certain food groups are removed completely. This is a dangerous practice and not advisable, particularly in younger populations where all food groups are needed for healthy growth and development. Limiting food groups may compromise cognitive ability and prevent full development potential, even in those who appear to be high achievers.”

According to Foot, there is a trend among younger age groups toward excessive exercising matched with restrictive diets to encourage weight loss – or, as is more often the case among males, to bulk up and become very muscular and toned. “The quantity and variety of videos created by self-proclaimed experts, for example, sharing tips and tricks for weight loss and increased muscle definition, reinforce this behaviour. 

“We are also seeing an increase in individuals developing obsessive behaviours around the idea of ‘clean’ eating or eating only foods that are completely natural. While foods that are free of processed ingredients have multiple health benefits, a dogmatic mindset about this can lead to orthorexia: a disproportionate adherence to a diet made up of these foods. This obsession with eating only the healthiest or purest seeming foods can lead to rejection of a normal, balanced diet to the point where an individual’s overall health begins to be impacted.”

Building an enduring sense of self-worth

Foot says the prominence of the health and fitness industry has simply become part of daily life, and self-reflection is key to having a realistic and honest view of your own beliefs around physical appearance and health-related behaviours.

“Even adults struggle to cultivate a sense of happiness within themselves, and it can be challenging to identify problematic behaviour in yourself or a loved one. This is because different people have different standards for personal physical appearance as well as varying definitions of physical attractiveness. However, anything excessive or extreme is unhealthy. For example, commitment to daily exercise has numerous benefits, but if someone who is not a professional athlete is dedicating hours daily to exercise and is constantly thinking and planning around their fitness regime, this may indicate a mental health concern. 

“A balanced approach is what we encourage. It may not be possible to love every aspect of yourself equally – as individuals, we all have strengths and weaknesses. However, focusing on the parts of yourself that you like rather than comparing yourself with others gives you something steady of your own to hold onto. This is a mindset that takes practice, but it forms part of building better mental health, which is crucial for your overall well-being. 

“Developing self-awareness will also enable you to identify triggers that make you feel bad about yourself. Once you know what these triggers are, you can avoid them as far as it may be possible. A proactive and constructive approach to building your own sense of self-worth will go a long way to maintaining a healthy body image all-year round, even when you are faced with seasonal triggers like seemingly playful campaigns around beach body ideals.”

When in doubt, seek help

Foot explains that communication is the first step in reaching a loved one whose attitude toward physical appearance concerns you. 

“Often the person in question may not see their behaviour as problematic, but a gradual and consistent approach to communicating your concerns can be effective – even if at first you receive the brush-off. Staying silent usually results in worse outcomes in the long run, so keep trying different approaches to communication until you get through. 

“If you think that you or a loved one may be at risk of an eating disorder or other mental health concern associated with physical appearance, consult your therapist or healthcare practitioner whom you trust for advice on how to get help. In-patient care at a mental health facility may not be required, but do not delay in seeking help before any such mental health concern reaches an advanced stage,” she concludes.

Netcare Akeso operates a network of private inpatient mental health facilities and is part of the Netcare Group. Netcare Akeso provides individual, integrated and family oriented treatment in specialised inpatient treatment facilities, as well as certain outpatient services, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and substance use conditions. Please visit www.akeso.co.za or contact info@akeso.co.za for further information.

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