Dr Heather Bolton (Unmind's Head of Psychology) and Jonny Benjamin MBE explore the links between body image and mental wellbeing, consider the impact of social media and uncover how we can develop compassion for our bodies and the amazing things they do. Prepare to take a step back and challenge your own
ideas around how your body should be.
Below you will find a selection of video snippets from the webinar. There are lots of useful recommendations on how to develop a positive body image.
Introduction to Body Image
Your world cloud – body image thoughts!
What is Positive Body Image?
How do you view yourself?
Perhaps not surprisingly, most of us think of our bodies in terms of weight, shape or appearance - very few of us think about the functions that our bodies serve for us. Focusing on function can help us appreciate our bodies for what they do and stop objectifying them.
Audience Q&A Round 1
The effects of Social Media
When seeing photographs of conventionally beautiful people, the majority of us feel inferior - very few of us feel inspired or happy. Given that we’re bombarded with advertising and social media, it’s important that we educate ourselves and immune ourselves against these effects.
Q&A Round 2
Thanks to everyone who submitted questions before and during the webinar. As promised, we’ve tried to follow up on the ones we didn’t manage to answer in person.
Q: Many people wanted to know what healthy body image really is and how to achieve it.
Having a positive body image means that you accept your body as it is, and you don’t base your self-worth on how it looks or feels. There’s no one way to achieve body positivity or to eliminate negativity, as your relationship with your body (and your feelings towards it) will fluctuate but there are things you can do to help cultivate a healthy relationship with it. You can start by making a commitment to stepping back from self-critical thoughts and accepting your body for what it is. This might mean that you need to let go of any “if onlys” and “shoulds” that you hold, and accept that your happiness in life isn’t contingent on how you look. Remember that you are you, and you happen to be in the body that you live in - the people around you are far more interested in who you are as a person, rather than your shape or weight. Psychologists have found that one of the best ways to change your relationship with your body is to appreciate it for what it does rather than what it looks like so being aware of, and grateful for, the wonderful things your body can do is a great way to stop objectifying it and start building a positive relationship.
Q: Several people asked about the relationship between body image and mental health.
There’s certainly a relationship between mental health and body image. A recent UK study by the Mental Health Foundation found that a third of adults felt anxious or depressed because of their body image, and this was elevated in certain groups, for instance, LGBT+ and people under 25. Both our mental health and body image are on a spectrum - we all have bodies and we all have minds, and the wellbeing of both can fluctuate and will be influenced by external factors. Body image can be particularly affected when we go through life transitions such as puberty, pregnancy, menopause or illness.
The relationship between body image and mental health goes in both directions, as they influence each other reciprocally. When we focus on our perceived bodily failings or inadequacies, it can bring our mood down straight away. And if we start avoiding things because of shame or anxiety in relation to our bodies, it can really reduce our quality of life, because we end up missing out on things. On the flip side, if we’re low in mood, then we’re automatically primed to be hyper-critical of what we see in the mirror as our minds will tune into negativity. And on a bad day, it can also be a lot harder to immune ourselves against media messages and advertising.
It can be helpful to be mindful of this relationship between your own mental health and body image: if you feel down, try to keep treating your body in a kind and nurturing way and try to step back from the self-critical messages that your mind generates. Acknowledge that if you’re low in mood, then your view of yourself is likely negatively skewed. It’s also important to practice being self-compassionate, which is something I’d encourage everyone to do on a daily basis.
Q: We had a few questions on the subject of how to talk about your own and others bodies.
I think there’s often a lot of shame and embarrassment when it comes to talking about body issues. I only have a couple of close people that I will really open up to about this subject. Often it will be via text. Sometimes it is just too difficult for me to voice my body insecurities face to face. I think email, text and instant messaging can be a useful way to communicate with loved ones about not just body issues, but other issues in general. I’m always surprised by the responses I get. Often they too have faced their own body issues which I’ve not been aware of. Struggling with our perception of our bodies is extremely common - we just don’t talk about it enough.
