I have been trying to write up a significant article from The Biologist for a while now.
As a piece of writing it commands respect but isn’t all that easy to read or to explain clearly. It was written by Dr Aric Sigman FSB a psychologist who has taken a great interest in how the media affects the people who consume it. He has gone to a great deal of trouble to provide all the necessary references to back up what he is saying and to go into the details of how it all works.
This pleases a scientist because you can see exactly how strong his case is and form your own judgment about the conclusions. The trouble is, it makes it hard to read. It took several attempts to get all the way through it. But he has some important stuff to say, and I’d love to see it reaching a wider audience. But it proved to be a hard article to summarise.
I was on the point of giving up but a couple of beauty blog posts inspired me to give it another go. The first one I don’t want to give a reference too, but was a young woman saying she felt like a fraud writing a beauty blog when she herself was not only not beautiful but also overweight. (I doubt she will ever read this, but if she does and recognises herself please don’t give up on your blogging, I really appreciate it and I am sure others do as well.) It seemed really tragic that someone would consider stopping doing something they enjoyed because they weren’t happy with the way they looked.
The other one was by Oxford Jasmine about a cookery book – I’ll come to that later. Thanks to the impetus these gave me I have gone back to have another go. I have decided I am going to do what I usually hate most in science journalism and engage in a bit of hand waving, by which I mean I am going to make assertions and expect you to trust me. My excuse is that I simply don’t have the skill to write an article that is both easy to follow and gives all the details. I have given the reference to the original article below if you want more background.
So what has Dr Sigman to say? His point is basically that the proliferation of images of slim women in the media is distorting women’s self image. We feel less attractive around attractive people. In particular, we feel fat when we see people who are thinner than us. I think we knew that already, but do we realise the power of the effect? Television arrived for the first time on an island in Fiji in 1995. Before, Fijian women were untroubled by their figures. Dieting and eating disorders were unknown. Within three years everything had changed. Faced with the images of slim American women two thirds of the girls had started dieting, and 11% of them were regularly inducing vomiting in an attempt to lose weight. This had never happened before. They said openly that they were trying to imitate the women they had seen on the television.
We have had television for quite a while now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that things aren’t changing here. To quote Sigman
“Twenty-five years ago, the average fashion model was only 8% thinner than the average woman. Today that figure has risen to 23% (Derenne & Beresin, 2006). During this time dissatisfaction with body size and shape has become so prevalent among girls and women that it is being described as ‘a normative discontent’ (Grogan, 2007).”
So if these images are indeed having an effect, the effect is probably growing.
So what’s the effect of being surrounded by a media full of images that hardly any of us have any hope of achieving? Not a good one. In the UK there are currently 1.4 million women with some kind of eating disorder – an astonishing number. Of those 140,000 have anorexia according to a study by NICE. That is some pile of misery.
Huge numbers of us, and huge numbers of women in particular are not happy with our bodies. Even girls between the ages of three and six are worried about being overweight.
Actual anorexia is really only the large tip of a very big iceberg. In a sense continually trying and abandoning different diets is also an eating disorder. You may not think so, but your digestive system might beg to differ. It, after all, has to cope with the varying stuff you are eating, requiring it to radically change the kinds of enzymes it needs to cope with what you are feeding it.
A quarter of adults in the UK are trying to lose weight most of the time. Is it doing them any good? Not much, at best. In fact all the evidence is that diets have only a temporary effect, if that. Any weight lost is put straight back on again.
Dieting is probably positively harmful and one of the factors leading to our steadily increasing weight. It could well be that by restricting your food intake you are simply suggesting to your digestive system that you have fallen on hard times, and in response it becomes even more determined to hang on to every bit of fat it can. (The mechanism of this is interesting – I will do a blog post on it when I have time)
If obesity were simply a question of appearance you might be able to simply adopt a stoic approach that whatever others thought, you are not concerned. Brain scans indicating that reactions to body shape images are deep rooted and subconscious suggest that this would be a tough approach. But being overweight has some pretty serious downsides apart from not looking as good as you might. The extra weight on your joints sets you up for arthritis. The extra strain on your pancreas makes you more likely to succumb to diabetes. You are also at more risk of a heart attack or stroke, and a whole list of other undesirable conditions. You really want to be the size nature intended you to be – not as small as the media is suggesting you should be, but not as big as processed food and fad diets tends to make you.
The situation is bleak. The more images of thin people you see the more you feel dissatisfied. If you diet you will only get a temporary respite if anything. The chances are that you will end up fatter. If you have paid for special diet products you will probably be poorer too. The world has created an ideal of beauty that you cannot hope to achieve and that the harder you try to, the more miserable will be the results.
So what can be done about it? If anyone has any ideas I would love to hear them. Legislation would be difficult. I don’t think it is possible to dictate to the media what images they should or shouldn’t show. And any editor will point out that they are simply following what their readers want. If people didn’t want airbrushed pictures of size zero models in their magazines it wouldn’t take long before the publishers noticed and changed what they are serving up.
Are there any steps you can take as an individual? This is a tough one. It is nearly impossible to avoid the media and the images it contains. But maybe it is possible to reduce it to some extent. Forewarned with the knowledge of the potential harm, you can at least give some thought to avoiding the airbrushed photoshopped self esteem destroyers. Maybe switch to paperbacks instead of glossy magazines. And take care with what you let small children see. It may well be more important than what you let them eat.
