Summer should be a time for unwinding, spending time with great friends and indulging in some of the finer things in life. But the thought of lounging around in a swimsuit day after day fills many women with dread. Society‚Äôs narrow and unrealistic beauty standards are in our face more than ever thanks to social media and, as a result, women are putting a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves ‚Äď and their body ‚Äď to look a certain way.
‚ÄúSocial media has increased society‚Äôs preoccupation with wellness and fitness,‚ÄĚ says psychologist and director of BodyMatters Australasia Sarah McMahon, who works with people experiencing eating, body image and exercise issues. ‚ÄúA huge part of this is the increased need for people to ‚Äėlook good‚Äô ‚Äď not just in terms of adhering to beauty ideals, but also being seen to be doing what it takes to look good ‚Äď for example focusing on wellness and fitness,‚ÄĚ she explains.
Have I done enough at the gym this year? Has my diet been on track? What more can I do to get ready for the beach, or for that special summer event? All of these negative thoughts and feelings about our body, diet and fitness routines plague many of us. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a horrible feeling, and it can be panic-inducing for women,‚ÄĚ says nutritionist and founder of Feel Fresh Nutrition, Abbie O‚ÄôRourke. But it‚Äôs also a very common feeling. ‚ÄúShow me a room full of females who won‚Äôt be thinking of their bodies in summer ‚Ä¶ I doubt you could fill the room.‚ÄĚ
In order to combat negative thinking, many of us decide to double down on our diets and fitness routines. But O‚ÄôRourke warns against being too hasty when contemplating taking up the latest fad diet or increasing the amount of time spent exercising. ‚ÄúPeople think they need to diet and exercise just to get their body to look a certain way,‚ÄĚ says O‚ÄôRourke. ‚ÄúBut if you put yourself under that much pressure and deprivation and then move into the summer holiday festive season, that‚Äôs where people fall down.‚ÄĚ
Personal trainer and director of ELLEfit, Ellen Handley, says aside from her own adage that ‚Äėlife is far too short to be spending that much time in the gym‚Äô, over-doing the exercise can also have an adverse impact on your health and wellbeing. ‚ÄúIf you have a job that‚Äôs stressful, then you could be burning the candle at both ends when you up your training frequency,‚ÄĚ she says. Rather than overdoing it at the gym, Handley says that adequate recovery time and listening to your body are essential if you want to see results. ‚ÄúOtherwise you put yourself and your health at risk,‚ÄĚ she explains. As well as unwanted injuries and fatigue, over-training can result in the loss of muscle mass. ‚ÄúIt can mean your body stores more fat as a coping mechanism,‚ÄĚ says Handley.
Exercising more frequently increases your appetite, too, says O‚ÄôRourke. ‚ÄúIt can be quite confusing for your body,‚ÄĚ she states. Often she will see clients who end up putting on muscle. ‚ÄúOn the scales, it can look like you‚Äôre putting on a lot of weight. That can mess with the mind a bit when you‚Äôre actually in good shape, and it can skew your focus.‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôRourke believes our lives are hectic enough without feeling like we need to exercise for hours on end. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre already under so much pressure ‚Äď and then you throw in hours of exercise a day. It can get very stressful, and can impact your body and even your sleep,‚ÄĚ she explains.
Handley agrees and says that feeling burnt out is a common feeling at this time of year for a lot of people, regardless of over-training. ‚ÄúSocial engagements, late nights and no sign of [a break] at work all add up.‚ÄĚ Add too much exercise into the mix and you‚Äôll end up feeling extremely fatigued and irritable, says Handley. ‚ÄúIf you find yourself feeling this way, either opt for more yin-based exercise or take a break. Your body will thank you for it,‚ÄĚ she suggests.
A constant stream of images showing narrow beauty standards can make it very tricky to avoid comparing yourself to the figures we see on television, in magazines and increasingly on social media. McMahon has a particular concern about the impact social media is now having on our body image. ‚ÄúIt creates a forum where the preoccupation is on looking perfect,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúThis means people spend significant time engaging in impression management for self-enhancement.‚ÄĚ
McMahon explains that this is what psychologists refer to as ‚Äúfaking good‚ÄĚ. She says the irony is it leaves us feeling bad because we succumb to thinking ‚Äėeveryone else has a more interesting, happier and successful life than me‚Äô. Social comparisons, McMahon adds, are particularly damaging when the environment is a constructed, highly edited and curated reality to begin with. But it‚Äôs not only others we are comparing our bodies to ‚Äď we also make self-comparisons all the time, says O‚ÄôRourke. ‚ÄúWe often forget that our bodies change every year,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôll hear language such as, ‚ÄėBack in 2014 I was a size 6‚Äô ‚Äď but the reality is that was four years ago and you‚Äôve had a child since then. We need people to understand their bodies are different year to year, and that‚Äôs okay.‚ÄĚ
While there‚Äôs nothing wrong with trying to lose a few kilograms, O‚ÄôRourke says we need to change the way we think about weight and our diet ‚Äď and staring at the scales won‚Äôt help. ‚ÄúWe see clients who are eating well, exercising and feeling great. They‚Äôve lost weight, but they‚Äôve also put on muscle. But in their head, they have a number on their goal and it‚Äôs really hard to shake that number,‚ÄĚ she says. Setting realistic goals and avoiding attaching goals to a certain weight will mean you‚Äôre more likely to succeed, O‚ÄôRourke explains.
