Khadj Rouf, consultant clinical psychologist with Oxfordshire psychological services, tells us:
“The body we live in shapes our life experiences and how others react to us.
“We don’t have a choice about the body we are born into, and our bodies change right across our lives through the natural processes of ageing. Sometimes things can happen to us which mean we acquire disabilities through illness or accidents.
“Bodies are amazing. Our bodies and our mental wellbeing are interconnected in deep ways. Looking after your physical health can improve mental health and vice versa. But sometimes we can experience unhelpful social pressures which can leave us feeling bad about our bodies. For instance, people can face prejudice, discrimination or bullying because they have a disability, because of their skin colour or because of their body shape.
“Mainstream advertising, the dieting and cosmetic industries and some parts of the media tend to promote certain body images. Success and perfection are seen as thin, able-bodied, pale skinned, young and ‘conventionally’ pretty or handsome. The relentless promotion of such stereotypes can potentially leave anyone who doesn’t match these stereotypes, feeling as though they are flawed or that they don’t belong. It can mean that we encounter unpleasant attitudes from others, such as fat-phobia.
“These stereotypes fuel insecurity and they are big business. In 2016, the global estimate for the weight loss/weight management industry was $168.95 billion. In the same year, people in the USA spent around $16 billion on cosmetic surgery. In 2017, the global skin lightening industry was estimated to be £3.4 billion.
“Other reasons that people can have an uneasy relationship with their bodies are that they may have suffered deliberate harm by others. A person may have felt their body was under constant threat, and these feelings of being unsafe or injured can have long lasting impacts. Similarly, life changing injuries as the result of accidents or illness can lead people to feel unhappy with how their bodies have changed, or leave symptoms such as ongoing pain.
“Holding unhealthy beliefs and feelings about our bodies can affect us in a number of ways. For instance, we may find our thinking is affected by making social comparisons with others, by focussing on what we dislike in our appearance, an over-focusing on weight or feeling poor self-confidence. We may find our relationship with food becomes distorted. We might feel body shame, instead of ‘body joy’.
“These beliefs and feelings can make people feel low and anxious. They can lead us to behave in unhealthy ways. People may punish their bodies through dieting, binging or relentless exercise. They might harm themselves in other ways, through drinking too much alcohol, drugs or self-harm. People may also avoid other people because of fears about being judged on physical appearance.
“We can do things to change our relationship with our bodies, step by step. Here are just a few ideas:
- Think about where messages about our bodies came from…and whether these messages were fair and respectful? It can be helpful to stand back and question some of the messages we’ve had about our bodies. These may come from a number of places, such as advertising, films and life experiences.
- Think about your thinking – comparing yourself with others is just unhelpful – it is a recipe for feeling superior or inferior, neither is healthy. Watch for the trap of thinking life’s problems are solved by matching a body stereotype.
- Watch for comparing how ‘happy’, ‘confident’, ‘beautiful’ or ‘successful’ people appear to be on the outside. Social media is particularly deceptive, and people rarely post what they feel unhappy or embarrassed about. In short, don’t compare your inside to another person’s outside.
- Learn to focus on the positives about your body – think about what your body does for you. This can be thinking about all the things it does for you automatically – breathing, sensing the world. It can include learning to enjoy the sensations that can connect you to the outside – smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing. It may that you have disability in one area, but can pick up on other senses or abilities. What experiences can your body give you and what can it do for you – what activities do you enjoy?
- Try to re-balance negative body talk into neutral or even positive body talk. It is easy to fall into negative judgements about the appearance of others or ourselves. But is how someone looks really the most interesting thing about a person? Is it fair to judge someone on their appearance or the identity that their body gives them?
- Find activities that give you ‘body joy’ and help you learn what your body is capable of doing. For someone who finds it hard to relax, that may be learning to have a relaxing bath with loads of bubbles and calming music. For someone who is shy, that may be learning to find their voice in a choir. For someone who is fearful of their body, then learning a physical skill like yoga, martial arts or running can help to get back into the body and treat it like a friend not a foe.
- Focus on getting to know a person authentically – this is a more reliable way of really finding out who someone is. Beware of judging and avoiding someone because of how they look. We are all much more complex than our outer bodies can ever really convey.
“Everybody’s body deserves to be treated with respect!”
If you feel you need help, talk to your GP about what local services are available to you. TalkingSpace Plus is a free NHS service in Oxfordshire which offers treatment for people experiencing low mood, anxiety and stress. You can self-refer at online or call 01865 901222.
Below are some resources which might be useful.
Channel 4, 2018: Jameela Jamil on banning airbrushing, the Kardashians and her traumatic teens
(trigger warning for discussion of eating disorders)
- Crabbe, M.J. (2017) Body Positive Power. London: Penguin.
- Olusoga, D. (2017) Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: MacMillan
- Orbach, S. (2016) Fat is a Feminist Issue. London: Arrow Books.
- Sarpong, J. (2017) Diversify. London: HarperCollins
- Wolf, N. (1991) The Beauty Myth. London: Vintage books
- Khan, C (Monday 23 April, 2018) Skin-lightening creams are dangerous – yet business is booming. Can the trade be stopped? The Guardian.
- Reuters (16 January 2018) Global Weight Loss and Weight Management Market 2018 Analysis, Size, Share, Facts and Figures with Products Overview, Services and Forecast 2023
- American Society of Plastic Surgeons (2017) More than $16 Billion Spent on Cosmetic Plastic Surgery.