Transcript

Body Image with Siân McLean

14 May 2008

sian-mcleanSiân McLean
Email: s.mclean@latrobe.edu.au

Transcript of interview with Siân McLean, a researcher from psychological science and the co-ordinator of the 'Set Your Body Free' program.

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 15.9 Mb].

Matt:

I'd like to welcome you all to the La Trobe University Podcast, I'm your host Matt, joining me today is Siân McLean, she's a researcher from psychological science and the co-ordinator of the 'Set Your Body Free' program, let's give her a big fake round of applause, thanks for joining us today!

Siân:

Hi Matt, good to be here.

Matt:

So you're here to talk to us about body image and the sort of ways you can treat negative body images that people develop for themselves.

Siân:

Yeah, we're looking at women aged 30-60 and that can really encompass a whole different range.

Mikhaela:

So it's International No Diet Day on the 6th May. Now I've sort of grown up reading magazines, and respected magazines are telling me that there's the Atkin's diet, there's this diet and that diet, that international day, is that to show that they're not the way to lose weight?

Siân:

That's right, it's sort of to promote a healthy alternative to people, because we do get bombarded with these messages about dieting, they're everywhere, they're in every magazine, and really they're not the healthy way to go, they actually don't give people the right outcome either, you've probably come across many people who've gone on diets, endless number of diets for many many years so people tend to lose weight initially and then that will plateau, and what happens is that they either lose faith in the diet or their willpower isn't strong enough and they stop that sort of strict eating and end up putting the weight back on, and perhaps even more weight than when they started.

Mikhaela:

Now in the magazines that I read it's always Gwenyth Paltrow or Lindsey Lohan, but I found it quite strange a couple of weeks ago my grandma was actually talking about going on a diet, and what I found strange wasn't the fact that she was going on the diet but I was actually so used to her crash dieting at seventy that it made me stop and think my goodness is this going to be something that people are still going to continue to do so I find it really interesting that your program that you're running addresses specifically the eating habits of people between thirty and sixty year old.

Siân:

That's right, and I think you're right about what's put out in the media and popular culture that these are problems for younger women. But younger women become middle aged and older women, and if they haven't resolved that they keep going on the dieting treadmill then the problems don't resolve and they're still dieting, wanting to lose weight and engaging in eating habits that aren't really sustainable across their life, and they're really stuck in that cycle of wanting to lose weight, dieting, putting the weight back on, starting the diet again, and feeling like failure because they can't lose weight and attain the ideal that society sets for them.

Matt:

So what you're aiming to do it break the dieting loop so to speak.

Siân:

That's right actually, and we're trying to attack the loop in a number of different places, that's what No Dieting Day is about as well, about making it acceptable for people to eat things outside the diet, what we might call 'forbidden foods' realising that diets aren't the way to go, but also thinking about different ways to accept your body and we that don't have one sort of really slender ideal in this world which is what's really promoted now and people think if they're not at that ideal then their body doesn't have the value that they'd like.

Matt:

So you said that dieting mightn't be the way to go, what would be the way to go?

Siân:

Generally the most healthy approach is what we all know, that's the thing, there's a difference between knowledge and behaviour of course, but literally eating regular meals across the day, having snacks, not having too much space between the time that you're eating, so maybe three or four hours, if you leave a lot of space you tend to get very hungry, and are likely to over eat the next time you eat, and also having a wide variety of foods. Not just because that's healthy in terms of your nutritional requirements, but also because if you have a variety of foods you're not going to crave foods that you're not including in your eating pattern.

Matt:

I had friends back in university days who actually developed trench mouth because they had too much of the same food over and over again, I think it was probably a lot of pasta and rice.

Siân:

That sounds terrible.

Matt:

Too many two minute noodles at that place.

Siân:

And that can happen at the extreme of dieting as well, people will only allow themselves certain foods and that's all they'll feel comfortable eating, when they go outside of that they feel extremely anxious.

Mikhaela:

So what are the types of pressures that women between the ages of thirty and sixty feel that make them diet, have poor body image, just develop unhealthy eating habits.

Siân:

I think there's the pressures that women of all ages feel generally, that's the idea that the only acceptable body weight and shape is that very narrow ideal, then there's other risk factors and behaviours you might engage in like looking at other women and comparing yourself and thinking that you don't meet those standards and then feeling bad about yourself.

Mikhaela:

So what about menopause and those sort of life changes, things that happen around that age?

