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How I plan to combat the distorted body images on social media

Posted January 17

Years ago, I wrote a column about my frustration toward magazines that perpetuated unrealistic body images. I was angry that my young daughters were growing up in a world where airbrushed thighs were the goal and cellulite was our mortal enemy.

Ten years have passed, and I’m happy to say neither of my daughters has shown any interest in those magazines. As worried as I was over supermodels being flaunted as the norm, our new reality is far more troublesome — social media. The subjects in these photos aren’t paid professionals posing in couture clothing staged in exotic locations. These are our neighbors, our classmates, our co-workers. They’re us.

Because so many posts are presented as amateur photography displaying the everyday person, often people we know, many of us think these body goals are more realistic. If Jane down the street was able to whittle her waistline and pump up those biceps as demonstrated in her Transformation Tuesday selfie, well, obviously I can, too. And so begins the chase.

While these posts are often meant to be inspiring, more often they’re damaging. What we’re not seeing behind the selfie is the obsessive exercising and dieting. We’re not seeing relationships sacrificed for gym time. We’re not seeing the 30 attempts to get the right angle to show off a more flattering tummy. We’re not seeing the isolation caused by restrictive food habits. We are literally seeing others through a distorting filter.

Not only am I worried about how this impacts my daughters, I’m worried about how this has affected my own body image. I am fit and healthy. I don’t have a weight problem. My nutrition isn’t perfect, but I’ve never felt guilty about my birthday cake and ice cream on Sundays. I’ve never subscribed to fitness magazines that tout the latest diet craze, but my social media accounts are deluged with “Clean Eating” posts and pics of waistlines as thick as my pinky finger. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve allowed it to dig into my psyche, but I’m admitting it because I know I’m not alone.

I have no tolerance for whining. So what to do about this? I don’t have all the answers, but here’s my game plan.

First, I’ve deleted many of my social media accounts. I’ve kept a couple, mostly to keep an eye on my kids, but I’ve “unfollowed” people who focus solely on the physical. I will continue to follow those that offer great workout tips I can use in class, recipes I can try at home, and a more well-rounded approach to health and wellness, but if it’s nothing more than a daily bathroom selfie or self-congratulatory bootie shot, it’s gone. Out of sight, out of mind.

Second, I’m focusing less on size and more on feeling. It’s something I stress in my fitness classes, and I need to stress it more in my own life. The scale is a big force in my life. I won’t throw it out, but I am going to limit how often I use it. At the same time, I need to acknowledge and celebrate the positive and empowering attributes of my body. Today was easy. While teaching spin class, we hit a surge in a sprint at the same moment the music swelled to a crescendo. All the stars aligned and my legs felt like wings. It was freedom in its purest form. One month ago I was in an operating room. Today I was cycling like I’d never missed a day. I felt victorious. No scale can measure that feeling.

Third, I will recognize I am more than my body. While I want to take care of myself and will continue to exercise and eat well, I have to know that those who love me couldn’t care less about the size of my clothes. My kids won’t remember the summer I hit my goal weight, but they will remember that day we made snow angels in the front yard or the weekly summer campfires we had, roasting marshmallows and telling all our secrets in the dark. My friend Marie died of cancer last year. She was a remarkable runner. She was fast. She was fit. She was a Boston Marathoner. Guess what. There was no note in the program lauding her PR’s (personal records) or BQ’s (Boston Qualifiers). Nobody cared. What mattered were the relationships she fostered. Those hundreds of people didn’t show up to her funeral to pay their respects to her dress size. They paid their respects to an incredible woman who had a huge impact on all of us. People don’t care how you look. They care how you make them feel.

I won’t win this fight today. I have a feeling this is something I’m going to be struggling with for some time. But it’s worth the effort. Social media is no more real than the Tooth Fairy. Relationships aren’t fostered by “likes.” Emojis will never replace real hugs. No one really has 4,500 friends. No one needs 4,500 friends. Digital happiness never was real happiness. I want real. I want substance. You can’t get that by chasing unicorns, so let’s just stop.

Kim Cowart is a wife, mother, 24-Hour Fitness instructor and marathoner.

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