What the average Australian woman’s body looks like

By Jen Kelly
Herald Sun, October 26, 2015


It's time for a reality check - this is the size and shape of the average Australian woman. At 71kg, Amy Firth represents Ms Average - a dramatically different shape to the tall, ultra-thin models and celebrities whose images saturate the media.

The average woman weighs 71.1kg and is 161.8cm tall, according to the most recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, collected in 2011-12.

The average man is 85.9kg and 175.6cm.

Firth, who is average weight and slightly above average height, has a body mass index (BMI) of 26 and is therefore classified as overweight.

While Firth exercises regularly, eats well, looks after her health and is happy with her appearance, the 29-year-old from Kensington is trying to lose 6kg to drop into the so-called “healthy” BMI range of 18.5 to 25.

But is she doing the right thing?

The answer is a resounding “no”, according to a growing chorus of experts, including Melbourne eating behaviour specialist Dr Rick Kausman.

Kausman says losing a certain number of kilograms to hit a particular weight range is not only misguided - it's potentially seriously harmful to health.

“People have been led to believe that you can judge someone's health by their weight - and that's not true,” says Kausman, author of award-winning book 'If Not Dieting, Then What?' “BMI doesn't measure health. If someone who starts off with a healthy body image feels they should be a lower weight even though they're looking after themselves in the healthiest way that they can, they risk actually doing harm to themselves.”

Kausman says healthy people often restrict food to achieve a lower BMI, then find they regain the weight when their bodies fight back because “humans can't under-eat in the long term”.

“The normal result is the weight is regained and the person feels like they've failed, often leading into a whole cycle, and decades for many people, of feeling bad about themselves,” he says.

Kausman's warnings are echoed by Melbourne dietitian Fiona Sutherland. “If someone goes from a BMI of, say, 28 to 25, they may be more 'healthy', but if it's not sustainable, there's a strong chance they will regain that weight, and perhaps gain more weight, so overall become less healthy,” says Sutherland, from Body Positive Australia. “And weight cycling is one of our greatest determinants of ill health, plus the stress it puts on the body, and also the mind, is enormous”.

Our cover girl, Firth, a full-time superannuation consultant and occasional actor, admits the Herald Sun photo shoot took her out of her comfort zone, and she would normally never wear anything revealing her midriff, except on holiday. “But I thought, well, why not? If I am the average, there are more people like me than there are who are different,” Firth says. “This is just me - and I'm happy with me.”

But Firth, whose body confidence is unusually high, is in the minority. “Most people feel terrible about their body and body image,” Kausman says. He says it is common for women to feel disgusted by their bodies and unable to look in a mirror. Many refuse to be photographed, go swimming, try on clothes or attend certain social occasions, especially events where appearance will be a focus.

Body dissatisfaction often leads women to binge eat, overexercise, abuse substances, delay health screening, undergo cosmetic procedures or even develop eating disorders. Many avoid exercise - or even leaving the house - because of their fear of exposing their bodies to the harsh public eye. Kausman says research shows discrimination against people because of their size - and a belief they are lazy or gluttonous - is growing, and now exceeds prejudice based on gender or race.

Like so many women, Frankston mum Jenai Flanagan began feeling negatively about her body during high school, even though she was a healthy size 10-12. “I still thought I was too big,” Flanagan, 28, says. “I avoided gym class and swimming. Even going shopping for my valedictory dress was a struggle. “After high school I joined the gym and worked out three to four days a week and lost a little weight but was still not 100 per cent happy with my body.” Flanagan's next slump — again mirroring the experience of many women - came when she gave birth to the first of her two children six years ago and put on 15kg, leaving her deeply unhappy. “Since then I have not gone swimming, I hate clothes shopping, and I avoid having pictures of me unless it's just my face or a very good angle,” she says. “I have tried diets and a few very unhealthy habits like just not eating. I feel like I'm a bad role model to my kids. I'm currently single and I feel ugly, unattractive and unworthy of having a relationship or finding love.” Flanagan hopes sharing her story will help herself and others begin taking steps to overcome their negative body image. “I've begun working on accepting what I've got,” she says.

Disliking one's body is not restricted to people who are overweight. “Unfortunately, no one is exempt,” Kausman says. “It's so much not about what the person's size is, but so much about how the person feels about themselves and their body image”. Kausman says even people who do manage to meet the societal ideal of the perfect body suffer from body image issues. “It almost feels like in people's minds they can always lose another kilo. “It's never enough. You can never be at a best weight because 1kg less would be better - that's how it's been pitched both from a body image point of view and also from a health point of view unfortunately.”

