Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
A picture of a fat baby, accompanied by the text ‘When you realize it’s almost summer, and your winter body has gotten out of control’. This is the introduction to one of the latest UM Sports newsletters, urging readers to get “beach body ready”. Nothing wrong with this message. Or is there?
“I was disappointed to see them use unhealthy rhetoric to try and motivate people to exercise”, says Jessica Alleva, assistant professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. Her research focuses on body image. “It plays into this myth and shows how common it still is. Body positivity, not body anxiety, helps people take better care of themselves.” Alleva wrote a friendly email to UM Sports, expressing her concerns. “Research has shown that such messages encourage people to experience anxiety and shame about their own body. Ironically, these feelings can lead to people being less likely to exercise and eat healthily.” Alleva got in dialogue with UM Sports, “they weren’t aware of their ‘wrong’ communication. I’m happy they’re willing to discuss the ways of making their communication and sports environment more body-positive.”
Alleva recalls a campaign in London by the company Protein World, promoting a weight-loss product. The advert featured a thin, toned model in a bikini, accompanied by the same words: ‘Are you beach body ready?’ It caused a stir in the UK, where, because the posters appeared on the tube, Transport for London was left fielding complaints. Posters were defaced with graffiti, changing the message into ‘Each body’s ready’. A mass protest was even planned; people found the poster offensive, irresponsible and disrespectful to women. After three weeks the Protein World campaign was replaced. “It was harmful, because it sent the message that you’re only beautiful and ready to go to the beach if you’re thin and toned. As if you can only do certain things, or feel happy with yourself, if you look a certain way. Importantly, the ‘ideal’ we’re told to look up to is extremely narrow, and it’s unrealistic for most people to reach”, Alleva says.
Emphasising the benefits of exercise for your health rather than appearance makes a huge difference, she says. “When people’s motivation for exercising is to lose weight, they will be less motivated to exercise and more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviours. A better way is to focus on the health benefits of exercise, like boosting energy or relieving stress.” Further, research shows that people feel better when paying attention to their body’s functionality: “everything your body is able to do – dance, run, swim, taste, see.”
Alleva admits that it’s difficult to change the message when social media confronts us on a daily basis with the importance of appearance. “Your friend looks fit on Instagram, so you feel you should too. You know the fit-girl hype? Young women posting pictures on social media of themselves in bikinis, eating healthy food, working out. Many people identify with them, seeing a thin toned body as an ideal, not realizing that many of these photos use all sorts of filters and other tricks to achieve that look.” And it’s important to note that not only women are affected. “Men, too, are getting more concerned about their muscularity and leanness.”
Alleva conducted a meta-analysis of several existing body-image interventions. The conclusion? Overall, they have only modest effects. “There’s still a lot to find out. For instance, most interventions have focused on appearance concerns and decreasing body dissatisfaction. But what if we instead helped people to focus on what they appreciate about their body and what it can do? That’s a different angle.” Alleva performed experiments with writing exercises, asking participants to write down why they are grateful for specific body functions. For example: ‘I can dance, and that helps me to relieve stress’, or ‘I can see beautiful scenery while cycling’. The idea is to change the focus, to get away from that image of the ‘ideal’ body. And it worked – even a month later, people felt more satisfied with and appreciative of their bodies. “The main challenge is to stick to this feeling every day.”
Myth busters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics