You don't have to be a size 6 to be fit and fabulous
By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
"I am a size 14, I'm curvaceous, I work out every day, and I feel great," says Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, author of more than 20 books and a WebMD Weight Loss Clinic consultant.
And not only can larger-size women be healthy and feel terrific, they can look every bit as stylish as their size-6 friends, says full-figured supermodel Emme (who knows all about looking fabulous).
It is possible to have a body image like Magee's or Emme's -- one that's healthy and positive -- even if you aren't skinny.
Why, then, do so many full-figured women feel so bad about their bodies, even when they're at a weight that's healthy for them? And how can they, like Magee and Emme, start to like what they see in the mirror?
Several body image experts interviewed by WebMD offer practical tips for feeling good about your body. And Emme has style hints that will help you dress to look your best.
Getting Over the Norm
"As we develop and grow, we begin to place a value on what we see in the mirror -- which is based on experiences but also on the cultural norm, with a thin body being the preferred type," says Kathy Kater, LSW, a psychotherapist in St. Paul, Minn., who specializes in body image and eating and weight disorders.
But the problem with the cultural norm in America is that human beings aren't meant to be one size or one shape.
"The research on body diversity is conclusive: Even if we all ate the same optimal, wholesome diet and exercised to the same high degree of physical fitness, we would still be very diverse in our shapes," says Kater. "Some quite thin and some quite big, but most in the middle."
Of course, she's not promoting obesity, which brings health risks. But many of us can be quite healthy even if we wear a plus size. So how can you accept the fact that your body is meant to be a certain size -- even if that size isn't skinny -- and feel good about it?
First, accept the fact that big doesn't mean bad.
"The most common body image complaint for women, and increasingly for men, is the 'I feel fat' body-image distortion," says Kater. "It's a learned perspective that says to be bigger is a bad thing. But it's not. And actually, it's quite possible to be big without being unhealthy."
People of all sizes and shapes, explains Kater, should learn to define health by making healthy choices rather than by their size or weight.
In fact, if full-figured is your natural body shape, you're better off sticking to what you were born with than depriving yourself to reach what can be a dangerous goal.
"Everyone has a natural body weight," says Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health in New York. "If you have to starve yourself to get where you think you should be, you may be doing damage because you may not be getting appropriate nutrition."
That doesn't mean you should give up on a healthy diet -- or on exercise. In fact, the experts say, exercise is key to good health and a healthy body image.
"Exercise always helps," says Kava. "It may not change your absolute body weight, but you will feel better about your body, improve your self-esteem, and improve your attitude."
But if you're a beginner, don't get carried away.
"If you're someone who doesn't exercise, you need to start slowly," says Kava. "And don't get discouraged, even when life intervenes. This is a lifelong commitment to yourself that you have to make."
Building a Better Body Image
What other steps can you take to boost your body image?
- Make sure the people around you make you feel good about yourself, no matter your size. "If you are spending too much time with people who make you feel bad about your body, maybe you need another social group," Kava says. "Get an exercise group together, be proactive."
- Make sensible decisions about what you eat. "Make sure that you have a reasonably healthy diet," Kava tells WebMD. "If you need help deciding what's good and bad for you, get the help of dietitian. People splurge on facials and massages -- go splurge on a dietitian."
- Focus on the inside, and let your body take its natural shape. "You need to focus on eating healthy and exercising while working on what's inside of you and the way you feel about yourself," says Magee. "In everything that I do, I promote the philosophy that you should eat and exercise for the health of it, and let the pounds fall where they may."
- Choose positive role models. "Choose role models that help you feel good about who you are, rather than ones who make you feel bad," says Kater.
Style Tips From Emme
Supermodel, television host, best-selling author, lecturer, and clothing designer Emme leads the list of full-figured role models who know a thing or two about having a positive and strong body image.
She's been named as one of the "50 Most Beautiful People" in the world by People magazine -- twice. Ladies Home Journal chose her as one of the "Most Important Women in America" and one of the "Most Fascinating Women of the Year." Biography magazine honored her as one of the "25 Most Influential Women," and Glamour saluted her as "Woman of the Year."
Unlike most women we see in entertainment, she's not a size 2. And that's just fine with her.
How does Emme do it?
"The most important key I can give is to get interested in something outside of your home or apartment that gets your heart pumping, and you will see an incredible difference in your attitude and energy level," says Emme. "If you're under stress, exercise is even more important to do, to dilute it and put it into perspective."
And, of course, looking your best helps you feel great about yourself. That's where Emme's practical and easy style hints come in.
"These tips are not only for full-figured gals. All women can learn a thing or two about 'less is best,'" says Emme, who created the EMME Collection, a clothing line for women sizes 14-24.
- First, clean out your closet. If you haven't worn something within the last year, give yourself the license to chuck it!
- Don't deny your body shape. If you do, you'll get frustrated with dressing and not see the wonderful options that are now available for your body type and shape.
- Follow only the trends that suit you. Avoid trends that don't work for your body type.
- Don't wear too many accessories or mismatched prints.
- Go for shapely, figure-skimming silhouettes, not boxy clothes that cover up your body.
- If you're a pear shape (narrow shoulders and wide hips), buy pants and skirts that are 1-2 sizes larger than you normally wear and have a tailor take them in at the waist.
- Always buy one size larger than you normally wear to have a jacket, dress, or suit tailored to fit you. If you buy too small a size, there won't be enough material to work with.
- Find good undergarments that help eliminate panty lines, and find bras that fit (75% of women wear the wrong size bra). Also, pantyhose is making it back into wardrobes, so stock up on brands that make your legs feel great.
- Dress for comfort and ease.
Look Good, Feel Better
But before you rush off to the mall for a chic new outfit, remember this: Feeling good about your body begins by working on the inside, then focusing on what's outside.
"Don't get hung up on pounds and what size dress you are wearing," says Magee. "Instead, focus on being healthy from the inside out, eat well, and exercise regularly. And remember that you can be sexy and look fabulous and feel fabulous and not be thin."
Originally published Dec. 19, 2003.
Medically updated Dec. 14, 2005.
SOURCES: Emme, model, author, clothing designer; chair ambassador, National Eating Disorders Association, New York. Kathy Kater, LSW, author, psychotherapist, St. Paul, Minn. Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition, American Council on Science and Health, New York. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, author; WebMD Weight Loss Clinic consultant.
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