Australian surveys have shown only one in five women in the healthy weight range is happy with her weight, and most women want to be thinner. Body image experts say the saturation of images in the media, particularly magazine photos of models with unattainable body shapes, trains our brains to think that is what is desirable. A recent Melbourne study of more than 1100 Australian adults found women felt worse about their bodies after viewing pictures of super-thin female models. Similarly, men feel worse about their bodies after seeing muscular male models, says study author Dr Nives Zubcevic-Basic, lecturer and director of Swinburne University's Master of Marketing program. “The study also found women had a very different perception of what men found attractive - they always thought that men were after a skinnier woman or a particular body shape, and that was really far from the truth,” she says. “Women had quite a warped perception. Men prefer women of a heavier weight than what women think they do. “So people need to be aware of realistic perceptions, not perceptions portrayed through things on social media like fitspo and bubble butt workouts, and through advertising and mainstream media.” Zubcevic-Basic believes magazines should have to add warnings to photos of models to indicate when they have been Photoshopped, in order to educate their readers.

Sutherland says the images we see are so influential because they combine the ideas of thinness and health, and many people value health. “If you Google 'healthy body' you'll get pages and pages of slim, white women,” Sutherland says. “What we're being told is health is leanness, and ill health is anything apart from that, especially people in larger bodies. “And that's not at all true". “Health can come in many different shapes and sizes, including slender, including thin, and including curvier and larger.”

Kausman agrees, adding that government health campaigns such as the recent graphic “toxic fat” TV ads, which he says try to make people feel bad to create change, are part of the problem, not the solution. “When we shame and stigmatise people it doesn't work; it doesn't help people look after themselves better,” he says. “It's mind boggling that the evidence is out there, yet governments persist with taking no notice in public health campaigns where they're blaming the individual rather than addressing the complexity of why someone might want to make some changes in their health behaviour.”

Sutherland says women need to stop equating body size with health. “One of the confusions people have is they look at a body and say 'that's an overweight body', whereas that body could actually be perfectly fine for that person,” she says. “Our lifestyle behaviours are our strongest determinants of health, not weight.” But overcoming poor body image and developing healthy habits does not mean women will necessarily become slim. “Given healthy exercise and a healthy balanced eating pattern, we're not automatically going to be slender,” Sutherland says. “We might still be a size 14, 16, 18 or above.”

While people do not inherit poor body image from their parents, Kausman says the culture at home increases the chances of some of us feeling badly about our bodies, while for others, the home environment is protective. Sutherland says parents need to teach their children how to appreciate and respect their bodies. “We can do that by not engaging in dieting, and watching the language we're using about our own bodies and other people's bodies, too, such as not saying somebody is 'lovely and slim',” she says.

Studies have shown 68 per cent of 15-year-old girls are on a diet, and adolescent girls who diet even moderately are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who don't diet. One prominent school, Mentone Girls' Grammar, is tackling the problem head on with what it believes is a world-first body image education and cultural change program, starting in January. A committee will examine every aspect of the curriculum and school culture ranging from canteen food choices to sizes available at the uniform shop to ensure girls are not receiving messages that shame girls with larger bodies. The program, Getting Real, will also educate teachers, Year 7-12 students, and, crucially, their parents about positive body image and the dangers of dieting. “Research shows 80 per cent of adolescent girls have been on a diet of some kind. It's a most alarming statistic,” says the school's psychologist, Lara Silkoff, who developed the program with Kausman. “Diets are the leading cause of eating disorders. Part of that is to do with the reinforcement of people saying, 'You've lost weight - you look great,' so self-esteem becomes attached to dieting. “On the other side, dieting can quite directly lead to obesity. Diets make you gain weight over time.”

While many women who hate their bodies feel helpless in overcoming what is often a decades-old problem, research demonstrates women can overcome negative body image with psychological support. One eight-session program based on cognitive behavioural therapy greatly improved body image and disordered eating in a La Trobe University study of 61 Victorian women published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2011. Study co-author Professor Susan Paxton says the Set Your Body Free program, now offered through particular psychologists, aims to build body acceptance so people can enjoy life and their body just the way it is. “People can learn to refocus on what they really value in life and also learn to enjoy all the good things their body can offer them, without always focusing just on appearance,” Paxton, Professor in the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe, says. “We're not suggesting people shouldn't look after their health. The evidence is very interesting on this point. “People with poor body image are less likely to engage in positive health behaviours like engaging in physical activity and eating well. “And people with positive body image are more likely to engage in positive physical activity and to eat in a healthy way. It's contrary to what most people expect.”

It is unrealistic for most people to expect to learn to love every part of their body, according to Kausman. “But if people can get from feeling really badly, to less badly, to being more accepting, then they can get on with their lives more, because this stuff takes up so much emotional energy,” he says.

“One of the really hopeful ways out of this shambles we are in as a culture is if we can practise being kinder to ourselves in terms of our self-talk and being more self-compassionate.”

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