Mental Health Awareness Week runs from Monday 13th – Sunday 19th May 2019 in the UK. The Mental Health Foundation has chosen Body Image as this year’s theme.
Culturally, we have a body image crisis that’s showing no sign of letting up. One in four children are concerned about their appearance. Over half of teenage girls are afraid of gaining weight. In the UK, body image ratings have plummeted and hospital admissions for eating disorders doubled between 2011 and 2017. Around 30% of adults report feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope due to appearance related stress.
Our lives are consumed by negative thoughts about our bodies, but it’s not hard to see why. There’s the pressure to be a work-in-progress – to seek out our best self, best body and best life. Constant exposure to people we’ve never met, who are certainly more beautiful and successful than us. Advertisements showing us rose tinted worlds that are only a purchase away. A culture that demonises food and celebrates weight loss. The expectation to respond to your friend’s negative self-talk with twice as many reasons to prove you are worse.
So how can anyone salvage their self esteem is this kind of society?
Speak kindly of yourself
It seems that, for most of us, having poor body image has become our default setting. Many women believe that complaining about their weight – a phenomenon known as “fat talk” – is actually good for them. One study found that over half of women thought complaining about their weight improved their body image. The reality is the opposite, with women who engaged in more “fat talk” also reporting higher levels of body dissatisfaction.
It’s deemed socially acceptable to complain about our looks to anyone who will listen – it’s practically a bonding experience. But when we’re so consumed with own appearance issues we may fail to realise that our body hatred is contagious. Talking negatively about your appearance typically leads others to self degrade in response. This usually sounds like a predictable attempt to make you feel better, but it can have a lasting effect – when you start to criticise your body, others start to feel worse about theirs, too.
This negative outcome makes perfect sense – when you complain about your appearance to others, you’re raising the idea that your body is a problem. Not only does this reinforce the thought in your mind, it plants it in the minds of others too. Make an effort to stop those self-depreciating thoughts before they make it out of your mouth – it’s not only you who will benefit. And if the negative narrative has the power to make others feel worse, imagine what some positivity could do.
Don’t believe everything you think
Diet culture knows how to draw us in. It convinces us that weight loss won’t only change our size – it will change our life. In Sophie Hagen’s podcast with Megan Crabbe (aka BodyPosiPanda), the pair discuss the people they had believed thinness would turn them into. Megan would go from being an anxious introvert to “wildly spontaneous and super laid back” and Sophie would somehow suddenly be able to sing. As ridiculous as it sounds, this conversation reflects the distorted weight loss expectations of many. We’re force-fed media representations of thin people who are beautiful, successful and happy, and learn by association that all aspects of our lives would be better if only we could just lose weight.
The flip side of this is that when things aren’t going well, we blame our bodies. Unhappy? Shy? Stressed out? Insecure in your relationship? Struggling at work? Lacking confidence? Maybe dieting is the answer. (please note: dieting is never the answer) This narrative directs all of our negative emotions towards our appearance and eats away at our self esteem. Some researchers suggest that some women actually complain about “feeling fat” when they are feeling distressed or seeking sympathy, as if the discomfort is easier to verbalise as a weight issue than a negative emotion.
Next time you start to think your body is at fault, challenge the thought. Why should your body change? What do you expect to come from it? Are you expecting a change in mental state? A better life? A new start? If so, you might be using your body as a scapegoat for another issue that has literally nothing to do with your appearance.
We already know that digital altering is everywhere – and its got to the point that unless an ad explicitly states that it is photoshop free, you can guarantee that it’s been toyed with in some way. Some of the most influential celebrities tweak their jaws, waistlines or even their foreheads before sharing photos on their personal accounts (see @CelebFace for hours of despair). Meanwhile, Snapchat filters gave us mere mortals a taste of a slimmer, doe-eyed self and then apps such as Facetune made it possible to easily edit photos without the telltale flower crown or dog tongue. It’s even come as far as being a default selfie setting – the “beauty” feature started causing controversy in 2016 when Samsung users realised the camera was smoothing out their skin, and increasingly so last year as users of the iPhone XS found that their was no way to disable the selfie cam’s airbrush-like effect.
It’s easy to get lost down an Instagram black hole but we have to be mindful for our own sake. You probably don’t look like whoever’s feed you’ve just spent three hours analysing, but its okay! A two dimensional feed is never going to give a true representation of a three dimensional life – you are so much more than that.
Let yourself be
If you want to make one move to improve your body image, make an effort to let yourself exist as you are right now. This doesn’t mean you have to love yourself, or even like yourself at first. Just work on believing this – you do not have to change your body.
The war against ourselves could end up lasting a lifetime if we let it. Stop fighting and start listening. You could lose years of peace by chasing a beauty ideal, or you could just be. It’s not easy to challenge everything you’ve ever been told you about your body. Society is working against you and sometimes it’ll feel like constant work. But it’s worth it. It’s your life – nothing is more important than you.
Prioritise your mind and your body will thank you. Who knows, maybe it’ll even catch on.
Head to mentalhealth.org.uk for more information about Mental Health Awareness Week. Thanks for reading!