Food, Body Image, & How They Shape Us

We live in a society with brilliant advertising for nearly every product or idea imaginable. Simultaneously, we are constantly bombarded with images of unrealistic and unhealthy ideals of beauty. It’s no wonder that people feel conflicted about what to eat, and how to live up to the status quo, especially during the upcoming holiday season.

Let’s Play a Game...

For the next 24 hours, imagine that you will be paid $1 for every food, diet, exercise, or body image comment that you notice. This could be advertisements for a new food product, a promotion for a new fitness center, commercials for a new diet pill—anything that represents the media sending a message to members of our society, telling them how they should look. Now, unless you have an unlimited amount of money, you will probably be vigilant in detecting comments concerning this topic, in hopes to earn the most cash. You may be shocked to see how prevalent this is when you pay attention to it. It’s all around us.

Part Two: how many of these things were positive or encouraging people to feel comfortable in their own skin? I would bet very few.

So why play this dreadful game? It’s important to be aware of the differences between what our bodies need in order to function properly versus what society has decided we “should” look like. This social pull to be “fit” or “skinny” is ruining the relationships many individuals have with food. Even worse, the desperation to be accepted by others is steering many people in the direction of disordered eating and preventing people from enjoying the traditions and social aspect of food.

Photo by  Charles Deluvio  via Unsplash

Photo by Charles Deluvio via Unsplash

Why do we eat?

The obvious answer is to stay alive. Food provides our cells with the energy needed to sustain ourselves. To learn more about the process of digestion, check out this video by Emma Bryce.

In addition to physiological needs, food is also a critical component in how we live our daily lives. We use it to schedule our daily routine, show others that we care, soothe sadness, and rejoice in celebration. Food serves as an artistic medium, a reminder of home, and a gift to the ones we love.

In other words:  f o o d   i s   c u l t u r a l.

Image by  Katie Smith  via Unsplash

Image by Katie Smith via Unsplash

So, if food is needed at a survival level and strongly desired for social and interpersonal reasons, why does it become the enemy to so many people? According to the National Eating Disorders Association (2018):

Body image is how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind. It encompasses:

  • What you believe about your own appearance (including your memories, assumptions, and generalizations).

  • How you feel about your body, including your height, shape, and weight.

  • How you sense and control your body as you move.  How you physically experience or feel in your body.”

Food intake (or lack thereof ) literally shapes our bodies, and the messages we receive from our environment will have an impact on how we feel about that shape. When we consider the images of men and women in the media (which may be photoshopped in some cases!), many people feel inadequate physically. They believe that they are too fat, too skinny, not muscular enough, too curvy, not curvy enough… and the list goes on. They suffer from poor body-image and may go to great lengths to change the way they look.

Diet Culture

As companies and individuals have increasingly profited by selling weight loss cookbooks, exercise programs, juice cleanse drinks, and a sugar-free or low-fat version of nearly every snack, diet culture was born. This is the idea that looking a certain way or maintaining a specific weight is more important than feeling comfortable, satiated, and nourished. Even worse, diet culture endorses the idea that the appearance of the outside is inarguably more important than who we are on the inside

Photo by  Thought Catalog  via Unsplash

Photo by Thought Catalog via Unsplash

According to Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., an obesity expert, between 85-95% of diets fail, yet people willingly come running back to them. This could be partly because diets force people into eating in a way that goes against what their body is telling them. Humans are born with an instinctual ability and desire to eat with no other goal than to be comfortable and survive.

Diet culture does not value the real reasons for eating, the uniqueness of each individual’s body, and certainly condemns any sort of variation from the ideal image of the media. It also perpetuates a cycle of depriving oneself from eating the items they crave —> to giving in to these cravings —-> feeling guilty/fat/weak/unworthy —> and restricting intake once again.

Photo by  Jennifer Burk  via Unsplash

Photo by Jennifer Burk via Unsplash

“Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives”.
— Neumark-Sztainer, 2005

What Can We Do?

With diet culture promoting thinness and society offering easier access than ever to nearly any food you could want, we may find ourselves feeling very conflicted about how to eat. Exploring your relationship with food can be a great place to start. Notice the ways in which you are influenced by diet culture such as:

·     Following fitness accounts on social media

·     Always buying diet or low-calorie products

·     Feeling ashamed of eating in front of others

·     Feelings compelled to try the next new fad diet

One of the most important things we can do is listen to our bodies. Remember to eat for nourishment and pleasure. However, if you have concerns about your eating or health, speak with a dietitian, therapist, or doctor. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, seek the help of a specialist.

Meet Niki


Written By: Nicole “Niki” DiCarlo

Niki DiCarlo is a graduate intern at Space Between Counseling Services.  Following the completion of her Master's degree at the University of Baltimore, Niki plans to seek LCPC licensure.  Niki is passionate about working with individuals struggling with anxiety and disordered eating.  When she isn’t focused on her schooling and clients, Niki enjoys spending time with her girlfriends, playing guitar, singing, solving puzzles and cooking.

Interested in working with Niki?  Click HERE to learn more.