Siân:

Menopause in the research it's been tricky to separate that out from just age, but with menopause does come things like an increase in weight, which also generally happens with age, and changing for women in fat distribution, so that tends to deposit around the waist and in the breasts and upper back and so that can be very difficult for some women to cope with because they might be someone who previously felt that they controlled their shape and weight and that was important to them, but when these changes are happening perhaps because of hormonal reasons and they can't actually control what's happening they then feel very distressed by that because they can't actually change their weight in the way they'd like and their shape. Other factors about age is that women are just generally moving away from their youthful ideal that's very important in our society and developing things like wrinkles, changes to hair, thinning of the hair and greying of the hair, and that might make them feel like it's that much more difficult to attain the youthful ideal in some aspects of the way that they look, so then modifying their weight becomes that much more important, cause that's the one thing they feel they can have some control over.

Matt:

So the big problem is really that people need to accept the way they look when they get older.

Siân:

Yeah I think that's really part of it accept who they are and the way that they look doesn't have to have so much negative consequences for the way they look and their self esteem but also society looking at a different range of people, not just youthful, midlife and older women but generally women across the board we don't see in magazines and media, don't see women from different ethnic backgrounds and different sizes and shapes all that much, and we're only presented with one ideal, and if that could be expanded that would really help women as well.

Matt:

But even though we only have the one ideal that one ideal so to speak isn't really representative of the population. A lot of the population is overweight in one way or another, is it becoming more socially acceptable to be overweight as a result, or is what people perceive as being overweight changed in the past to what it is now?

Siân:

Yeah that's a really interesting question about social acceptability, I'm not sure the answer of that, but we are finding generally that there are more people that are overweight, but I think the stigma about overweight still remains, people who are overweight think that other people perceive them as lazy, it has a whole lot of other connotations and stigma in terms of getting jobs and the way that people in society perceive them, so I'm not really sure that we've changed our views of people because the public population is becoming more overweight.

Mikhaela:

So I suppose what you're saying is that our sensitivity towards the psychological reasons as to why people are overweight that it's more than they're overeating, they're not going to the gym, they're not doing anything about it, it can be a lot more. Is that something addressed in the program you're running?

Siân:

That's right, people think that because they're overweight that they must have done the wrong thing, and they don't actually take into account what's contributing to them having difficulties with their eating, having difficulties being active on a regular basis, and there is a lot of psychological reasons for that, if somebody's feeling bad about themselves they don't really want to get out of the house and go and exercise, they certainly don't want to go to a gym where they consider a place where people dress up in their lycra and have perfect bodies already, so it's that idea that you only go to the gym if you look good already, you don't go just for being active. It's a similar idea with eating that people struggle with their eating often because of psychological reasons. You might have heard of the term 'emotional eating' and so if someone is feeling depressed, and it might be about how they look, then they will tend to actually overeat, and overeat also on those things that are high callory. They're looking to feel good and have some positive emotions happening in their life, but of course the downside of that is the guilt after eating. So they eat to feel good, realise they've eaten too much, and then feel terrible about themselves, and then that's part of the cycle that continues. Because then they'll start to restrict their eating, and then they'll start craving the foods that they really want, and then they overeat again.

Matt:

So it's a vicious circle there.

Siân:

Absolutely.

Mikhaela:

I read an article in one of the major newspapers in Melbourne that said one third of overweight women just surrender to obesity…

Siân:

What do you mean by surrender?

Mikhaela:

In the article it basically said that they're already overweight overwhelming enough, and then rather than trying to get themselves back to a healthy point they just sort of keep going with the habits that they have until it becomes a problem and they find themselves unhealthily overweight or as they're called here, obese, do you agree with that? Do you think that it's a problem, or that it's much greater?

Siân:

I think that can happen to people sort of into midlife, because obesity doesn't happen overnight it's from a pattern of inactivity and overeating across a long period of time, you might have a small weight gain each year and you get into habits and patterns that are very difficult to break, and also in terms of tackling weight and obesity, we really... there seems to be a promotion of this quick fix, we go out and lose weight and lose x number of kilos in six months or something. And to change your habits and lose that weight is extremely overwhelming to do that so I think if we can get away from this idea of diet and weight loss and move more towards what's healthy eating patterns across your lifetime, then that might make it a little bit easier for people to comprehend. It's easy to say make a goal of how much activity will I do every week rather than I must lose fifty kilos this year, I mean that's just overwhelming. People might talk about waking up and thinking 'I've got to lose weight before christmas' or 'I've got to lose weight before the wedding', those sort of milestone events are very important to people, and can bring up extreme concerns about body image. So to break it down to more observable and achievable goals is probably a much better way to go.

