This Breaks My Heart
Source: Photographer is Meg Gaiger (Harpyimages)
This picture breaks my heart. You may have seen it on Facebook recently. I know people may interpret it differently, but to me this has an incredibly powerful message about body image. The media can have such a strong influence on young girls and coming from a past filled with years of hating my own body it makes me sad that society puts so much value on being lean and thin.
Before I go on I want you to understand that it’s perfectly healthy for some people to have a naturally lower body fat percentage and be healthy. As long as their hormones are in balance, they don’t stop menstruating, they’re not malnourished, they continue to sleep well and they’re happy, then its fine. It’s also perfectly healthy for others to carry around a bit more body fat and to have rolls on their stomach when they bend over. Everyone is unique and no two bodies are built the same. In the magazines and on television we generally see one body type and that’s the tall, thin, lean one. The emphasis society puts on our looks rather than who we are on the inside sends a harmful message to young girls, and boys too for that matter.
At a young age we’re taught that being pretty and skinny is important. It teaches us to value things like the number on the scale or the size of our jeans. It doesn’t teach us about integrity, authenticity or health. It pains me to know that there are young girls struggling with the same issues I used to have. It’s a dark and unhappy place to be when you have such lack of self love and total hatred for your body and yourself. I wish young girls were given the message that anything is possible and they can achieve anything they want to. I wish they were taught to look at everyone as being beautiful in their own unique ways, especially themselves. I wish they were taught to value their intellectual capacity, their spirit and their emotions, which too often we push down because we don’t want to deal with them. Instead we turn to food, excessive exercise, counting calories, drugs, alcohol, you name it. I also wish they were taught about true health and the difference between being lean and healthy.
The one aspect I want to focus on in this post is how so many people are trying to push their bodies to fit this mold of being thin and actually harming their health in the process. Pushing yourself to exercise while trying to eat less so you can achieve a slimmer body composition has detrimental affects on your hormonal system for both women and men. This puts your body in a starvation state increasing the “stress hormone” cortisol. This becomes chronic as you continue to exercise more , eat less and stress about your body. Eventually the body steals from your sex hormones to make more cortisol, which is known as the pregnenolone steal. I’ve written a bit about this before in another post, but I’m going to go into a bit more detail with regards to the steroid hormone metabolic pathway so you can hopefully understand why and how this happens.
Steroid Hormone Metabolic Pathways
The diagram above shows the basic pathways of the steroidal hormones. As you can see in the diagram the hormones are created in the adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys, and cholesterol is the raw material needed to produce the hormones. When your body is stressed, pregnenolone is shunted from DHEA or Dehydro-epiondrosterone production and diverted to cortisol production helping maintain the elevated levels of the “stress” hormone. Lowered DHEA means lower levels of the estrogens (estrone, etradiol and estriol) in women and lower testosterone in men. Women also make a small amount of testosterone and men make a small amount of estrogen which will be affected as well. Over time the DHEA pathway loses viability and cortisol becomes the preferred pathway. It’s therefore harder for the body to produce these important steroidal hormones. Progesterone levels also decrease in this instance, being converted to cortisol as well.
Now you might know that most of our sex hormones are created in our ovaries but when cortisol is high it can still have an affect on hormone production in the ovaries. As author of “Sexy by Nature,” Stefani Ruper states, “high levels of cortisol signal the hypothalamus to down regulate, signalling to the pituitary gland which decreases production of hormones in the ovaries.” So basically these endocrine glands, the hypothalamus and pituitary, located in the brain send a message to your ovaries (or testes for guys) that the body is too stressed to worry about reproduction and fertility and therefore needs to decrease or stop sex hormone production. This decreased hormone output leads to irregular menstruation or amenorrhea, decreased libido and fertility issues. It can also lead to depression, digestive issues and weight gain.
Proper adrenal function is also responsible for other important functions in the body like bone turnover, thyroid function, immune regulation, mucosal surface integrity, memory and learning and so much more. Knowing this you can see how chronic stress is linked to things like osteoporosis, an underactive thyroid, autoimmune disorders, leaky gut, food allergies & sensitivities as well as mood.
I recently started working out at a local gym as it’s the closest and most affordable option for me right now. A week in and I’ve already noticed girls and guys checking themselves out in the multitude of mirrors on every wall. I’ve seen the guys flexing their muscles in front of the mirrors and the girls standing sideways to see if their butts are sticking out too far. Ugh! It really makes me miss going to Crossfit where it can be hard to find a mirror in even the bathrooms, and the focus is on performance not physique. Or better yet practising yoga at studios like Lion’s Breath Yoga, where there are also no mirrors and the environment is accepting of everyone. The focus is on what your capable of that day and at the same time it helps bring down those cortisol levels I talked about.
If society could shift their focus to health and self-love rather than being lean and thin I think people would be happier, healthier and calmer as a whole. We need to teach young girls (and boys) about real health and truly treating their bodies with love instead of restriction and punishment. I think if they really knew the truth and difference between health and just being lean they just might choose health and learn to love their bodies. In the end it’s more important to be happy and vibrant than lean and miserable.