Body Image

Mental Health Awareness Week - Body Image

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Body Image is a source of constant preoccupation for so many of us. It neither respects age nor gender, ethnicity nor social class. Concerns about body image are both pervasive and pernicious, impacting on individuals, families and society as a whole.

Research by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) showed almost a third of nursery and school staff have heard a child label themselves fat. Ten per cent said they had heard a child say they felt ugly.

As children grow older so the problem increases despite our expressed aims to value diversity, tolerance, and our unique inherent beauty. One in four children (aged 9 – 16) in a more recent report cited in The Independent One in four children (9 – 16) worry about their appearance. 

Move forward a mere five years and those concerns have become crystallised into very specific and gender-differentiated issues. In a survey by the National Citizen Service (2017) of 17 year olds it was found that:

  • 27% of all 17-year olds were more concerned about appearance than physical health

  • 34% boys felt pressure to be more muscular

  • 55% girls felt pressure to be skinny (47% have already started dieting)

  • 22% girls and 10% boys have contemplated plastic surgery

The problem for girls is alarming and entrenched across all cultures. Phillippa Diedrichs, associate professor from the Centre for Appearance Research, University of the West of England, comments

“despite valiant efforts, body image remains an issue for girls not only in the UK but globally, too. We still have an enormous amount of work to do in helping girls develop the resilience they need to overcome the impact of beauty and appearance pressures.”

There is no evidence that we “grow out” of such concerns with our body image. On the contrary, throughout our early and mid-adult years, both men and women become obsessed with appearance, at the mercy of media stereotypes, over-marketed cosmetics, costly and often needless surgical interventions – all in pursuit of the “body beautiful”, a shallow and elusive mythical ideal. And yet it deeply embeds itself into our conscious and sub-conscious minds, relentlessly pursuing us through our lives.

Old age brings no respite to these preoccupations. Professor Nichola Rumsey, suggests that "as adults, 90% of British women feel body-image anxiety".  She goes on to assert "It doesn't wane – many women in their 80s are still anxious about the way their bodies look, which can even affect their treatment in hospital when their health choices are influenced by aesthetics.”

In her book, The Oxford Handbook of the Psychology of Appearance. "It is a myth that older people don't care what they look like: the 'normal' signs of ageing can prove very depressing and many people find it hard to see themselves in a positive light when they see a wrinkled face and a sagging body looking back in the mirror. We are now at a point where there is a social stigma around the effects of the natural ageing process, and this can lead to very low self-esteem and the classic signs of body dysmorphic disorder."

Body Image is a huge and complex matter. At one level it is unhappiness with our body shape, size or features, through to body dysmorphic disorder and gender dysphoria and discomfort or distress caused by one’s gender identity. We live in a 24/7, transparent society where we have increasing levels of access to information, images, comparisons and critique. This can compel us to feel inadequate because we are not as pretty, slim, muscular, popular as others and this can make us sad, excluded, anxious or depressed and cause other problems such as eating disorders. At the extreme end, there is also suicide.

In the workplace, employers can achieve a great deal by supporting diversity and inclusion, creating a culture which respects the unique qualities each of us brings and values the contribution we make.  The workplace can become an important place of acceptance, or personal esteem and a significant antidote to the pressure from all forms of media. And by fostering open and supportive work cultures, enhancing resilience and coping skills, promoting sources of early help and support and enabling access to longer-term help and treatment, these activities do bring about tangible benefits for all.

But we also have to be able to help ourselves and to encourage our children, yes even as young as five, to develop a stronger sense of self-worth and a greater degree of resilience to withstand these relentless pressures. Easier said than done, I know, but if we start early then we may be able to influence subsequent attitudes as we move through our formative and then adult years. Here are just five steps we can all take, and encourage our children to take.

  1. Be kind to you; praise yourself, think about what makes you happy and what you value in life. Stop beating yourself up. 

  2. Build self-esteem – manage your negative thoughts and actively chase them away.

  3. Steer clear of those who seem to denigrate who you are. You do not need them and should not allow yourself to be defined by them. Delete them from your social media, stay away from them in social settings, simply stop thinking and worrying about them.

  4. Connect with those who make you feel good about yourself, who bring you to life and accept you for who you are.

  5. By all means, make decisions to change how you look, but because you want to and because it enables you to be who you want to be.   

When the going gets tough then look for help. Initially of course from your family, friends, partner.   Talk to them about how you are feeling and listen to them talk about their own fears and feelings.  You will see that you are not alone.

Remember too that professional help can be at hand both from local support groups, from the NHS, from specific groups supporting young people, parents, older people. By joining you can feel supported and no longer isolated with your own fears. You will also find that you can and will support others, recognising that this is a shared journey we make - through all ages.

Further Reading

Childrens Society - Good Childhood Report