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Finding Your Body Ideal

May 2, 2016

How One Nutritionist Says Women can Overcome Their Obsession with Physical Perfection

Proudly gracing the cover of O Magazine’s April issue is a noticeably lighter Oprah Winfrey. But it isn’t the weight loss that has everyone intrigued. Oprah has been on an up and down weight loss journey for years. It’s her message. She feels happy, confident, and more importantly, healthy. Oprah may not be what society deems as thin these days, but she is finally at peace with her body image. That is bringing joy to many women, who are tired of trying to live up to the Hollywood image of what’s beautiful, and consequently hate the way they look.

“It makes me so sad when women have so much self-hate,” says Nicole Kerneen, a registered dietician in Milwaukee. “I constantly hear women disappointed because they’re eating a certain way so they should be losing weight, or since they’re exercising ‘x’ amount of days every week, they should look a certain way. Stop scolding yourself, and give yourself a break.”

There may be some truth to Kerneen’s advice. Hollywood funny girl Melissa McCarthy  has lost 75 pounds since 2014. McCarthy’s dramatic transformation wasn’t intentional — what started as a routine to get into shape for her role as an undercover agent in 2015’s Spy, has become a major lifestyle change. And apparently she’s still shedding pounds thanks to her high intensity interval training and healthy diet plan.

So what is considered a healthy weight? Can women have a little extra cushion and still be healthy, and why do so many women find that no matter what they do, they still can’t lose weight?

“It starts in the mind,” says Kerneen. “It has to do with self-acceptance with who you are, body acceptance with what your structure is and how you can work with it. Start by thinking about how you treat yourself, your diet and the time spent exercising, sleeping and having down time. And don’t forget to fit in the things that bring joy into your life.”

Kerneen says that under stress, the body wants to hang on to weight even more. The human body prefers to have a little extra weight. We are wired for survival. When the levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, are high, it creates inflammation. As a result, the body doesn’t utilize body fat for energy, but taps into the muscle where all the nutrients are. Under stress, many women find they are losing muscle mass, and not body fat, because their bodies need more nutrition. 

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There’s been study after study proving, and even disproving, what is healthy and what’s not. When determining what a healthy bodyweight is, obsessing over the numbers may be counterproductive. Trying to stay or maintain a specific weight based on your height and age or calculating your Body Mass Index (BMI), which measures the ratio of body fat to height and weight, varies from one individual to the next. What these factors do not take into consideration is body composition.

“Body composition is a much safer and fair way to measure,” according to Kerneen. “This takes into account body fat levels in addition to muscle. It also looks at distribution of weight, so nutrition and fitness professionals can help individuals identify risk factors and ways to keep glucose, cholesterol and blood sugar levels in safe ranges. And it also takes into respect body structure.”

Kerneen also emphasizes that while we all want to feel accepted, loved and adored, we can’t let the outside forces control us. In fact, she believes that that kind of control is actually out of our control. Instead, we need to work with our bodies, understand our limits and be in tune with them, especially when it comes to age. Hormones change, and hormones truly determine what’s going on.

“I like to compare things to taking care of a newborn,” explains Kerneen. “With babies especially, we want to give them the best platform. We feed them the best nutrients, provide the best care and love them to the fullest. That’s how we should take care of ourselves. If we’re doing those things, our bodies will naturally fall into its natural weight. Losing weight will be a secondary perk.”

If history was any indication of the ideal body weight, we would discover that the standards of beauty have changed over time. Every body type has at some point been ideal. Even over the past 70 years, the public’s perception of the “ideal” woman has changed, from the voluptuous curves of Marilyn Monroe in the 50’s and the wafer thin, stick figure of “Twiggy” in the 60’s to the Supermodel look of the 80’s to today, where the standards are so high, women are turning to plastic surgery to augment areas of the body they find substandard.

And to Kerneen’s point, as long as we continue comparing ourselves to what Hollywood portrays as the “perfect” woman, or what we see on the cover of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, we won’t be satisfied or appreciate just how amazing the human body is.

“We get so programmed in our beliefs, but if we can just find that sweet spot for ourselves, we can have a much healthier relationship with our bodies.”

As the saying goes… if you don’t love yourself, who will?