It can be hard to be open about your biggest insecurities but it’s true that talking can be the most helpful thing and the more we share, the easier it becomes. It’s easy to imagine how we think someone sees us, convincing ourselves that we’ll be criticised or judged when we really have no idea what they’re thinking. In my experience, people really don’t pay nearly as much attention to others’ bodies as they do their own. If you’re preoccupied with aspects of your body or appearance and you’ve not shared this with anyone, there’s a high chance that what you see is different to what others see, and hearing someone challenge your perception can be hugely powerful.
Do be mindful of the way you relate to others’ bodies too - try not to comment on people’s appearance, even if think you’re being complimentary. Instead, try to verbalise the things you value about them as a person. This can help move us all away from any preoccupation with weight, shape and appearance.
Q: Several people asked questions around childhood experiences, for instance how to deal with memories of bullying related to body parts and whether our parents could shape our body image.
I had really bad acne during my teens and people would often say horrible things that deeply affected me at a time when my self-esteem was already low. I kept all of it to myself but it all came to the surface when I started having therapy. I’m so glad it did. I’m very sensitive, and working through difficult comments I’ve received in my childhood and adolescence (about body image as well as in general) helped me to reframe the way I felt about them. I now realise that all of the individuals who said unkind words to me were almost certainly struggling with their own insecurities, even if they didn’t realise it themselves.
When we’re children, we’re like little sponges, soaking up all the information that we learn from our friends and families, media, books and school. We build our own unique belief systems and we filter all our personal experiences through these. If you felt criticised as a child or got bullied based on your appearance, then this may be something that you carry forward into adulthood. There’s nothing wrong with this but it‘s important to be aware of, and bear in mind that some of your current insecurities might be grounded in past memories. Looking at your past from the perspective of an adult can help you get some distance from it because, as Jonny says, bullies often say very cruel things to get a reaction. Adults don’t act in the same way as playground bullies and so it can be helpful to remember that you’re not going to experience the same cruel reactions from others as you did as a child.
Q: We discussed social media during the webinar and this raised many more questions, for instance, whether using photoshop or filters to enhance your own photos might lead you to feel better or worse, and how to help teenagers manage their use of social media.
Social media can have advantages but we need to be careful that we use it in a way that helps, not harms. It’s worth finding out for yourself whether social media has a negative impact on you. I’d recommend trying a mini experiment where you spend 10 minutes scrolling through whatever social media you normally engage with, and rating your mood before and after. If your mood is lower after 10 minutes of scrolling, then it’s a sign that you need to make some changes. Maybe that means it’s time to take a break from social media or to start curating who you follow: as a rule of thumb, for every account you follow that promotes high beauty standards, try to follow at least two that promote body positivity. For the people who asked about promoting healthy social media use in their children, I’d suggest sitting down with your children and doing this very exercise.
We also had a question about the things we post online ourselves. When given the choice between two photos of ourselves, most of us would choose to show the one in which we looked better - it’s natural to want to portray ourselves in a positive light. But using filters or other enhancements could lead you to feel worse in the long run if you feel that you’re not being genuine. Maybe there’s another possibility to try a mini experiment here - try posting things that aren’t your “best” self and see what happens.
Q: A few people asked about role models in sports, in particular how we can respond to body ideals.
In general, it’s good to have role models but if they are unrealistic then it can create distorted expectations - we need to remember that for professional sports people, it is their full-time job, and they are paid to train all day, every day. Most of us don’t have the time to spend 8 hours exercising a day, with the added benefit of coaches and nutritionists, so this type of body is unattainable for most of us. Try to focus on yourself and what’s relative to you and don’t compare your body to professional athletes. It can also be helpful to flip it on its head - would this talented sports person be able to do your job as skilfully as you without any training or support?
Q: Someone asked Jonny how he thinks the relationship is evolving between men, body image and society, and how he personally tries to view his body positively.
