The Vitalistic Body Image

What is a healthy view of one’s self? 

By Mary Flannery, D.C.
It seems like a crazy world sometimes. Women are using cosmetic procedures to alter their bodies in record numbers—getting liposuction, botox injections and breast augmentation. And it’s not just women. There are pec and calf implants for the man who can’t get “pumped up” enough. It seems as though the world is image-obsessed and willing to demand (and receive) surgical procedures to be considered “more attractive.” 

We see this in the media, on the covers of tabloids and, on occasion, we might even have a friend who “had some work done.” And we sit back and roll our eyes, because we’re chiropractors and we know better, right?

I’m just like you. I’m a chiropractor and have been living a healthy chiropractic lifestyle for 17 years. I eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, limit my indulgences and model all these healthy behaviors for my kids. Yet this image obsession has somehow insidiously crept into my family.

I was playing with my 10-year-old son and I made some low-level teasing comment about how huge he’s getting. Imagine my surprise when he broke down into tears! Giant tears of true distress poured down his face as he tried to regain control. What followed was a harrowing conversation in which he confessed he thinks he’s “getting fat” and needs to lose weight. He repeatedly pointed to his stomach, stating it was too big. 

To be clear, my son is in no way overweight, obese or anything other than a perfectly healthy and active boy. He plays outside, reads books, practices tae-kwon-do three times a week and rides his bike like any other kid. The only thing that’s unusual about him is he’s willing to allow his mom to write about him in a national magazine.

My son has no comprehensible reason to have any concern about his weight or his body shape, even under the most stringent of physical standards. Yet, somehow, my son (I’ll admit I’d braced myself against my daughters feeling this way), who isn’t even a teenager yet, is already freaking out about his body. How has this happened? And even scarier, is it possible that I—as his healthy role model—haven’t been providing him with the ideal healthy body image I thought I was conveying?

Hearing TWO voices
What’s a “healthy body image”? And what’s a vitalistic body image? Our bodies are all unique, all brilliant, and all able to heal and maintain health over the course of our lifetimes, right? So, how exactly is that related to the way our bodies look? 

If you’re like me, then you may already be hearing two voices in your mind. One says, “How something looks doesn’t matter. It’s about function and communication and listening to your inner innate wisdom. Focusing on how something looks is just focusing on symptoms.” And then there’s the other voice, which sounds like this: “But how something looks is an indictor of how healthy it is! Healthy bodies look fit and trim and muscular. Truly healthy bodies look healthy. If your body doesn’t look healthy, you probably need to do something about that!”  And then the guilt and recriminations set in.

I’ve come to this conclusion: we’re so well programmed, we scarcely notice when our vitalistic philosophy abandons us and we fall down the slippery slope of appearance-driven cultural approval. Let’s face it, even with all our counter- cultural embracing of Vitalism and trusting our bodies and empowerment, we still worship the ideals. Thin is good, right and healthy. Fat is bad, wrong and unhealthy. 

We work hard to eat right, to work out properly and to become fit and strong. But we’re confused as to why we do this at times. Sadly, our primary motivator is often as shallow as the rest of our culture—we want to look good, and we judge those who don’t look good. And unfortunately, we pass these values and attitudes to our children.

Just this week, my 8-year-old daughter was watching me labor away on the treadmill. Once again, I was faced with the mixed messages received by my healthy “chiropractic” kids. She asked, “Mom, are you running so you can get skinny?”

Wow! I try not to think about my workouts that way, but I must confess, I’m always trying to lose that last 15 pounds. I don’t think I ever mention weight loss or obsess about my appearance in front of my kids. When I’m eating something different from them, I never say I’m on a “diet” or I want to lose weight. But they know. They know everything. Because whether I say it or not, they’re always learning from me and they’re picking up on my attitudes. And some of my own demons are affecting my kids. 

After the aforementioned conversation with my son, I started doing some research. The Internet eventually led me to Kathy J. Kater, a psychotherapist, author and consultant in Minneapolis, who specializes in healthy body image, eating, weight and fitness. In particular, I was drawn to Kater’s philosophy. She’s a vitalist at heart, focused on accepting each person and each body as it is. Her work is very “inside out,” teaching kids to strive for health over appearance.

The Toxic Myths
Kater’s three decades in her field have led her to focus on proactively teaching children to counteract the dangerous and damaging ideas perpetuated by our culture and media. When she began working with kids, she was working primarily with high-schoolers. She relates that often the ideas were too ingrained and much damage had already been done by high school and even middle school. So she created a curriculum for elementary school children. 

This curriculum (which can be found online at bodyimagehealth.org) is written for fourth, fifth and sixth grade kids, and it contains some major paradigm shifts from the anti-obesity campaigns we’re used to seeing (and which are under assault for worsening the self image and making “bully targets” of the very kids they seek to help). Kater asserts that, while eating disorders and obesity may be on the rise, the scary truth at the core of the epidemic is that “almost all children growing up today—particularly the vast majority of girls—will become anxious and/or dissatisfied with their body size and shape, and will learn to make unhealthy, nutritionally inadequate, counterproductive and even dangerous lifestyle choices as a result.”

