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Pacific Northwest | October 17, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMONTH, DAY, home Home delivery

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Get Over It!
Quit playing the body-beautiful game, and win
The message is omnipresent and comes to us without subtlety: Magazine covers showing off freakishly perfect (air-brushed, well-lit) bodies with their six-pack abs and slim thighs. Before-and-after photographs selling quick weight loss or the latest infomercial gadget. A popular women's fitness magazine crowing, "Bikini Emergency? High-speed total body makeover!"

We all want to look good, or at least better, and the mirror can motivate us to real health benefits. But I worry about perspective. The cosmetic fixation has gotten more, not less intense in recent years, experts say and studies show. It can knock you off the real goal of being healthy rather than looking pretty.

While these images are meant to inspire, or at least sell stuff, they actually often frustrate. In extreme cases, they contribute to severe eating and other psychological disorders.

It is so prevalent in the material that lands on my desk that I decided to ask health and fitness professionals about this phenomenon. They all implored us: Be realistic. And face it, you're not magazine material. You don't need to be. Stop trying to impress. Do your best and ground your fitness plan in health and function, not looks.

"People see those images and wonder, 'Why can't I be like that?' "says Peter Shmock, owner of ZUM, a downtown health club. "It's all an illusion. A cover model for Men's Health magazine told me, 'People have no idea what I have to put myself through for that look.' Trying to duplicate that look is setting yourself up for a huge letdown. I encourage people to take baby steps."

Shmock and others say people who traditionally stick with exercise are the ones who tap into the energy and feelings of well-being it provides.

Tammy Peterson, a personal trainer at Seattle's Outrageously Fit Personal Training Studio, says focusing on one's "body image" can hold people back from joining a gym or working out in public because they feel intimidated. But it can also be a legitimate motivator for those who want to improve their body and health.

"As someone who has lost 85 pounds and then became a personal trainer, I have experienced both the hindrance and motivation," she says. "As a fitness educator I encourage people to become healthy and fit, and accept what their body is capable of instead of pursuing fad diets, air-brushed cover-model figures, magic pills and quick-weight-loss programs."

Clinical psychologist Doug Bunnell, board president of the National Eating Disorders Association, says that in the extreme, the distorted view of what passes for "in shape" is as destructive as it is powerful, causing severe disorders.

One of the most interesting phenomena, he says, "is perceptual distortion. In some ways it looks psychotic, it's so at odds with reality. But these patients aren't psychotic in any other way."

That perceptual distortion only operates with regard to themselves, he says. In a group of other people with anorexia nervosa, a person can be very sympathetic and can see the emaciation of his or her peers but can't see it in her or himself.

Women and girls are more likely to develop eating disorders based on poor body image, but the number of men is growing. A recent British Medical Journal study found nearly as many men as women say they are unhappy with how they look.

Exercise should be geared to developing health not shape, function not sculpture. That's why Bunnell and others say getting girls involved in athletics is so important. It instills early on the lesson that the tired, old mind-set of appearance can take a back seat to achievement.

While people need to be more comfortable and realistic about their body shapes, that doesn't mean they should be comfortable with doing nothing. We're a drastically overweight society.

Just be smart. Don't try to lose the weight in a hurry. One or two pounds a week are plenty. Include strength training. Muscle mass burns calories and provides energy. Proper cardiovascular work not only sheds pounds but conditions the heart (which should be monitored by taking a heart rate). Proper nutrition is a must.

Body-composition testing done at the beginning and periodically in many weight-loss programs can help. Just don't get too caught up in the numbers. Do everything right and for the right reason, and you might be surprised how good you look.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at

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