In a world in which even the most beautiful celebrities are routinely airbrushed for the covers of magazines and rates of plastic surgery have risen higher than ever before, striving for unrealistic ideals of physical perfection has become a dangerous preoccupation in many people's lives. Enter www.thebodyimageproject.com, a new Web site designed to help individuals reframe negative ideas about how they look and become reacquainted with healthy, happy living.
"The purpose of the Body Image Project is to create an awareness and understanding of body image as a health consideration," says Dr. Tiffany Stewart, a research psychologist and faculty member at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge and founder of Body Evolution Technologies, a digital media company that develops cutting-edge body-image assessment and intervention.
"Negative thinking about body image and behaviors — such as extreme dieting, obsession with thinness, engaging in substance use or plastic surgery — that impact health ... are not getting better," she says. In response, the Body Image Project seeks to help people change their perceptions and the way they think so they can thrive rather than merely survive.
Stewart, whose research focuses on the assessment and treatment of eating disorders, obesity and body image, says a healthy attitude about your body is fundamental for a balanced life. However, media portrayals of ultra-thin models and societal pressures to look a certain way have turned a necessary building block into a stumbling block for many and blurred the idea of just what a healthy body actually looks like.
"A healthy body image is one in which the body is healthy regardless of weight, and you accept the body you're in and appreciate it," Stewart says. "You are able to live in it and be healthy and happy."
According to her research, most people are not content with their bodies: "You'll find there's a lot of similarities among people. People want to be thin or have pretty skin or be athletic, but the diversity of their experience is very vast."
Videos and blogs posted on the Body Image Project Web site that show men and women of various ages and races provide a window into those similarities and differences and serve as a starting point for the dialogue the site, still in its development stages, is fostering within the marketplace. The site also offers opportunities for people to post their own videos, interact directly with Stewart and share their ideas and opinions with others on Twitter and Facebook.
"The first step is becoming aware of our views, then our behaviors," Stewart says. In the months ahead, the Body Image Project also will add a subscriber-based service to teach the skills necessary for improving one's body image and day-to-day quality of life.
Based on traditional Eastern approaches to health, which emphasize the importance of the mind-body connection or total well-being and have become increasingly integrated into Western modes of medical treatment, the program will help subscribers retrain how they process thoughts about their bodies.
"In the Western philosophy the majority of us adopt, living in the moment is a core skill that has to be learned, and it's not as easy as it sounds," Stewart says. "We're used to texting, emailing and talking on the phone all at the same time. In Eastern philosophies, you take time to breathe and be fully present in the moment to cultivate awareness. Through things like mindfulness training, you [teach] your brain to slow down and recognize what's happening now. You can train yourself to process one thing at a time."
Tom Fischmann, CEO of Body Evolution Technologies, says that kind of shift can help break the cycle of destructive thoughts and behaviors that have become automatic for many. "These are approaches that have proven to benefit (people with) anxiety, depression, chronic pain and substance abuse," he says.
The level to which subscribers pursue personalized treatment is up to them. Those whose negative body image and behaviors require counseling and additional forms of treatment will find referrals and other resources on the site. The goal of improving body image, however, is the same for everyone who logs on.
"Our relationship with our bodies bleeds into every area of our lives — family life, relationships, self confidence and self worth — and is a critical component to happiness," Fischmann says.