With this year’s theme for mental health awareness being body image, what is it like to suffer from body image issues and how can you support someone?
By the books, body image means the way one thinks and feels about the shape, size and the appearance of their body. On the whole, body image is associated with two aspects, physical appearance and the way your body makes you feel us feel in terms of self-confidence and self-esteem.
Body image issues are the third most common problem that adults face in the U.K. according to World of Good Report published by YMCA. According to Uncomfortable in our skin: the body image report, 90% of young women in the UK suffer from body image anxiety.
Reports and statistics do enough to explain the problem, but what is it really like to suffer body image anxiety?
“I would say that I have considerable body image problems. I am seeking help for it now. But it was quite hard a few years ago because I was constantly told to reduce weight and exercise. I know they hoped good health for me, but I was not feeling okay with that,” said Yuri Chin, a student from Cardiff University.
“I think I got body image anxiety after hearing the same comments from friends, family, and even random strangers. After a point, it starts to really trouble your ears and it feels like a burden. Like you want to change a major part of you but you’re so clueless as to how because you’re born like this,” said Vagisha Sureka, a student from Leeds.
Body image anxiety is also known to trigger other mental health problems such as anxiety. According to Body Image, Eating and Weight: A Guide to Assessment, Treatment and Prevention, body image is related to self-esteem and one’s own identity, both significant components of mental health.
“As a petite person, I am constantly told to eat more. I have been outright told to eat a burger or something otherwise ‘I’ll fly away’ because many people around me think that thin people are products of media perpetuated images of the ideal body type. I’m really not a media propagated body type, I’m just me,” says Tawny May, a business school student from Cardiff Metropolitan University.
“It makes me feel so conscious about what to wear every day. A lot of thought has to go into shopping for new clothes,” said Yuri. A lot of time is spent in deciding what goes on social media and what doesn’t, and many people go into social media cleanses because of the fear of how they will be perceived, she added.
Many students who suffer from body image problems resort to extreme measures like crash dieting, binge eating, smoking to reduce appetite or stop eating altogether in hope of achieving the body they want.
“My experience so far has been discouraging. I’ve tried all sorts of diet plans to help me gain weight but the needle doesn’t seem to budge. When I used to look in the mirror, I used to see only my flaws and constantly think about a perfect body. What does that even mean? But you still think about it because there is an ideal body somewhere in your mind,” said Vagisha.
According to Media Exposure and the “Perfect” Body, an article published in Psychology Today, states that body image anxiety can cause people to form an image of an ideal body type in their minds. This means that the body type they want, doesn’t match the one that they have which often leads to low self-esteem and an unhealthy relationship with food.
“I was, well, overweight when I was a teenager and I never went out because I didn’t have a perfect body to show off. That has changed and I’m a lot more comfortable now, but I was practically in hiding in my young teenage years. I didn’t like that I didn’t have a ‘figure’ to show,” said Tawny.
It can be hard to deal with body image anxiety and the problems that come along with it but realising how much the people around you influence you, is very important, said Yuri. “The people around you will always say things, you know. It’s important to realise you need to find the ones who actually support you,” she added.
“I have found my tribe, as you call it, to support me and encourage me to exercise and feel good about the body that I am in. I didn’t have much support growing up, and I knew how I felt. So, I decided to never make the people around me feel bad about themselves and their bodies. We are all only given one body, shouldn’t we want to make it a home?,” says Tawny.
Body image is a serious issue that needs to be tackled with in the most appropriate way possible. One of the first things you can do is educate yourself about the problem.
“If I know someone around me has body image anxiety, I try to get to know the person on a deeper level so as to make them comfortable and not make them anxious about their issues. I wish though that people would do the same back for me, or at least not comment on certain things about my body that I am conscious about in the first place.” said Vagisha.
Once you are familiar with the issues surrounding body image, it will be easier to notice them in yourself and in others.
A simple thing you can do to help is acknowledge the problem. It is quite hard for someone suffering from body image or any mental health issue to admit that they are going through something.
Try to create a safe space without judgement so as to make people who want to communicate, feel safe and calm. Lastly, therapy is always a step forward in the right direction.