Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK takes place this week and is organized by the Mental Health Foundation. Each year an issue is selected and focused on to raise awareness of how that issue is linked to Mental Health, and to open up conversations around the topic. This year’s topic is “Body Image – How we think and feel about our bodies.” Body image has a big impact on all our lives and a UK poll released this week by the Mental Health Foundation found that out of 4,500 UK adults:
1,118 UK teenagers (age 13-19) reported that 37% felt upset and 31% felt ashamed with their body image.
Body image is how we view ourselves, either by looking in a mirror, or through how we picture ourselves in our minds. It is formed by many beliefs we hold which include:
These beliefs we hold on body image are impacted by messages and influences we receive from the environment we live in. These include family, ability, disability, peer’s attitudes, media and advertising, the fashion industry and our cultural background. These influences combine with our own views and lead to us forming either a negative or positive body image. Having a healthy body image, as well as examining and understanding our beliefs around body image, is an important part of mental wellbeing. Body image is an issue we all need to explore. We know, from popular culture and statistics, that female teens and young women are vulnerable to having a poor body image, but it is an issue that affects all genders, ages, sexualities and ethnicities. Indeed, in recent years there has been an increase in young men experiencing unhealthy body image, eating disorders and body dysphoria. Mental Health Awareness week is there to encourage us all to be more open to recognizing and discussing our mental health as a whole and our views on body image.
This can be known as a distorted body image or body dissatisfaction and is an unrealistic view of how someone sees their body. Negative feedback from peers, family members, self-criticism, media and advertising can influence our views and we develop a negative image of our body. It could be as simple as someone being told they need to lose a little weight by peers or a sports coach, or becoming fixated gaining weight because they consider themseles to be too thin or have been told so. This can become overwhelming and that person becomes fixated on their weight, no matter how much they lose or gain.
As disorders related to body image dissatisfaction are so personal, many people who have the disorders carry out their behaviors without others knowing they are experiencing symptoms. There is often a lot of shame and guilt associated with negative body image, and this can translate to secrecy and hiding any sign of problems. A symptom checker can easily help people and loved ones research and learn more about the disorders associated with a negative body image.
We have written more in depth about eating disorders before, for Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Simply put, eating disorders stem from irregular eating habits and severe distress concerning body image and body shape. They typically occur in the teenage years or young adulthood but can occur at any age and they affect both males and females. There are many different types of eating disorders, and the most commmon include:
People with this disorder can’t stop thinking about their defects or flaws in their appearance. The defect may be minor or not able to be seen, or may even only be perceived as a flaw by the person experiencing symptoms, but they can feel ashamed and anxious about those flaws, seeing it as a huge problem and avoiding showing them or avoiding social events altogether. The person will obsess over their appearance, repeatedly check appearance and try and seek reassurance from others over their body image or the issue they see as a defect. This behavior becomes obsessive and repetitive.
Those with a negative body image are more likely to be depressed, anxious and even suicidal. With many, experiencing negative body image means constantly thinking about their own bodies, and being unable to see beyond what they are perceiving their bodies are like, This can affect mental and physical health overall and sometimes cause depression and associated conditions like anxiety and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
There are many treatments and therapies available for those diagnosed with the disorders outlined above, so visiting your doctor to try and get a diagnosis is the first, although often most difficult, step. However, negative body image doesn’t always come with a disorder, and is definitely on a spectrum. Talking about body image and promoting healthy body image on Mental Health Week allows us to examine ourselves and the relationships we have with our own body. Sometimes, just thinking about it and taking small steps can help prevent more serious mental health concerns arising. There are many smaller things you can do to encourage your mind to think positively about your body image, including:
If you feel your symptoms are overwhelming you can place them in the Isabel Symptom Checker and discuss them with a doctor, counsellor or health care professional. Seeking help will help put you back in control of your symptoms and ultimately your health.
Raising awareness of this important topic, both in terms of medical disorders which can result, and critically reviewing information we take in about body image from social media and marketing, is the foundation for opening up conversations needed. With that, we can help those who are often suffering in silence and living with mental and physical ill health.
Mandy has worked for Isabel Healthcare since 2000. Prior to this, she was a Senior Staff Nurse on the Pediatric Infectious disease ward and high dependency unit at one of London's top hospitals, St Mary’s in Paddington which is part of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. Her experience in the healthcare industry for the past 28 years in both the UK and USA means she's a vital resource for our organization. Mandy currently lives and works in Scottsdale, Arizona.