Skin Deep

Students Pursue the Perfect Body

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A woman lying on women's magazines and a guy lying on men's magazines

Shaun Ding

Phil Pallen lives right behind a tanning salon, and he couldn’t be happier.

Pallen, the host of several TV Western shows including Western Idol and The Big Purple Couch, has tanned off and on since his mid-teens. Now, he goes regularly a few days a week " sometimes three days in a row if he’s taping a show.

“I consider [a tan] part of my outfit,” Pallen said. “It’s something I do to achieve the image I want.”

Pallen is not alone: many students strive for what they feel is an ideal body, be it through hitting the gym, tanning salon or even a plastic surgery clinic.

Western psychology professor Jim Olson said media influence is often the motivation behind students’ pursuit of the perfect body. In social psychology, he explained, studies have looked at whether exposure to attractive models affects someone’s body image.

“It does in the way you’d expect,” Olson said. “When people are exposed to [this media] they tend to see themselves more negatively. And that’s true for both men and women.”

Pallen, who is pursuing a career in the media industry, confessed he wants to look like the tanned TV stars of Hollywood.

“There’s this big joke that I’m the Ryan Seacrest of Western,” Pallen said. “But it’s funny " he’s actually my idol.”

Steve Gilroy, executive director of the Joint Canadian Tanning Association " an organization representing tanning salons and the manufacturers and distributors of tanning equipment in Canada " said the desire for a sun-kissed glow goes back to designer Coco Chanel in the 1920s.

“When she was on a ship cruising in the Mediterranean, she accidentally got a tan and liked it … [tans] became the image,” he said.

Now, tanning is more popular than ever.

According to a recent study by Fox Chase Cancer Center, entitled The Skin Savvy Study: A Behavioral Skin Cancer Prevention Intervention, more than one in four teenagers and young adults show signs of tanning dependence " a craving for tanning beds or the sun that mimics other addictions.

Carolyn Heckman, author of the study and an associate member of the centre, said tanning releases endorphins or endogenous opioids like those produced during drug use or the “runner’s high.”

“When it feels good, you do it,” Gilroy said. The key, he added, is always moderation.

But according to the Canadian Cancer Society, no tan is a safe tan.

“The more people tan, the higher their risk of developing skin cancer and appearing old prematurely,” Heckman said, adding evidence suggests indoor tanning is even more harmful than sunbathing.

Despite the well-publicized dangers, a CCS survey found almost half of Canadian women and a quarter of men aged 16 to 24 actively strive to get a tan from the sun.

Unlike tanning, working out is widely considered to be a healthy way to achieve a certain look.

Kimberley Gammage, an associate professor in Brock University’s physical education and kinesiology department, said exercise gives people a sense of personal enjoyment and control over their bodies.

“If you follow physical activity guidelines, [working out] does have a very positive effect on body image,” she added.

Health Canada guidelines say you should have 60 minutes of physical activity every day, Gammage noted.

“It doesn’t have to be high intensity, it could be walking.”

Third-year political science student Matt Harker can be found at the recently opened Western Student Recreation Centre five to six times a week.

Harker said he works out for the health benefits, but acknowledged there is pressure to look attractive, particularly at Western.

“Let’s face it, Western is a preppy school,” Harker said. “If you don’t look a certain way, you don’t fit in.”

According to Gareth Cunningham, manager of Campus Recreation, there are socially embedded models that suggest if you have a certain physique, then you will be more attractive or a better athlete.

Some students take things too far to achieve their ideal build in light of these pressures, despite the WRSC’s promotion of healthy physical activity.

“The benefits of recreation can and do happen here,” Cunningham said. “But there’s people who probably spend too much time here for their studies or social life.”

“We definitely have eating disorders and exercising obsessions here on campus,” added WRSC program co-ordinator of fitness and wellness, Michelle Harvey.

Sandra Fisman, professor and chair of Western’s department of psychiatry with the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, said there is a high prevalence of eating disorders in the university-age demographic " particularly among women.

This includes anorexia, bulimia and other similar conditions stemming from negative body image, she said.

Men are not immune from these issues either.

A study by Harvard University psychiatrist Harrison G. Pope Jr. and his colleagues discovered many men suffer from muscle dysmorphia, dubbed the “Adonis Complex” " a disorder in which one becomes obsessed with the idea that he or she is not muscular enough.

According to a 2000 study, the average onset age of the condition is at just over 19-years-old.

For conditions like these, the WRSC provides signage and resources for students about proper physical activity and directs those in need to external resources, such as the London eating disorder centre Hope’s Garden.

WRSC staff are also trained to keep an eye out for individuals who might be pushing their workouts too hard or have lost weight rapidly. Unfortunately, their hands are tied when it comes to issues like eating disorders.

It is impossible to tell students’ motivations for working out, Cunningham explained. In addition, the first sign of a problem " rapid weight fluctuation " is highly subjective.

First-year media, information and technoculture student Celina Toenz is familiar with the subjectivity of weight.

Standing at six feet, Toenz, a runway model currently in the preliminaries of Miss Universe Canada, has felt the sting of rumours and judgment from those in residence.

Toenz said many people assume she crash-diets, rather than having the healthy lifestyle she actually tries to maintain.

“People think all models are anorexic or bulimic,” she said. “But often it’s genetic.”

Gammage said less than one per cent of women are able to achieve the supermodel ideal.

“There’s so many physiological differences,” she explained. “You could have two people on the exact same workout program and diet and they would achieve different results.”

Models stick out because they are not the norm, Toenz said, which gives the “shock value” on a runway that inevitably sells clothes.

She compared models to stage performers and said those who don’t feel confident on the catwalk will fake it.

“It’s all for show,” she explained. “People need to stop associating themselves with a fantasy image.”

Plastic surgeon Damir Matic has encountered many clients with unreasonable expectations.

“That person that brings in the Sports Illustrated magazine, who is four-feet-tall and 200-pounds ... I’m not the right person for them.”

Matic, a Western assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Victoria Hospital, does both reconstructive surgery at the London Health Sciences Centre and cosmetic surgery at a secondary practice.

He said while few university students are getting plastic surgery, there is a spike in the age group right after graduation; at $5,000 to $10,000 for most standard procedures, it’s understandable why students would wait.

Western social science graduate student Liz* took the plunge and had breast augmentation surgery last summer.

While it never crossed her mind during her undergrad, Liz began to consider getting breast implants once a close friend had the procedure.

“I was really realistic about the goals. It wasn’t a life changer for sure,” Liz said.

Matic stressed this realistic attitude is essential when considering plastic surgery, along with thorough research from reliable sources.

“It’s surgery " complications can happen and there is a recovery period and there is pain. It’s not like getting your nails done or your hair done,” he said.

Additionally, breast implants typically last only 10 to 15 years since your body changes as you age, Matic explained.

Unfortunately, Matic said not all plastic surgeons are upfront about these issues and may accept candidates even if they are incapable of reaching their desired results.

“There are people in this [profession] for financial gain and not for the patient … it’s buyer beware.”

Overall, with so many avenues to achieve the perfect body, students today are faced with difficult choices and an unattainable ideal.

Olson said students’ ultimate goal should simply be to be healthy.

“If you know that and understand that and believe that, you’ll feel better about [your body].”

*Name changed to protect anonymity.

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