Mikhaela:

What's interesting about this age group is that most of these women would be mothers and would have external pressures from family and keeping up with all of those sorts of expectations. Do you find it a complicating issue where they would need support from their family and find it hard? Because I find a lot of overweight women that maybe their family have as well.

Siân:

That's right, I think there's sort of two points. First the hidden behaviours with eating. People will actually hide their eating by putting wrappers in a seperate bin, in the wheelie bin outside instead of in the kitchen bin, so they won't actually be asking for support, it's very hard to get it then. The other problem is bringing people along in your family in the healthy direction you want to go. If they're not wanting to co-operate, say with the healthy eating or with the healthy snacks in the house, or on a regular basis, then it's very difficult to go out and do that on your own and with the time pressures of mothers. And you can imagine the time pressures with mothers without cooking a meal for your family and then cooking a seperate one for yourself, it's probably going to be a bit too much to ask.

Mikhaela:

You've obviously done quite a bit of research into this, just broadly speaking what type of tips or advice do you have?

Siân:

I suppose there's a couple of major goals on the body image side. What you'd want to look into is reducing the negative consequences of feeling bad about your body, and they can include obviously just stress and feeling down about that, how you look is a major component of your self concept, that's going to have a major effect on your self esteem and generally your mood. Other consequences are avoidance, so people won't go to a party because they feel bad about how they look, they won't go shopping because they think there's nothing they can buy that looks good and that experience of getting into a change room that many people have had is extremely offputting. So looking to try and actually break people out of those patterns where they don't do things, because that just reinforces how much anxiety they feel about those behaviours. So trying to face going to the party and focusing on things other than how you look rather than worries like what other people think about you. And then the other major aim would be about eating and getting back into that regular eating pattern. If people are feeling comfortable with how they're eating, that tends to have a flow on effect about their body image, cause they're not worried everytime thinking 'Oh I just ate that donut or I did this or did that, I overate after dinner so I'm going to put on weight and look awful tomorrow' so they are very much strongly connected.

Matt:

So what is a healthy way to look at a weight problem, is it acceptance?

Siân:

I think it's a really fine line, Matt, because we do know the health consequences of being overweight, and so it is important to address them, they can't be ignored. But you need to be able to accept your weight in terms of who you are and not think that that makes you a bad person or a lazy person or a worthless person, so acceptance from that point of view while still trying to be healthy in other ways. And you can certainly be healthy in so many different ways with preventive health care with what you eat and the way you're active and other areas like smoking or other things like that.

Mikhaela:

Do you think shows like The Biggest Loser and reality tv shows on losing weight somehow make being that size more acceptable than what it once was?

Siân:

I don't actually watch The Biggest Loser. I think it could potentially work both ways, I still think in our society there's definitely not acceptance of overweight and fat people, I think that hasn't changed despite the growing levels of overweight. I think the Biggest Loser can have two aspects to it, one is maybe it's a motivator for some people, and I have heard that, they think here are these people doing something about it, I can do something about it too, but the problem that I see with it is perhaps it's going about it a little bit the wrong way. That looking for that short term weight loss, and in an environment that people cannot emulate in their own homes and their own lifestyles, that people are locked away for three months with a personal trainer and food provider and all those other things, that's just not reality for most people.

Matt:

I have read about people who have been on that show putting the weight on quite quickly once they get out of the house because they're no longer within that environment.

Siân:

And that's also the typical pattern with dieting that everyday people go on, they go on this strict diet that allows you to eat either one or two foods or not eat after certain times or carbohydrates not after three o'clock, or those sorts of things, and when you stop that regime, the weight does come back.

Matt:

So finally, would you like to give your program a bit of a plug?

Siân:

Absolutely, the 'Set Your Body Free' program, it's a program that promotes feeling better about your body, reducing the negative consequences of your body image disturbance, and improving eating patterns without those extremes of restriction and overeating.

Matt:

I'd like to thank our guest today, Siân McClean, I'd also like to thank my co-host Mikhaela Delahunty, Simon Knight out the back from OTSU on the pots and pans, and the windswept Mark Pearce, a man so hip that he can't even see past his own pelvis!