America's Image Problem: Body Image vs. Body Health

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Today I break from my usual focus on the Erie BayHawks and NBA Development League. I was asked to write a short essay in accordance with Fat Talk Free Week (Oct. 19-23), an international, 5-day body activism campaign to draw attention to body image issues and the damaging impact of the ‘thin ideal’ on women in society.

Though it may not directly tie into the regular content of the blog, it's not hard to connect the dots between body image and sports. Whether it's the BayHawks players, the dance team members, or the training staff, proper fitness and health are an integral part of sports. Conversely, sports can play an integral role in helping one maintain a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, sports is also big business and therefore contributes in some negative ways―specifically through marketing and advertising―to our culture's obsession with body image over body health.

So, without further ado, I hope you'll find my words interesting and thought-provoking about a topic you might not often think about. For more information, please visit or

We live in an image-obsessed society full of Nike signs, tan lines, and infomercials touting the latest weight-loss craze. America is the land of the free and the home of the bravado, where the only thing more valuable than the almighty dollar is how good you look after you've spent it.

We're obsessed with celebrity, and so we see our actors, athletes, and musicians as larger than life figures to be praised and emulated. And more damning, we see our own lives as somehow inferior. Our obsession with celebrity and image has gotten to the point where our society has actually re-defined “reality” through a genre of television that is frighteningly fake, and we now have a generation of people who value Reality TV Star as a valid and worthwhile career pursuit. Thanks to shows like The Real World and The Real Housevives of New Jersey, we've become detached from the real world.

Perception has become the deciding factor in our life choices. What will they think if I wear that? What will they say if I eat this? Will they judge me if I don't look like him or her? And it all comes back to the issue of image. If you turn on the TV, flip through a magazine, or drive past a billboard, society's message about body image is clear. For women, this means they should be thin and petite, preferably with Barbie's breasts. And for men this means they should be athletic and muscular, preferably with a full head of hair.

Women often hear, “You look great! Have you lost weight?” Heavier-set men may get the same or less masculine men may hear the opposite, “You look great! Have you been bulking up?” In either case, the statement, even if intended as a compliment is improperly focused. Let's assume the person offering the observation is just offering a friendly compliment to a friend or relative.

The problem is that they are offering an image-based statement also known as fat talk. The person “looks better” because they more closely resemble that societal ideal (thinness). And unfortunately, these image-based statements are damaging, even when the intention behind them may be good. Image-based statements like, “You look great! Have you lost weight?” place an emphasis on appearance rather than health, which perpetuates society's message that looks are what matter regardless of how or why a person looks that way.

As a result, people become obsessed with their appearance rather than focusing on healthy methods and habits. They want a body like the stars, thinking that's what they should look like. For some people, fat talk forces them to try fad diet after fad diet as they try to keep up with the pressure to lose weight. For others, it may be more debilitating. Fat talk may result in low self-esteem that, in turn, causes them to shy away from the gym for fear of what others might think or say about them. It may even drive some people to engage in more serious behaviors like self-induced starvation, anorexia, or bulimia. In all, 10 million people suffer from eating disorders nationwide.

That number is alarmingly high, and that is why we need to re-brand society's message. We need to stop obsessing over body image and start preaching a positive message about body health because health is not measured by a scale or a dress size. In fact, health and beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. We need to view exercise and a balanced diet not as temporary steps on a weight-loss program but as essential elements needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We need to teach young people about the positive life benefits of eating right and regular exercise, helping them find healthy food choices that they like and forms of exercise that can be both fun and helpful.

We also need to feel free to indulge in the occasional fast-food meal or loaded dessert without fearing a scornful eye, and accordingly, we also need to learn the healthy value of moderation. More importantly, we need to learn these things and adapt these changes not because it will impact what we look like or how we are perceived, but because we owe it to ourselves to treat our bodies with respect. By striving for a healthy ideal rather than an image-based thin (or ripped) ideal, we can reclaim reality from the unnatural and unrealistic portrayals in Hollywood.

As fad diets and Photoshopped starlets continue to shine the spotlight on transformed bodies, we have to ignite the flame of a new idea that can transform lives. And it starts with ending fat talk. Think big picture: America's obesity epidemic. America doesn't have a weight problem, we have a healthy lifestyle problem. By shifting the focus from body image to body health, we can make the difference in the lives of millions of people.

So do your part to stop fat talk and start the health talk movement. Then move from health talk to walk the walk. Be active. Eat right. Run, jump, dance your way to a healthier life. And love yourself all the way through. Because it doesn't matter whether you're an A-list celebrity, a D-League basketball player, or just a blogger with a small voice like me, we all have the right to a healthy lifestyle that endures long beyond our 15 minutes of fame.


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About this blog/blogger

Blog Talk BayHawk is an unofficial Erie BayHawks blog covering the NBA D-League. It features opinions and information about the NBADL and the Erie BayHawks. Blog Talk BayHawk is written from a basketball fan’s perspective to fill In the gaps left by professional journalists’ coverage of BayHawks basketball and the Erie professional basketball scene.

Matt Hubert is a 25-year-old writer and basketball fanatic born and raised in Erie, Pa. He graduated from Mercyhurst College in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in English and a dual concentration in writing and creative writing. Matt's not wavering from his stance as a lifelong Los Angeles Lakers fan, but he will cover the BayHawks' NBA affiliates in Cleveland and Toronto when it makes sense to do so throughout the year.

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