Westmont Magazine Being at Home in the Body
As a boy, my days were spent outside, exploring, inventing, playing ball, getting dirty. We walked to school and biked to Little League practice. When confined indoors, we played with Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and Slinkies. My sister was devoted to her dolls, her friends and a spectacular plastic horse collection. In junior high, I noticed the girls were a little taller, but I quickly caught up in height and forgot that perplexing discrepancy. In high school, I was certainly unimpressed by what I saw in the mirror, but I had more important things to focus on, such as making the varsity squad and getting a car.
The Westmont students today have grown up in a different environment. The fear of much social harm has supplanted the opportunity to roam the neighborhood, to explore. As a result, activity has become highly structured and infrequent. Between proscribed activities, children are forced indoors, with all their youthful energies sedated by TV, video games and high-fat, high-sugar snacks. And what do these entertainment opportunities provide? An insatiable number of messages purposely designed to create dissatisfaction with how we look and feel about ourselves. Children see on average about 400-600 commercials a day, with one in 11 related to physical appearance. Alongside these commercials appear countless other ads promoting sweet, fatty foods ironically consumed by incredibly skinny, attractive kids.
It’s appalling how seemingly harmless dolls such as Mattel’s Barbie for girls and Hasbro’s G.I. Joe for boys have changed over the years. Barbie has become thinner and thinner. According to one study, a modern Barbie the height of an actual woman would have a 16-inch waist and could not walk upright. At the same time, G.I. Joe has been adding muscle. In 1964, a 5-foot, 10-inch doll would have a 32-inch waist, a 44-inch chest and a 12-inch bicep – a perfectly respectable physique. In 1974, his bicep grew to 15 inches with abdominal muscles nicely defined. In 1991, G.I. Joe’s waist shrunk to 29 inches and his biceps grew to 16.5 inches. In the mid 1990s, Mattel introduced the extreme G.I. Joe, who has a 55-inch chest and a 27-inch bicep, impossible life-sized dimensions even for our sitting governator. Many of children’s earliest messages about body image come from their dolls.
But the dolls are only the beginning of a series of messages that make us feel inadequate. The media, advertisers and marketers have much to gain by reminding the human psyche that we fall short of the ideal. Why? Because they can realize a tremendous revenue stream from people of all ages, gender and ethnicity who become body-conscious consumers of fashion and make-up and customers of hairstylists, personal trainers, dieticians and plastic surgeons. The body has become the ultimate commodity.
For decades, advertisers have targeted young women who think that self-worth is closely associated with beauty. But the industry has recently turned their energies toward men and the elderly.
A Google search of any of the larger department stores produces close to 100 products in the men’s cosmetics section. In addition to the expected acne treatments and after-shave lotions, the stores offer face-revitalizing gels, under-eye serum, age-minimizing gel, deep-wrinkle correction, skin finishers and age-rescue face lotion. Men can even buy Hope in a Bottle, which announces, “Where there is hope, there can be faith. Where there is faith, miracles can occur. Science can give us better skin, only humanity can give us better days.”
If a cabinet full of cosmetics fails to satisfy, men can pursue plastic surgery. According to figures published by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, cosmetic surgeries have increased 55 percent in the past six years. In the 11 million cosmetic procedures performed in 2006, roughly 10 percent of the patients were men. The most popular surgeries were nose reshaping (85,000), eyelid surgery (37,000), liposuction (35,000), hair transplantation (20,000) and male breast reduction (20,000). Looking at the data by age instead of gender, 2 percent were performed on adolescents between 13 and 19, 7 percent on the 20-29 group, 19 percent on those 30-39, 45 percent on people 40-54 and 26 percent on age 55 and over. Apparently the culture has given up looking for the fountain of youth and has settled for the scalpel instead.
Male insecurity related to body image likely stems from the growing equality between women and men in many aspects of life. Today women can do practically anything a man can do: fly combat aircraft, work as police chiefs, operate heavy machinery and become CEOs of national corporations. Women enter formerly all-male military schools, win elective offices once held almost exclusively by men and have become less dependent on men for money, power and self-esteem. What, then, do men have left to distinguish themselves, to mark their masculinity? One of the few areas in which women can never match them is muscularity.
