As last week’s Mental Health Awareness Week focused on body image, I wanted to look into the Mental Health Foundation’s (2019) ‘Body Image Report’ to find out more about how this issue impacts on so many people in different stages of their lives, and why.
While teaching, I experienced children as young as six years old being unhappy with the way that they look. This really shocked me as body dissatisfaction wasn’t something I personally experienced until at least around the age of eleven. Six felt very young to have those kinds of concerns and to have an image in mind of how people ‘should look.’
Why is this an important issue?
Although, experiencing body dissatisfaction is common, The Mental Health Foundation (2019) explains that, “Research has found that higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders.” In other words, having these worries can lead to bigger issues, and can be a potential trigger for a mental health problem.
What can cause body dissatisfaction?
Values like equality, acceptance, compassion, empathy and tolerance are taught in schools and homes. Part of this, is understanding that people look different from one another and that is not only normal, but part of what makes us unique, so why do so many of us feel dissatisfaction and a desire to look different in some way?
The Mental Health Foundation have a list of ways that body image can be influenced including things like our relationships, idealized and unrealistic expectations of appearance from the media and social media, and how those close to us speak about bodies. There are also more specific factors that can contribute to this, such as long term illness.
How large is the problem?
Here are some facts and figures from online surveys in March 2019, (including 4,505 adults and 1,118 teenagers in the UK) conducted by You Gov and the Mental Health Foundation:
- “One in five adults (20%) felt shame, just over one third (34%) felt down or low, and 19% felt disgusted because of their body image in the last year. “
- “One in eight (13%) adults experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image.”
- “Just over one in five adults (22%) and 40% of teenagers said images on social media caused them to worry about their body image.”
- “Just over one in five adults (21%) said images used in advertising had caused them to worry about their body image.”
As you can see not only is the experience common place, but it can case serious psychological distress.
What can we do about it?
I would say the easiest thing we can do, that would make a real impact, is to be kind. Actions like posting unflattering photos of friends, making jokes about the appearance of others etc. can have a really negative impact on how someone feels about their body and make them feel uncomfortable in their own skin. You need to put yourself in their shoes and consider, ‘How would you feel if the situation was reversed? Do I really need to post that comment? What is the reasoning behind it? What good will it do? ‘
There are some other really simple things that we can do to combat this issue, including:
- Speaking positively about body image and appearance (including our own) to those around us
- Encouraging healthy eating and exercise habits
- Teaching about healthy relationships
- Disputing unrealistic and idealized expectations of body image
- Remembering that appearance does not define us or others
For more tips visit: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/body-image-report/tips
The Mental Health Foundation, (2019), ‘Body Image Report- Executive Summary,’ pages 1-8