October 26th, 2023
Data gathered by the Mental Health Foundation and YouGov indicates that body image has a stark impact on the way we think and feel about ourselves.
The data (collected in 2019) reveals that 20% of adults feel shame about their bodies; that’s one in five adults who strongly associate their bodies with negative feelings. Over a third of respondents (35%) revealed that their relationship with their bodies has led to depression, and 19% reported that they were ‘disgusted’ by the way their bodies look.
These numbers are also consistently high in young people, suggesting that issues with body image are being developed during youth. This is striking when research indicates that the number of people being treated for eating disorders in the UK is increasing, and a large majority of those in treatment are under 25.
Why are these numbers so high, and what is it that’s making poor body image so pervasive? On the other side of things, how do we begin to negate this association between our bodies and shame? How can we adopt body positivity to help us decrease the risks of consistent exposure to unrealistic beauty standards in the media?
The Link Between Mental Health and Body Image
Research into difficulty with body image suggests that body dissatisfaction occurs when ‘there is a discrepancy between how an individual views their body’ and ‘how they want it to be.’ This is the gap between actual body image and ideal body image.
The Influence of Beauty Standards
If we do not look like our ideal body, then we can start to feel anxious, embarrassed or even inadequate. Contributing to this concept of the ‘ideal body’ is the media we consume. Historically, research into the role of beauty standards and self-esteem focused on exposure to media, such as fashion advertisements, magazines, TV and film.
This research tends to look at the way that thinness has been glorified as a kind of aesthetic pinnacle, particularly through fashion media. The fashion industry has historically highlighted the slender form, offering less space to showcase more diverse body types. This can often work to establish the leaner body as the image of what ‘beauty’ is, which has dangerous consequences in the lives of everyday men and women.
The Rise of Social Media
Recent years have seen our screen time increasing and our social media exposure becoming more varied. The time we spend with our screens has seen a 50 to 70% increase. Research into the use of the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic indicates that half of all internet access in 2020 was social media oriented.
The explosion of apps such as Snapchat and TikTok have not only increased the visibility of other people’s bodies on these online platforms, but also made it easier for those bodies to be altered.
In today’s climate, we typically understand that outside forces heavily influence fashion media and celebrity culture through extreme dieting and workout routines to access full glam teams and cleverly lit and angled photographs. We understand, for example, that the image of an A-list celebrity on the cover of Vogue is likely to have been edited.
But when the people around us appear to be slimmed down similarly, contoured, complexion smoothed and suddenly very toned online, it’s harder to identify that editing has taken place. The visual aspects of social media have fed into the use of filters; these can range from producing fun cartoon-images to producing startlingly realistic instant ‘makeovers’.
These can be applied to images but also to video, often making them more difficult to spot. Not only does this create an online environment of comparison between people by ‘smoothing’ over and indicating what a perfect face and body look like, but it also risks highlighting ‘problems’ in appearance, which can lead to new insecurities.
One researcher addressed their concern with this process, suggesting that social media users – particularly young women — ‘are no longer able to analyse how they appear in reality.’
These filters can, therefore, further heighten the gap between the ideal and actual body, intensifying feelings of body dissatisfaction through the privileging of a particular ‘look’ above all others.
The fashion industry has historically highlighted the slender form, offering less space to more diverse body types. As we can see, the use of filters on social media can also alienate individuals from their own bodies.
But when the imagery is so constant, how do we combat it?
What is Body Positivity?
Body positivity aims to tackle the idea of the ‘perfect body.’ Until recently, body positivity was perhaps thought of as a mental state, as a way of identifying with ourselves.
However, this focus on the individual has somewhat shifted. With the rise of the ‘body positivity movement’ the focus has been put back onto the collective. By considering all types of bodies as worthy of love and acceptance, body positivity has become something of a social enterprise as much as it is an independent one.
Body positivity does not only focus on the size of bodies; it also considers how to extend acceptance to a variety of bodies across different demographics, including:
- Skin tone
Body positivity has taken off with the hashtag ‘#BOPO’. The ultimate aim of the movement is to highlight how beauty standards are not innate but are rather something that we learn. The body positivity movement hopes to bring attention to the constructed nature of our shared perception of ‘beauty’ in order to help individuals challenge it. In the process, it pitches all bodies as equally beautiful and strives for intersectional inclusion as well as personal comfort within our own selves.
This begins to trickle down into fashion itself, with several fashion houses diversifying their models to more adequately reflect their clientele. The British Fashion Council has subsequently published a 2022 report on ‘Diversity and Inclusion in the Fashion Industry’ to consider how diverse the industry is on all levels, suggesting the beginning of a shift from automatic acceptance of homogeneous representation that has been systematic for decades.
Practising Self-Acceptance for Mental Health and Wellness
One benefit of the body positivity movement is that it puts the onus on the collective, considering how body image is created through a boiling pot of processes, both individual, social and situational.
Whilst this shows a step forward on a wider level, this is not necessarily enough for individuals for whom negative body image is already so entrenched.
Some practical ways you can begin your own body positivity journey include:
- Practice gratitude and affirmations
- Compliment others around you on things not associated with physical attractiveness
- Think about health rather than beauty
- Try to catch negative self-talk
- Try to catch negative comparison
- Consider how you would talk to a friend and begin to address yourself in the same way
- Access eating disorder treatment at one of our centres
Risks of Body Dissatisfaction
Negative body image is often associated with anxiety and depression as well as disordered eating. There are around 1.25 million people experiencing eating disorders in England.
There are several types of eating disorders, including:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Binge eating disorder (BED)
- Rumination disorder
- Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
As eating disorders tend to manifest in very physical ways (impacting the ways in which or the amounts that someone eats), they can risk serious harm to the body. This means that individuals with eating disorders are at risk from serious bodily injury, or even death.
Anorexia has been confirmed as the psychiatric disorder with the highest rate of mortality. This indicates that accessing support for an eating disorder is a very important part of harm reduction.
There are a range of therapies available that can help you to manage your eating disorder. Here at UKAT we are able to offer various forms of support depending on your specific situation.
Eating disorders are behavioural, which means they can start to become so ingrained in our everyday lives that they feel like our ‘normal.’ But you do not have to continue in this way, and there are forms of support you can access to help you to regain control.
To receive non-judgmental, confidential advice on how to manage your eating disorder with UKAT you can contact our team today. You can also make a referral to access formal support.
(Click here to see works cited)
- Beech, M. (2020). COVID-19 Pushes Up Internet Use 70% and Streaming More Than 12%, First Figures Reveal
- Hancock, J. T., Liu, X., French, M., Luo, M., and Mieczkowski, H. (2019). “Social media Use and Psychological Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis,” in International Communication Association Conference, Washington, DC.
- Edakubo & Fushimi. Mortality and risk assessment for anorexia nervosa in acute-care hospitals: a nationwide administrative database analysis. 2020.