In her curriculum, Kater strives to redress what she calls “toxic myths.” These toxic ideas, which are very prevalent in our culture, create the basis for the spectrum of eating problems. They represent the building blocks of a pyramid of dangerous activities stemming from poor self image: obesity, obsessive dieting, anorexia and bulimia. Each toxic attitude creates its own series of challenges and dangers.

The first of these ideas is the concept whereby image is valued over substance. Popular culture relentlessly sends the message: how you look is valued above who you are. And we all have been relentlessly taught that the “right look” is thin. Fat is “bad” and “wrong.” We have to shift this paradigm to one where people are valued for themselves and not judged for how they appear. This seems obvious, but the opposite attitude is incredibly insidious and pervasive. Do you ever do this? Be honest. If not to your kids, do you do it to yourself?

The second toxic value Kater identifies is the denial of biological diversity. We all have biological differences and gifts. Sometimes that’s a different body type and shape than the cultural ideal. Would you label someone as being “bad” for having green eyes? For being weak at math? No? Then why do we do this with body type?

The next idea she covers in her curriculum involves externally prescribed hunger regulation. And let’s face it; dieting just isn’t effective—especially not in the long term. We need to listen to our bodies when we’re hungry. We need to feed ourselves healthy and wholesome food, and honor our hunger with good things to sustain our health.

The final toxic ideology Kater discusses involves how we, as a culture, discount and dismiss the value of health. In doing so, we’re motivated by how something will make us look, rather than how it will build our health. We need to recreate a culture that puts health as the primary motivator for activities. For example, we need to teach our kids to work out to become strong and fit. We should eat foods we know are good for us in quantities that keep us healthy. And we must disentangle ourselves from a culture that undervalues health until times of crisis.

Time to reboot?
Even though it’s difficult, it’s important to start these conversations early. Kater reports kindergarten teachers regularly relay comments from children exhibiting an unhealthy obsession with weight and body image. Kater says the majority of third to sixth graders say they’re “very afraid of gaining weight,” and almost half say they “would like to lose weight.”  These attitudes then lead to a steady rise in skepticism of their bodies’ ability to function properly, mistrust of their own hunger and natural cues, and identifying themselves positively or negatively based on their size. 

Ultimately, we should strive to know and trust our bodies, although sometimes we lose our way and get caught up in the hype of our culture. Is it time to reboot? To find a new paradigm for healthy body image, we must relearn ourselves. We must find meaningful ways to retrain our kids and give them new ways to look at body image, weight and fitness.

Consider this article your wake-up call. If you think the kids around you possess healthy attitudes about their bodies and weight, this might be a good time to reassess the situation. You may be surprised about what the children in both your practice and your home have learned.

I leave you with the same challenge I now face: How do we use Vitalism to empower kids to love their bodies and make healthy and sustainable choices? How do we retrain our attitudes, which are so misshapen by an image-obsessed culture? 

Of course, I don’t pretend to possess all the answers. But I can tell you, I will be searching for ways to make a difference. I hope you’ll join me in the quest to find them.

Resources to make a difference
“Healthy Body Image: Teaching Kids to Eat and Love Their Bodies Too!” by Kathy Kater
Hands down, Kater’s book is among the most widely consulted guidebooks for helping children to maintain a healthy body image. It covers her ideas of the “toxic myths,” and she proposes numerous solutions to assist children in developing a positive self-image and worldview. 

“Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising,” by Jean Kilbourne
There’s no doubt about it, advertising in the U.S. is deadly. Kilbourne’s book offers a rivoting narrative about why it works and what you need to know to resist its effects.

“Am I Fat? Helping Young Children Accept Differences in Body Size,” by Joanne Ikeda and Priscilla Naworski 
This handy guide is an extremely useful resource for adults hoping to help young children understand the concept of biological diversity and how it relates to body size. It’s well-known among nutrition specialists and coordinators as well.

“Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family,” by Ellyn Satter
This excellent book helps adults establish a positive mealtime relationship with their children.

“The Bodywise Woman,” by Judy M. Lutter and Lynn Jaffee
A sensible, highly informative read providing the facts about bodies in a friendly, easy-to-read format that helps women make good health decisions.

What Should We Teach Our Children? 
From an early age, our children can choose to be healthy, and we need to teach them this. There are so many great things we can choose. As Kater says, “Weight is not a behavior. Body shape is not a behavior. Behaviors are things we can choose.”

We can choose what we eat. We can choose foods that help us grow strong. We can choose different foods, of different colors and textures and types. We can honor our hunger by starting with the foods that sustain our health. 

We can choose how we move. We can choose to be active every day. We can choose to move our bodies before we play video games and watch TV, because it’s fun and it feels great,  and also because our bodies are healthier when we move.

We can choose how we think. We can think positive, affirming thoughts about our lives, our challenges, our bodies and our opportunities. We can choose to think creatively about how we will solve problems and spend our time and energy. We can choose to be loving and forgiving to others, and—most importantly—to ourselves.