I think we have a long way to go! When was the last time you saw a male in an advert without his top off who didn’t have a six pack? Most of the men in my life, including myself, don’t have six packs. In fact our body shapes are actually very different to the typical male body shapes you’ll see represented in adverts, TV and film (remember the famous topless picture of Poldark?). I’d like to see much more of a range of male bodies, including different ages (we can’t all be in our 20s forever!) shown by the media.
Personally, I now try to use the power of positive affirmations to help me feel better about my body. I used to look in the mirror and tell myself about all my “flaws.” Now I will look in the mirror and try to reframe what I’m saying about different parts of my body. It isn’t about suddenly telling myself “I LOVE” certain parts of my body when I’ve struggled with them all my life but just telling myself that these body parts are “OK” and “fine”. Perhaps one day I will grow to love them but it takes time. At least I’m attempting to be kind to myself.
Q: We talked about social comparison and the negative impact that can have but one person noted that they often compare themselves to what they used to look like, and wondered whether this is quite common.
I think this is something many of us often do. It’s easy to look at photos from years back and think about how young and fresh we looked then, but one day you’ll look back to this point in time and think the same thing! Perhaps it’s helpful to remember that the way you looked then hasn’t impacted the fun you had and it should be the same now. I think it’s also important to accept that ageing is a normal, inevitable process.
Q: Some people touched upon how we can tackle body image as a society, and whether charities should be taking action against certain media approaches.
Things are certainly changing for the better and there’s now a growing pressure on media to be more responsible. I think it’s great that many fashion brands have started to use more realistic-sized models but this is really the first step and we have a long way to go in challenging unrealistic standards of beauty. As individuals, we can use social media responsibility and we can report irresponsible advertising to the relevant governing bodies (this will vary depending on what country you live in). Educating others on how to challenge what they see can also help change the narrative but it’s something that ‘s going to happen slowly. Until things do change more widely, it’s important to immunes ourselves against what we do see and cultivate our own healthy relationships with media and advertising.
Q: Someone asked about whether the Body Positive movement could legitimise unhealthy body habits, asking how to find the right balance.
When we talk about body positivity, that means getting away from ideals and accepting the body you have, but it also means taking a healthy approach to your body. Body positivity certainly doesn’t encourage us to be reckless or to stop caring for our bodies - quite the opposite. It encourages us to accept them, care for them and show them compassion.
The Body Positive movement isn’t just focused on weight and shape, it’s about celebrating all types of appearances. For instance, Harnaam Kaur is a social media star who is considered to be a leader in the Body Positive movement. She was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, causing an imbalance of hormones, and spent her youth removing unwanted body hair to avoid taunts from her peers. However, after years of hiding, at the age of 16 she decided to embrace her hairy body and today is a spokesperson on diversity and self-acceptance. Harnaam has even walked London Fashion Week. We need more role models like Harnaam for young people to look up to, rather than airbrushed images of the Kardashians that tend to appear all over social media instead.
Here are the accounts that Jonny suggested following on Instagram and Twitter
Megan Jayne Crabbe @bodyposipanda I Natasha Devon @_natashadevon
I Bryony Gordon @bryonygordon I Harnaam Kaur @harnaamkaur I Denise Bidot @denisebidot I Kelvin Davis @notoriouslydapper
And finally, here’s a short video highlighting the extent of enhancement in advertising
If you think you need to talk to a professional about your relationship with your body and you live in the UK, you can access psychological therapies via the NHS. As a starting point, visit your GP or look up your local IAPT service. Access to therapies such as CBT varies by country to country so if you live outside of the UK, then we’d recommend checking in with your local doctor as they’ll know what’s on offer. You can also access useful resources on our SOS page.
To learn more about Positive Body Image, try our Series 'Positive Body Image' by heading to your platform and visiting the Series section.
Thank you to all who could join us and we hope you found this article useful. See you next time!
The Unmind Team