When we planned this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May), we chose ‘body image’ as our theme, because of some earlier research we had done that showed many people seem to have uncomfortable feelings and thoughts about their bodies.
Something like one third of women and one quarter of men in the UK said they’d felt ‘high levels of stress’ about their body image over the last year, according to a YouGov poll we commissioned in 2018 on stress.
We had used this research as evidence for a complaint the Mental Health Foundation made about advertisements for cosmetic surgery around the TV show Love Island. The Advertising Standards Authority upheld our complaint and the adverts were banned.
Our comment at the time was: “Implying that people can only enjoy body confidence and an aspirational lifestyle by undergoing cosmetic surgery is dangerous and unacceptable. All of us, including commercial organizations have a role to play in strengthening our young people’s resilience.”
Body image matters because it affects our feelings about ourselves as people and can impact our mental health. Feeling very uncomfortable about your body could affect your self-confidence in many situations – and can be linked to anxiety and depression.
Feeling good about your body could have the opposite effects.
Your feelings about your body can also influence your behaviour. Feeling self-critical might lead you to extreme dieting or drinking too much, for example, while feeling good about your body may encourage you to take care of it by getting enough sleep and exercise. These, in turn, are good for your mental wellbeing.
The Mental Health Foundation exists to help people protect their mental health. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re offering suggestions about how people can look after themselves around body image. Here are some of them:
- Find the best way for you to stay active. A healthy amount of exercise every week can make us feel better about our bodies, encourage good mood and decrease stress. But don’t overdo it. The best workout programme is the one that you will actually enjoy.
- Spring clean your apps and social media accounts. Be aware of how you feel when using them and, if stressful, consider uninstalling them. Also consider muting or unfollowing accounts that cause you to feel negatively about your body or appearance or encourage you to compare yourself unfavourably to others.
- At home, parents should lead by example, by eating healthily and staying active. You can praise children for qualities unrelated to physical appearance and avoid criticising your own or other people’s appearance, or placing unrealistic expectations on how people look. You can also support children to express their emotions and communicate their feelings about their bodies.
- If your body image is a significant cause of stress or you’re being bullied about how your body looks, talk to a friend, a trusted adult or a health professional. There is support available, especially before you make drastic decisions – for instance around cosmetic surgery, extreme dieting or trying drugs and supplements.
For more information about Mental Health Awareness Week, go to https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week
By Richard Grange