Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 is shining the light on body image. Joanna Baker, Therapist and Psychoeducation Coordinator at the University of Derby, explains how our thoughts and feelings on body image can affect our everyday lives.
Body image issues can affect all of us regardless of age, gender, sexuality and ethnicity, as the Mental Health Foundation emphasises. But, what is ‘body image’, and why are we bothered? Body image not only affects how we see ourselves but also how we behave and how we interact with others. While some people really don’t care, some people are completely obsessed, and many people are somewhere in between. Our own concept of body image is influenced by internalised messages that start at a very young age, our family and friends, our past experiences and what we believe to be ‘society standards’ as represented by the media.
The emotional needs that nature has programmed us with are there to connect us to the external world, particularly to other people, and survive in it. They seek their fulfillment through the way we interact with the environment. We have the need for connection to the wider community and for emotional intimacy. One of the ways that we build rapport for these relationships is through mirroring; be that behaviour, beliefs or how we look. If we don’t feel part of a ‘tribe’, we can feel anxious, fearful, lonely or even depressed. Even when do feel part of a tribe, we also have a need for a sense of status within that group. We want to want to fit in and stand out at the same time.
The rise of social media
Before the advent of social media, we might have seen impossibly perfect images in magazines or on billboards, but now they are everywhere. We are bombarded with them daily. Alerts pop up on our phones. Not only that, there are mixed messages about body positivity from so-called celebrity ‘health’ programmes and weight-loss corporations. There is a £2billion diet industry in the UK that thrives on teaching us that our bodies aren’t good enough. Many tell us we will be happier if we sign up to their prescribed weight loss methods. No doubt their customers will be following them online too. Social media algorithms will then direct them to ‘related content’; more images or adverts for a ‘better body’. Solutions to your clothing, hair, skin or body problems.
What you see is not always what you get. Those days are gone. Now we can choose how we represent ourselves in the digital world. #Livingmybestlife or posting the life I want you to think I’m living? We can stage, filter, whiten and airbrush, creating a culture of self-comparison that didn’t previously exist. The pressure to conform, both for acceptance and status, paradoxically can cause isolation, loneliness, depression and sadly in some cases can lead to suicide. Hardly surprising then that we can sometimes feel insecure about our appearance! But it isn’t real. Social media holds no power over our body image unless we choose to use it as a tool to compare and criticise ourselves.
While acknowledging the anxious despair that body image pressures can put on any of us, Mental Health Foundation CEO Mark Rowland looks to the positive with his comment that, “the more comfortable you are with your body, the greater your overall wellbeing, and the less likely you are to engage in destructive behaviours.” This of course is a two-way street. If we’re not getting our physical and emotional needs met in balance, then we are more likely to be unhappy.
There are many things we can do to feel good about ourselves. Here are some top tips.
There is a clear link between wellbeing and academic success. To help students make the most of their time at university, we provide a wide range of face to face, telephone and online support.
Student Wellbeing Centre (Derby) 01332 593000 (x3000) firstname.lastname@example.org
Student Wellbeing (Buxton/Leek/Chesterfield) 01298 330414 (x4414) email@example.com
During March 2019, 115 therapy appointments were missed – this amounts to £3,461 of wasted funds and 115 hours of lost therapy time. We understand that sometimes you may be unable to attend your appointment for one reason or another. Wherever possible, please give at least 24hrs notice so we can make the appointments available to other students.
There are also lots of great self-help resources out there, including:
The NHS Choices Moodzone offers practical advice, interactive tools, videos and audio guides to help you feel mentally and emotionally better.
The NHS Eatwell Guide shows how much of what we eat overall should come from each food group to achieve a healthy, balanced diet.
The NHS How To Get To Sleep Guide has some great tips on how to improve your sleep.
Samaritans is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you need a response immediately, it’s best to phone. This number is FREE to call. ☎ 116 123 (UK) 116 123 (ROI)
MIND, the mental health charity: https://www.mind.org.uk ☎ 0300 123 3393
Rethink Mental Illness https://www.rethink.org ☎ 0300 5000 927
Other useful links
This is a national project designed to find out how well innate emotional needs are being met in our society.
Body image Workshop at First Steps