Is vanity good for you?

PAULA GOODYER
Last updated 05:00 17/11/2011
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MIRROR, MIRROR, ON THE WALL: Should we accept our bodies the way they are, or use vanity as a fitness motivator?

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OPINION: I have a confession. Long ago when I pulled on my first pair of runners and gasped my way around the block, it had everything to do with vanity and nothing to do with fitness.

As a newish mum who'd fought battles with pudge in the past, I wanted a flab busting exercise I could do any time and anywhere.   

But what began as wanting to look good in clothes soon became something else.

There was a sense of freedom that came with leaving the house and breaking into a run in the park.

It had echoes of childhood play or getting out of school early.

I liked the time out for my head, the 30 minutes when your mind could wander wherever it wanted without interruption, and as I got fitter, having extra stamina felt like a gift.

It was all these benefits, along with the novelty of wearing T-shirts tucked into waistbands instead of hanging loose, that kept me motivated to move.

Yet even now when I need an extra hard kick to get out the door for a run on a cold morning I don't call on thoughts about how good it will be for my bone density - but how not good my jeans will look if I skip too many runs.

In other words, vanity can be a powerful motivator to stay fit.  

This must sound pretty shallow, especially when we always hear that it's healthy to accept our bodies as they are.

This politically correct view gathered steam in the late 80s and early 90s as concerns about eating disorders among women and girls began to grow.

Then along came the rising tide of overweight and obesity in the noughties and things got complicated.

We got mixed messages about our bodies.

On one hand it was healthy to accept your body the way it was and not fall prey to the tyranny of thin - but on the other it was unhealthy to carry extra weight and run the risk of preventable diseases like type 2 diabetes.

To me this raised tricky questions like when does accepting your body for the way it is become not taking responsibility for looking after it?

If staying in shape can be a convenient cover for a destructive eating disorder, can loving yourself as you are be an excuse not to act against excessive weight gain?  

When you write about weight loss and fitness, you can be accused of encouraging self-loathing among women, or at least urging them to conform to some standard body size set by the magazine industry.

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But this isn't about turning Queen Latifahs into Keira Knightleys, or about losing weight with dumb diets, it's about improving our odds of staying as strong and healthy as possible for as long as we can.

And if it's vanity that helps us achieve this with smarter eating and more movement, then why not?

A healthy level of vanity can be a legitimate motivator to exercise and a sign of taking pride in yourself, agrees Nesli Karadeniz, a Sydney psychologist, specialising in addictions and eating disorders.

"Healthy vanity is knowing there are a few kilos to be taken care of and being willing to do what it takes to change it - what's unhealthy is coming up with one thing after another that needs to be changed, or to keep on losing more and weight because there is no fixed, satisfying target weight," she says.

"The danger is whenever we latch on to a single solution like exercise or dieting and think that it's the holy grail for controlling how we feel about ourselves."

One way of judging whether something is healthy or not is how much time you spend doing it, whether it's working, drinking, gambling or going to the gym, she adds - and it's not healthy when too many hours at the gym crowds out other positive things in your life.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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