Of the 548 men in a 1997 Psychology Today study, an amazing 43 percent — nearly half — reported they were dissatisfied with their overall appearance. More than half were dissatisfied with their weight (52 percent), 45 percent with their muscle tone, and 38 percent with their chest. Nearly as many men as women were dissatisfied with how they looked. Members of our kinesiology department have noted similar responses to surveys taken in the predominantly first-year class Fit For Life. When asked if men at Westmont are more content with their bodies than men outside the family of faith, only 20 percent agreed, and the majority either disagreed or were undecided. When the same question was asked about women, 55 percent disagreed and 15 percent strongly disagreed.
Using height and weight data, we were able to establish weight categories for our students. Ninety percent of the women were in the healthy weight category as were 79 percent of the men. Yet only 37 percent of the females and 47 percent of the males in that category were pleased with their weight. Almost all the women expressed dissatisfaction and wanted to lose weight; the men wanted to gain it. Both desires, when taken to an extreme, can have serious health consequences. Simple dieting can lead to disordered eating. Over time, psychological obsessions can take hold, such as bulimia (the binge-purge phenomena) and anorexia nervosa (fear of food) or both. Without proper and timely intervention, these conditions can result in osteoporosis, infertility and even death. Men begin by lifting weights and consuming protein supplements. Taken to the extreme, a form of reverse anorexia, muscle dysmorphia, can develop. Young men become convinced they’re puny and underdeveloped despite the state of their bodies.
Psychiatrist Katharine Phillips, a specialist in body dysmorphic disorders, describes this problem as “a psychiatric illness in which patients become obsessively preoccupied with perceived flaws in their appearance.” The disorder is becoming common among young males, with an average onset age of 15. When a woman suffering from anorexia nervosa looks in the mirror, she thinks she is fat even though by all classifications she is incredibly thin. Likewise, men with muscle dysmorphia consider themselves small even with a 52-inch chest and 20-inch biceps on a 6-foot, 3-inch, 270-pound frame. These men will go to all ends to increase muscle mass, including using dangerous anabolic steroids.
In my work as an exercise physiologist, I am haunted by how these practices strain the overall limits of the human body. My discipline and training have focused on the ways the body adapts when exposed to various stresses, namely exercise and changes in the environment such as heat, cold and altitude. Over the years, I have attempted to apply the principles of exercise physiology to individuals suffering from body-image disorders.
Consider, for example, how the body protects itself against extreme weight changes, a phenomenon known as the metabolic defense of fat or the naturally defended weight. The body tolerates only minimal changes in weight, probably five pounds or so. Forcing changes beyond this limit results in metabolic adjustments seeking a return to the defended weight. No matter how much an individual diets, the fat that is lost will come back over time. The body protects against periods of starvation by slowing overall metabolism and storing extra fat in preparation for future deprivation. Dieting in cycles creates this sad scenario.
Similarly, men desiring to gain unrealistic levels of muscle will experience limits as well. Building and maintaining muscle mass requires the body to generate greater metabolic levels to sustain the added mass, something the body resists. But this is not the case for fat. The body can store incredibly high levels of fat without realizing any increase in metabolism; in fact, metabolic levels in the obese are actually lower than individuals with normal weights. When a weight lifter stops his exercise routine, muscle mass returns to normal levels. But what about the protein calories from all that extra muscle? They don’t disappear along with the muscle — they are stored as fat.
Research on somatotyping (soma is the Greek word for body) reveals another limitation that is often overlooked. This work identifies various body shapes (or types) found in humans. As shown in the illustration (left), there are three body types. The ectomorph is narrow at the waist and shoulders but long in the torso. These people tend to be skinny, and their frames resist the accumulation of both fat and muscle. The mesomorph’s frame is narrow at the waist and wide at the shoulders and easily accepts increases in muscle mass. The endomorph’s frame is wide at the waist and wide at the shoulders and is prone to gaining fat.
What is seldom noted when discussing weight loss or gain is the reality that people can’t alter their somatotype. The male college student in the illustration (left) is an extreme ectomorph: tall and skinny. He underwent an aggressive weight-training program for an entire semester, gaining 13 pounds without changing his body fat. Unfortunately for him, the “after” picture (in the white trunks) still depicts an ectomorph.
People who are predominantly endomorphic will never attain the stick figure of a model no matter how much time they spend in the gym or how much dieting they do. Likewise, those with an ectomorphic body type will never take on the V shape the mesomorph can attain with relative ease. By the time they reach their 20s, students have accepted the fact that their height and shoe size will likely never change. Wouldn’t it be freeing for them to accept their God-given morphology in the same way?
