Some body to love
13th May 2019
SenSpa blogger and counsellor Sara Niven considers body image
Mental Health Awareness Week takes place this month, with the theme of body image and the impact that a negative one can have on our wellbeing. Is there anyone who can’t relate to this in some way?
During the week (13-19th May) the Mental Health Foundation will release the latest research on body image following the largest survey ever completed on how the UK population feel about their bodies. They will also examine the increased risk of mental health problems that can accompany poor body image.
As a mother, counsellor and someone who as a teenager suffered with an eating disorder, this is an issue close to my heart.
We are regularly bombarded with unrealistic, often heavily photoshopped images of unattainable bodies. Youngsters and adults alike can be easily influenced into thinking they are being judged on their vital statistics – if they have a six pack, how toned their legs are…the list goes on. Sadly, in this image-obsessed age it seems they are often right.
The British actress and presenter Jameela Jamil believes there's an “epidemic of low self-esteem" due to social media, which her "I Weigh" campaign is aimed at challenging. "Every minute we spend thinking about how thin and gorgeous and perfect we aren't, is a moment that we aren't thinking about growing our business or our education, or our family or the fun in our lives," she is reported as saying.
The Mental Health Foundation agree with her sentiment, hence this year’s theme, as CEO Mark Rowland explains:
“For too many of us, our bodies are sources of shame and distress. From an early age, we are bombarded with images that define what an ‘ideal body’ looks like. In therapeutic terms, we have internalised a sense of SHOULD when it comes to our bodies. It is as if we each have our own internal GIF on a loop reinforcing what the ideal looks like. My GIF repeats Daniel Craig strutting toned and chiselled from the sea. It’s no wonder that when I catch a glimpse of my actual reflection, I sigh with a sense of disappointment.”
It's easy to relate to. On a recent visit to SenSpa, the close friend I’d invited along was excited about an afternoon of indulgence and relaxation. However, she got in touch beforehand asking me to please excuse how “horrible” she looked in a swimsuit. In reality, many would envy her figure. But what hit me was that I had been thinking exactly the same about myself. I had to stop to consider why, given we are working mothers and not swimsuit models, we were both being so self-critical and allowing our treat to be overshadowed by the worry of being judged in this way? And by a good friend in a completely relaxed environment in addition.
If this is the case for two grown women, what is the situation for children and teenagers? I’m taken aback by some of the pictures my 13-year-old shows me on Snapchat and Instagram of others close to her age, boys and girls, showing off abs, bottoms and, in the case of the latter, whatever cleavage they have developed or managed to create with push up bras.
I keep an eye on her social media accounts and we discuss what these posts are actually all about. Is it body confidence or insecurity and a desire for affirmation? Either way, and at any age, this pre-occupation seems very different from a healthy desire to look and feel our best, which isn’t connected to conforming to anyone else’s ideals.
As the Mental Health Foundation point out, there’s also a link between how we feel about our bodies and emotional wellbeing. “All this might not be so serious if it didn’t have profound implications for our mental and physical health,” adds Mark Rowland. “The opposite also seems true: the more comfortable you are with your body, the greater your overall wellbeing, and the less likely you are to engage in destructive behaviours. And although we know girls and young women are particularly vulnerable to poor body image, this year we will explore body image as an issue that cuts across gender, age, sexuality and ethnicity.”
There can be a myriad of reasons for someone having a negative body image or developing an associated mental health condition, and this can be entirely unrelated to social media. As a teen, my eating disorder began long before the internet existed, at a time when photos got posted back from chemists rather than on social media.
But it is hard to deny we now have a situation that makes it incredibly easy for people to facelessly comment positively or negatively on someone’s physical appearance and the potential impact of that on a wide scale.
Jameela is right in that a lot of time, life and emotional wellbeing can be lost and it is heartening to see a mental health charity dedicating an awareness event to exploring the issue and looking at ways to address it.
The Mental Health Foundation say they aim to ignite a national conversation about how we can be kinder to our bodies to guard against the influences that can lead to a debilitating sense of dissatisfaction. I’d add that, particularly when it comes to social media, it is also worth being kinder to others.
Join the #BeBodyKind campaign this Mental Health Awareness Week.
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