The focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is Body Image. This is particularly poignant in the light of the “selfie” society we now live in. On many social media platforms our outer appearance is routinely shared and the “likes” received become an instant and shortcut source of validation and attention. We all have a basic human need for recognition and contact and so it is easy to understand how trading images becomes an easy way to get our needs met. However, with so much emphasis on appearance as a route to recognition, some people may in turn feel a high pressure to look a certain way and become unhappy with their appearance. Recent studies by the Mental Health Foundation (2019) found that 1 in 5 adults and 31% of teenagers have felt shame about their body and the impact of this shame can be devastating.
Body image refers to how we think and feel about our bodies; whether that be particular features or a more generalised perception. We may all at times feel some dissatisfaction with our reflection but for some their relationship with their appearance can cause significant distress and can lead to unhealthy, limiting and even harmful behaviour. Individuals with a poor body image may begin to develop a skewed or distorted perception of themselves, whereby what they see in the mirror is very different to reality.
Because for many the roots of our body image are linked to our self-concept and our assessment of whether we are good enough, loveable and included, our personal experience of living in society and our relational experiences will likely play some part in the architecture of our self-appraisal. We will create our own standards and expectations for ourselves based on what we hear and see, through modelling of and comparison with a common standard, experience of direct or witnessed negative feedback or through an absence of attention.
Feeling some mild or occasional dissatisfaction with our bodies is no huge cause for concern and can be helpful in motivating us to take better care of our health and wellbeing. When considering the state of your body image, it can be helpful to tune in with the feelings underlying your beliefs. Are any actions you take inspired by care of your health and wellbeing or are they rooted in shame, punishment, disgust and self-loathing? Are you engaging in any harmful behaviours to feel better about your appearance? Does your body image get in the way of your life by preventing or restricting you from doing things you enjoy or pursuing your goals?
Improving your body image does not mean improving your body. Remember that body image is how you think and feel about your appearance and so improvement comes from attending to your relationship with and perception of yourself.
CXK provides Emotional Wellbeing counselling services to schools and colleges throughout Kent, helping to build emotional resilience and coping skills in children and young people.