As a Christian, I am soberly aware how difficult it is for believers to maintain a healthy, eternal view of their bodies. Scripture is filled with passages that celebrate God’s great gift of the human body in all its splendor, yet we seldom take God at his word in this matter. The voices and images announcing our shortcomings come at us with such intensity and from so many fronts, that God’s still small voice seldom penetrates our eardrum, our eyes and, most importantly, our hearts and minds.
Physical attractiveness was a stumbling block in biblical times as well. When God sent Samuel to Jesse’s house to choose the next king, “He looked at Eliab and said, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him!’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” (I Samuel 16:6-7)
In Isaiah 53 we gain insight into the life and death of the coming messiah. Verse two speaks of his appearance: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him — nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
Phillip Yancy, in his wonderful book “What Is So Amazing About Grace” offers believers a powerful, freeing insight. “Sociologists have a theory of the looking glass self: you become what the most important person in your life thinks you are. How would my life change if I truly believed the Bible’s astounding words about God’s love for me, if I looked in the mirror and saw what God sees?”
And what does God see? A person created in His image. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:27, 31)
Finally, our bodies are only temporary. Paul cautions believers, “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:18 – 21)
Joni Eareckson Tada has been paralyzed all her adult life. In “Heaven: Your Real Home,” she provides a powerful perspective. “Somewhere in my broken, paralyzed body is the seed of what I shall become. The paralysis makes what I am to become all the more grand when you contrast atrophied, useless legs against splendorous resurrected legs. I’m convinced that if there are mirrors in heaven (and why not?), the image I’ll see will be unmistakably ‘Joni,’ although a much better, brighter Joni.”
In short, physical appearance and physical attractiveness are not criteria to being accepted and used by God. He created us in His image and said His creation was very good. Our hope is in God’s promises, not on the approval of society.
How does God want us to treat those who do not fit the image revered by society? Again, we look to Jesus and His healing hands. He cleansed the leper, healed the paralytic, bestowed sight on the blind and gave speech to the mute. In short, Jesus demonstrated love and compassion to those considered outcasts of society.
As an exercise physiologist who teaches extensively on the topics of exercise, nutrition and weight management, I regularly get questions from students about stewardship of the body. If we as Christians are to live a life of balance, how much attention should we give to the physical? Surprisingly, very little. Regarding exercise, the technical formulas and prescriptions we have learned in decades past have given way to a simple mandate for all. The American College of Sports Medicine recently provided the exercising community with the following position statement: “Every U.S. adult should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.”
To better interpret this position, consider the goal of attaining 1,000 calories of exercise per week. This would translate to roughly 10 miles of brisk walking per week, or two miles five times a week. In other words, you can realize tremendous health benefits and protection from many lifestyle diseases by briskly walking only two miles a day!
A sedentary lifestyle contributes to many diseases. Those who choose inactivity increase their chances of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis (for women) to name some of the most dangerous illnesses. But developing an active lifestyle without giving proper attention to what we eat will negate much of our physical efforts.
It’s no surprise that Americans love the flavor and texture of food. But the sense of taste and its resulting pleasure tend to be insatiable. What was once satisfying no longer fulfills, so we seek a greater level of satisfaction from food. Where do we go to be satisfied? We gravitate toward foods high in fat and/or sugar. Unfortunately the fat in foods carries twice the calories of all other nutrients, and the sugars leave you feeling hungry in short order. Both food types have addictive qualities.
Much has been written about proper diets and dieting, but an ideal place to start is by focusing on the two greatest health hazards in the American diet: foods heavily sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (breakfast cereals, snacks, soft drinks, etc.) and everything deep fried. Once you are able to control the consumption of these foods, I suggest you work on eliminating red meats. Realistically, no one is going to stick with counting calories and reading food labels. I believe you need to put the emphasis on changing your habits and lifestyle, not temporary, quick-fix solutions.
This past February, Constance Rhodes, author of “Life Inside the Thin Cage” addressed the student body on the problem of dieting and the obsession of thinness, herself a victim. According to Rhodes, it is certainly a hunger issue: hunger for significance, for acceptance, for security, for peace and hope. She also warned us there is a war going on for our souls and hearts between the stealer and the healer. The stealer brings death — the death of your dreams, of your joy and your relationships. But the healer’s motive is love and acceptance. Jesus said “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). And to that end, may our obsession with all of life be properly focused on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Glenn Town, professor of kinesiology, joined the Westmont faculty in 2003 after teaching at Wheaton College for 21 years. An avid bicyclist and outdoorsman, he earned a doctorate at Kent State in applied physiology.