Although going on a media diet might help you feel better about yourself, shouldn’t you be going on a food diet to improve your health?
Well I suppose if you have iron will power and are overweight that makes sense. Though if you have iron will power you won’t have become overweight in the first place. Most of us suffer from a chronic inability to keep to dietary rules, especially for a prolonged period of time. It simply doesn’t work.
That diets don’t work would be bad enough news, but we have sen that they are positively harmful. So what can be done? This brings me to the blog post by Oxford Jasmine. This is a review of a cook book. It isn’t a diet book, just one that explains about nutrition. I haven’t read the book, but I was intrigued by what she had to say. She doesn’t believe in prescriptive diets and instead concentrates on eating and enjoying good food. This is just such a sensible approach. (I have never met Oxford Jasmine and I have no idea what she looks like, but she at least is happy enough with how she looks.)
At first sight, this sounds like simply ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. But I think it might be just the opposite. It could that if we take more interest in the food we eat as food that we will have less of a problem with it. Have a look at France. There are some overweight people in France, as a quick wander around Paris will show. And obesity is rising in France, as it is everywhere. But nonetheless the French are not as overweight as the English despite having pretty similar economies. Why is this? It certainly isn’t because the French generally have a Spartan diet low in fat or carbohydrates or whatever. On the contrary they enjoy their food immensely and linger long on it.
Could the leisurely approach the French take to their meals be what keeps them trim? I was visiting a supplier in Brittany once and had to get away to catch the ferry. As a result we had to finish our dinner after only an hour and three quarters. My host was most apologetic at having to rush me so.
The consequence of taking your time is that your pancreas has plenty of opportunity to produce the insulin needed to cope with the glucose entering your blood stream. It then sends messages to your brain telling you that you can stop eating now. Compare that with a sandwich and a packet of crisps that enable you to get about a third of your daily energy requirement into your stomach very quickly, about a quarter of an hour in my case.
The other thing that undermines our body’s hunger feedback mechanism is the availability of highly processed energy rich fast foods. A microwave curry can be prepared in less than ten minutes. And eaten in about the same time. The brain monitors the energy impact of what you eat and trains you to subconsciously seek out the things that have a big impact on your blood sugar. Ever wondered why all the things you like eating turn out to be unhealthy? That is the reason.
So I have come to the point where I have to make some suggestions. I don’t know the answers and I am not sure that I really know any more than anybody else. But these are my ideas – feel free to ignore or dismiss them if you like. I don’t issue them as commandments. See if they work for you. If they do, then great. If they don’t, then hopefully you will have learnt something from trying them that will be help you find something that does work. We are all different.
t is said that it takes about 30 days to build a habit, so why not see what trying one of these suggestions for a month and see what it does for you.
1. Stop reading glossy magazines and watching films that have lots of images of slim attractive women in them. Keep in mind that the average dress size in the UK at the moment is 16, so you are getting a really distorted view of the world from most of the media.
2. Decide that you are not going to go on any more diets. They do more harm than good. Simply making that decision might well reduce your stress level.
3. Don’t try to radically change your diet over a short period of time. Your enzymes won’t be able to cope. Make small changes and make them stick.
4. Have an appetiser before your meal, preferably about 20 minutes before. This sounds really counter intuitive, but it might mean that when you sit down to your main course you already have enough insulin in your blood to cope with what you are eating and you are less likely to overeat.
5. Don’t let yourself get too hungry. Hunger should be something that makes life more enjoyable. When you have been out for a long walk or done a lot of gardening, it is a real pleasure to sit down and really enjoy a good meal. But don’t deliberately starve yourself for hours on end. All that will happen is that you will get to the end of your will power and have a binge. Snacks throughout the day are a good idea so long as you make sure that they aren’t calorie rich.
6. Eat as much raw food as you can. Fruit and raw vegetables are the least processed and so the most natural components of our diet. Something like a carrot is going to take a lot longer to eat than a bar of chocolate and also takes a lot longer to get broken down into its component parts. This is a good way of keeping your blood sugar levels even.
If you simply can’t resist temptations like chocolate, try and get into the habit of say eating an apple at the same time.
I have tried eating a completely raw diet for a couple of weeks. I found I had a lot more energy and slept much better. I didn’t lose any weight, but several people commented that I had. It isn’t really practical to go this far, but I think the benefits of increasing the amount of raw food you do eat will be noticeable.
7. Eat breakfast. Going out into the world of readily available high calorie snacks first thing in the morning with an empty stomach is like going into a medieval battle wearing a dressing gown and fluffy slippers. Prepare your defence well by not starting the day hungry.
8. Buy a good cookbook and take an interest in what you are eating, and whenever you can cook your own meals. I haven’t read it myself yet, but the one Oxford Jasmine talks about sounds like a good one. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a health orientated one. The most conventional cookbook will not call for the high levels of salt, fat and sugar you get in processed food. So a home cooked meal will be both healthier and taste better.
9. Don’t judge others’ weight. Women in particular can be very judgmental of overweight women. If you are inclined to be so, try to stop. I am not sure exactly how this might help, I just have a feeling it will.
Concentrate on living a healthy life and enjoying healthy food, and above all enjoying life. The less stressed you are about your weight you are, the more fun you will have, and probably the more chance you have of losing weight.
Dr Aric Sigman A Source of Thinspiration The Biologist Vol 57 No 3 October 2010