O‚ÄôRourke often encounters clients who aspire to have the figure of celebrities or personalities they follow on social media. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs really unfair what Instagram has done to people,‚ÄĚ she says. She adds that the reality is we‚Äôre not seeing everything else that has gone into achieving the narrow beauty standard we‚Äôve all become so accustomed to. ‚ÄúDo you have an extra six hours a day to dedicate to meal prep and exercise? You can‚Äôt really have your cake and eat it, too. It needs to be about setting realistic goals.‚ÄĚ Social media isn‚Äôt just fuelling unrealistic ideals when it comes to summer bods. McCahon says it means anyone can become a health expert.
‚ÄúCredibility and authority are given to social influencers regardless of what practices they actually engage in and the science behind them,‚ÄĚ she explains. She says the most common example of this is when celebrities write health and nutrition books and promote diets they subscribe to, despite the fact that their qualifications and experience do not make them experts in those fields. ‚ÄúUltimately this is problematic as the advice people give is often unsound and contradictory. The real tragedy occurs when the masses earnestly follow this advice, making them physically or psychologically unwell.‚ÄĚ
Aside from trying to shun unrealistic beauty standards and switching off from social media, what else can we do to enjoy summer and the bodies we‚Äôve been blessed with? O‚ÄôRourke says it comes down to the individual; some of us are fine genuinely relaxing and not worrying about what we‚Äôre eating, but for others, it‚Äôs not quite so easy. ‚ÄúYou might say it doesn‚Äôt matter, but then the wheels start churning in the brain and there is fear and guilt associated with eating,‚ÄĚ she says.
While O‚ÄôRourke admits it‚Äôs probably not what most people want to hear, sticking to a few basic rules over summer can help beat negative thought patterns. She says it might be something simple, like making sure you always eat meals with others or implementing a ‚Äėno snacking‚Äô policy ‚Äď in short, it‚Äôs about being mindful and avoiding mindless eating. O‚ÄôRourke also suggests thinking about the language you use when you talk about food. ‚ÄúBe mindful of how you‚Äôre talking about food, especially around younger children as it really does have a flow-on effect, especially in families,‚ÄĚ she explains. Try to avoid saying things like, ‚ÄėThis is bad for me‚Äô or ‚ÄėThis is so addictive I should put it at the end of the table‚Äô. ‚ÄúLanguage should be, ‚ÄėI choose to‚Äô or ‚ÄėI want to‚Äô or ‚ÄėI don‚Äôt want it‚Äô, not ‚ÄėI shouldn‚Äôt have it‚Äô. Everyone is listening to each other and everyone is feeling the same way,‚ÄĚ she explains.
Summer is, of course, the season for being outdoors, and Handley says it‚Äôs the perfect time to take your workouts outside. ‚ÄúBody weight circuits are great,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúPick six exercises and go for a set time or reps.‚ÄĚ You don‚Äôt have to spend hours working out over summer, as a short session will still make you feel great. Handley says her favourite circuits take no longer than 20 to 30 minutes a day. She says to keep it simple and enjoy the downtime ‚Äď it‚Äôs the holidays. As well as trying to adhere to mindful eating and exercising, it‚Äôs important to always be kind to yourself. Handley and O‚ÄôRourke agree that everyone has their own insecurities. It really is true that we‚Äôre our own worst critics. ‚ÄúWe all need to understand that no one else is actually judging us,‚ÄĚ states O‚ÄôRourke. ‚ÄúEvery female is feeling the same things over summer.‚ÄĚ
Fretting over the way we look has the potential to stop us from living life to our full potential. ‚ÄúLife is far too short to be celebrating these moments while wasting time thinking about diet and exercise,‚ÄĚ says Handley. She suggests turning off your phone, indulging in good conversations and living in the moment more often. ‚ÄúWe are often a million miles away from where we are physically, and it does ourselves and our loved ones a major disservice,‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôRourke says while weight can come and go, true beauty is constant. ‚ÄúYou need to be kind and compassionate to yourself,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt ever let the way you think about your body stop you going to the beach, sunbathing, or having fun in summer. Be kind to yourself because everyone is in this together.‚ÄĚ
THINK BEFORE YOU FAST
Fasting is the diet du jour this season ‚Äď but O‚ÄôRourke says it‚Äôs something best done under the advice of a professional. She often sees fasters who restrict what they eat during the week only to overindulge on weekends. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not easy to do and is very restrictive. You need to think about whether you are creating bad behaviours with food because of these wild parameters.‚ÄĚ Because most fasting diets are relatively low-carb, low-fibre and high-fat, those with IBS can experience bad symptoms. ‚ÄúNutrient deficiencies are a problem, especially when people do this 16-8 fast. They think they can eat what they want on the weekend and end up eating calorie-dense, processed food.‚ÄĚ
DIGITAL DETOX NOW
Many of us are guilty of spending too much precious time absorbed in social media feeds. And while there are upsides to the likes of Instagram and Facebook, there are definite downsides, too. ‚ÄúSocial media has the potential to create anxiety and a whole host of emotional issues unless used with perspective,‚ÄĚ says Handley. She speaks from personal experience and says she‚Äôs learnt that if she‚Äôs feeling low, scrolling through feeds of people holidaying in bikinis probably isn‚Äôt going to help. ‚ÄúTalking to a friend face-to-face while going for a walk or making a delicious meal might be a better option,‚ÄĚ she advises. At the end of the day, people you follow on social media should be making you feel good, not guilty or insecure. ‚ÄúIf you need to do a cull of who you follow, then do it!‚ÄĚ Handley says.