Body image issues complex and far-reaching
Toni Liechty is studying how body image affects physical activity. -Photo by U of R Photography Dep't

When Toni Liechty asks her students to stretch themselves, she's not referring to warming up muscles, although the human body has a lot to do with it. Most of her students will be providing leisure services to the public after they graduate from the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies, and she wants them to try to imagine the range of age and life circumstances of the people they will work with. This includes understanding peoples' perceptions of their bodies, and how that affects their choices of leisure activities. Body image issues are complex and far-reaching, as Liechty has discovered since she first became aware of them while working at a youth weight-loss camp.

"I heard one girl about 14 years old say she would only swim at the camp," Liechty recalls. "At home, she was too embarrassed to be seen in a swim suit, which was counter-productive. Then I started to hear other campers saying similar things."

As part of her master's research Liechty conducted a survey asking women participants if and how body image negatively affected their leisure. More than 90 per cent indicated that it did in some way, particularly with regard to physical activity. During her doctoral studies at Pennsylvania State University she interviewed women aged 60 to 70, and found "a huge range of experiences", from those who wouldn't take part in physical activity because they wouldn't wear bathing suits, to those who were concerned about injuring themselves, to still others who felt free to participate because body image was less important to them.

"One lady told me she didn't feel coordinated, but she wanted to try tap dancing," Liechty says. "She sought out a class where she felt comfortable because the participants were all shapes and sizes. I heard many stories about how women developed different strategies to address their body image issues. However, body image is a concern for many people, and it is an issue to affects everyone in their daily lives."

At the University of Regina Liechty has broadened her research to include interviews and focus groups with men as well as women. She recalls an "Aha!" moment when one man, small in stature, told her he wanted to be big and intimidating so that he could protect himself and his family.

"It was something I'd never thought of," says Liechty. "That's why I ask my students to stretch themselves, to think about the variety of interests and needs that people have. It's also why I need to stretch myself as a researcher, to understand the perspectives of the people I study.

"Most research into body image has focused on young girls, and especially related to eating disorders," she observes. "The issue is much broader than that, and if it is holding people back from physical activity, as I believe it is, then it is something we need to deal with."

Liechty made a presentation on body image as part of a series of talks at the Saskatchewan Science Centre held in conjunction with the exhibit, "The Human Body". Other speakers are listed at the Science Centre website