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Reshaping body image may be the most effective resolution

As another year ends and a new one begins, many people resolve to eat better, exercise more, and lose weight. A Nielsen survey found that about a third of Americans pledged to slim down and tone up as we rang in 2017, but Professor Pamela Keel of Florida State University says a better resolution is to simply lose the critical thoughts about your body.

Keel’s research team is testing a new program encouraging body acceptance, and they are seeing dramatic results.

“Consider what is really going to make you happier and healthier in 2018: losing 10 pounds or losing harmful attitudes about your body?” said Keel.

Keel has dedicated her entire career to studying body-image issues and how they relate to eating disorders. These problems are commonplace in America, particularly among young women.

An ideal body type has emerged over the past 35 years that is essentially unattainable for most people. Keel pointed out that the majority of Americans are overweight, which means there is a huge discrepancy between reality and the body types shown in the media.

“There’s a big gap between what we’re shown as being ideal and what to aspire to and where we actually are as a population,” said Keel. “That leaves people feeling bad about themselves, and, unfortunately, feeling bad about your body does not actually motivate a person to pursue healthy behavior.”

An intervention program called “The Body Project” was developed by Eric Stice of the Oregon Research Institute and Professor Carolyn Becker of Trinity University. Using ideas from this project, Keel has documented strategies to help people feel better about themselves.

An exercise called mirror-exposure directs a person to stand in front of a full-length mirror in little clothing and identify specific body traits that are good. The praise can be focused on the body’s outward appearance or the body’s function.

“You would say, ‘I really appreciate the way my legs take me wherever I need to go,’” said Keel. “‘Every day without fail, they get me out of bed, to the car, up the stairs and into the office. I don’t have to worry about walking.’ It can be that kind of functional appreciation of what your body does for you.”

The individual may choose instead to appreciate the appearance of a body feature like the skin or the shape of the shoulders.

“You can even go for higher risk body parts,” said Keel. “Rather than looking at yourself and saying, ‘I hate my gut,’ you could say, ‘I really like the shape of my legs.’ If there is something about you that you like, the idea is to spend time focusing on it.”

Keel found that focusing on positive things helped transform people’s feelings about their bodies.

“It turns out that discarding those unattainable body ideals also improves your mood, self-esteem, reduces disordered eating behaviors and may reduce the risk of self-injurious behavior,” said Keel. “All sorts of things get better as a result of feeling better about your body.”

Attainment of a healthy body image was also found to lead to healthier eating patterns. These results have been replicated among diverse groups of participants, including a national sorority system and men at risk for eating disorders.

“When people feel good about their bodies, they are more likely to take better care of themselves rather than treating their bodies like an enemy, or even worse, an object,” said Keel. “That’s a powerful reason to rethink the kind of New Year’s resolutions we make for 2018.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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