In a recent survey of British women, 75 percent thought they were fat, 89 percent wanted to lose weight and 95 percent had dieted at some time. A staggering 15 per- cent said they would be willing to give up five years of their life in exchange for the ability to reach their ideal weight. These findings reflect increasing levels of clinical and subclinical eating disorders among younger women in the West, and globally where Western imagery and ideology has permeated through, but culture is only one factor that contributes to body image. Your body image is the mental picture you have of your physical self and your emotional reaction to it, be it positive or negative.

It can change from day to day or even after a big meal. It can be affected by your mood, by seeing the wrong number on the bathroom scales, seeing an unflattering photograph of yourself or hearing a critical comment. Family, friends and partners can shape your body image throughout your life. Because many women define themselves by their physical appearance and weight, they use weight control as a tool to improve their self-worth. They tend to punish themselves for not having the perfect body, for instance by not allowing themselves to buy new clothes or go on holiday until they have lost weight. Until then, love, life and enjoyment is put on hold.

Unfortunately, investing your happiness in your body size is risky because weight loss to improve self-esteem rarely works, and certainly does not last. It re- mains a quick-fix answer to a much deeper problem and is likely to lead to disap- pointment when unrealistic expectations are not met. To lose weight long term, you have to begin by dissociating self-esteem from weight and appearance, because there is a limit to how much you can control your body shape and weight without risking your mental and physical health. Your body shape naturally changes with time, and you may never again be the same weight, nor should you try to be, as when you were 21. You can learn to love yourself and your body no matter what size and shape you are.

The process in- volves learning self-acceptance and a degree of fat acceptance, despite the current cultural ideals. You have to challenge your own prejudices about fat and favourable traits such as competence, desirability, entitlement and happiness, and immunize yourself against cultural stereotypes and bias. Doing this successfully will also encourage you to take part in social and physical activities you may have avoided out of embarrassment about your body size. For successful long-term weight loss, your motivation should be that you want to improve your quality of life, not that you want to enhance your self-esteem.

Losing weight should be a way of being kinder to and respecting yourself and of taking better care of yourself and your body. You should aim to be healthier and fitter and to increase your chances of living a longer and fuller life. Most importantly, you must want to do it for yourself and not to please other people. Think of losing weight by learning to eat more healthily as an extension of your self-respect. By taking a more positive frame of mind, you are more likely to enjoy the process of losing weight by seeing it as a way of caring for yourself, rather than as a process of deprivation and a painful means to an end.

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