The body beautiful

by Colin McIntosh
The pressure to achieve the perfect body shape is greater than ever before, for men no less than women. At the same time, rates of obesity are at their highest level ever. These two related facts are reflected in some new additions to the Cambridge English Dictionary. Much of the vocabulary relates to our bodies and how we see them.

An objective measure of how overweight or  otherwise we are is given by the BMI or body mass index: a measurement of our weight in relation to our height. But the way we see our bodies ourselves is very often not objective: we may have a body image that is very different from the way other people see us, with the result that we become irrationally unhappy with our appearance. This condition is called dysmorphia, and can lead to body dysmorphic disorder, a mental illness in which a person spends a lot of time worrying about how he or she looks and wrongly believes there are problems with his or her appearance. We look in the mirror and we see something very different from the actual image that is reflected back at us.

Fed by images in the media, men want to look ripped or studly. They feel that they need to bulk up and get a washboard stomach. Love handles must be banished at all costs. Plus-size women with a muffin top want to fit into clothes that are figure-hugging, form-fitting, or bodycon.

Some people will go to extreme measures to develop the perfect body, for example by taking roids (steroids) or having a gastric band fitted, a type of bariatric surgery (weight-loss surgery). Less extreme measures include following a calorie-controlled diet, cutting down on the carbs (carbohydrates), or simple exercise.

But even simple exercise can become an unhealthy obsession. Whole vocabulary sets mirror our society’s obsession with achieving the perfect body. The technical vocabulary of muscles has a parallel set of informal variants. As well as abs (abdominals), we have delts (deltoids), glutes (glutei), and obs (obliques). Types of exercise have their own names: bench presses, crunches, squats, lunges, and planks.

The flood of words in this area is no coincidence. We reserve our greatest creativity in vocabulary creation for the areas we most obsess about, and it’s clear that our bodies represent one of our greatest anxieties.