Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

June 2, 2012

Body image plays big part in summer play

TRAVERSE CITY — Summer in northern Michigan is all about beaches.

But for many girls and women, beach-hopping is anything but relaxing as they measure themselves against the perfect bikini body — and find themselves coming up short.

"There's definitely pressure to have this certain physique," said Amber Caldwell, of Traverse City. "It comes from media, fashion, the general Hollywood types that push that image. It takes a toll on everyone's self-esteem."

Indeed, a new Dove campaign aimed at boosting girls' self-esteem says that six out of 10 girls stop doing things they love because they feel bad about how they look. Seventy-two percent feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful. And while only 19 percent of teenage girls are "overweight," 67 percent think they need to lose weight.

"It's about comparing ourselves and our bodies to everyone else, and over the years the marketing of the perfect body has gotten worse," said Vickie Green, a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Traverse City.

Caldwell, a curvy brunette who moved here from Florida, said the pressure is stronger there, especially on "high-end" beaches where the idea is to wear the "smallest bikini" to attract attention from the opposite sex.

"I was always thick. I was a tomboy," she said. "I would just leave my dress or skirt on or put a towel on if there were guys around."

Caldwell, 26, said she got a lot of confidence from her family, who told her "it's OK to look a little different." And after she moved away to go to college, the pressure wasn't quite as intense.

But many girls will carry that negative body image into adulthood, setting the stage for a "disease concept," Green said.

"Think of the way women talk about their bodies. Would you say to your friend what you say about your own body? The negativity we feel about our bodies feeds into a disease concept. When we beat ourselves up, we are more susceptible to stress and disease, including cancer," she said.

Still, Green, 60, has fallen into the body "ideal" trap herself, wearing shorts to the beach instead of a bathing suit. This year she plans to change all that.

"I've done it too many years," she said. "I finally thought, 'This is crazy. I'm here and I'm in shorts.' Yes, I don't have the body I had before, but if I can find something that looks appropriate, I'm going to be brave."

For Colleen Olson, a Northwestern Michigan College student, feeling and looking good at the beach is about "choosing correctly" — even if that means bucking the bikini trend.

"It's not necessary to have the perfect beach body if you have a wonderful one-piece. And I have a wonderful one-piece," said Olson, 18, who used to fret about her full figure. "You want to feel good in your own skin."

Green said the desire to have a hot bikini body is in part driven by the search for happiness.

"We think, if my body looks better, if my hair looks better, if I look better, I would be happy," she said. "You get to a certain age and you know that's not true. We know it in our heads but that doesn't mean we know it in our guts or our hearts.

"I always tell my clients that if you stress out or compare yourself to others, you can't change yourself. You have to start by loving yourself and your body as it is."

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