Dara Torres's Abs and the Average Woman's Body Image

Looking at all those Olympians, women have to double their efforts to love the body they've got.

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Corrected on 7/31/08: An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled the name of Keira Knightley.

Our hate-hate relationship with our bodies is an old story, but as the Olympics roll around—with nonstop coverage of all those ultrafit female athletes—I thought this might be a good time for a reality check. OK, perhaps "hate" is overstating it, but 30 percent of us say our bodies make us uncomfortable and ashamed, according to a recent AOL poll. I have to admit I gave my own abs a critical review after seeing photos of Olympic swimmer Dara Torres and her perfect six pack. Check out this one of her below.

It makes me feel even more inadequate to know that Torres is a 41-year-old mother of a 2-year-old. Where, I'd like to know, are her stretch marks and postpregnancy pooch?

I was, though, somewhat comforted to learn from the New York Times Magazine that to get that body (and achieve world class performance), Torres employs three coaches, two stretchers, two massage therapists, a chiropractor, and a nanny, at the cost of at least $100,000 per year. And I applaud New York Times blogger Tara Parker Pope who took to task those who say Torres has become the "physical ideal for mothers, women at or approaching middle age, and just women in general." She put forth 80-year-old actress Estelle Parsons—who regularly lifts weights, swims, and bikes—as an alternative and much more realistic role model.

I also wonder about the emotional price some women pay for aspiring to the kind of physique Michelangelo would sculpt. It turns out that female college athletes are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies and starve themselves than nonathletes, according to a study published this week in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

For what they're worth, here are a few other mental notes I'll be making to myself over the next couple weeks when I see those gorgeous shots of the Olympians:

No body's perfect. Even that of actress Keira Knightley, who made People magazine's most beautiful list. Knightley, to her credit, recently refused to have her bust size enhanced on publicity photos for her new film Duchess, sending the message that A-cup breasts don't detract from her overall sexiness. Those with a healthy body image generally see themselves as a whole rather than a package of their flaws—the same way we all look at other people.

Check out real women. Few, if any, will have the ripped abs of Dara Torres. Despite jiggling arms and love handles, plenty of them dress and carry themselves as if they're proud of who they are—and they look good.

Appreciate what your body can do. Exercise to increase strength and endurance rather than to tackle a flabby stomach. Besides feeling fitter, you'll develop an admiration for your body's power to, say, walk a faster mile or lift heavier weights.

Look in the mirror and count the things you like. OK, this sounds silly. But every parent knows that emphasizing the positive improves a child's attitude. Why not try it on yourself?

Treat your body with respect. Aim for clothes that conform to your body rather than trying to make your body conform to your clothes. By the same token, nourishing your body with nutritious foods, pleasant experiences like massages, and plenty of sleep will give you the sense that you're taking care of something valuable, like a luxury car.