Body image and mental health

Have you ever been on a diet that encourages you to put your health on the back seat? By this, I mean the number on the scales takes priority, and your physical and mental health don’t have a chance. And in fact, this is what all diets do! Even if they are marketed as ‘a lifestyle change’ more often than not you are being sold a way of eating that encourages you to restrict in some way and cut out a whole food group.

The truth is, all diets will likely lead to one thing – an unhealthy relationship with food and perhaps even poorer body image. And when we have an unhealthy relationship with food, we often have an unhealthy relationship with ourselves. It becomes a vicious circle: we want to change our body, so we go on a diet, we may adopt some disordered eating habits and end up doing more harm than good, to then hating on our bodies again. But what if we learnt to just LOVE our bodies? As they were, as they were supposed to look like!?

If you wake up every day to look in the mirror and criticise how your body looks, you will never feel happy and healthy! Remember that health is about more than just what you eat!

I have asked Body Image Research Nadia Craddock to talk about the importance of accepting our bodies and why we are so susceptible to being so critical in regards to what we look like…

Is there a specific reason that individuals struggle with body image?

We live in a society that privileges thin, white, young, smooth, physically-able bodies and places undue value on one’s appearance to symbolise a person’s success, happiness, desirability and worth. Sociocultural theory and research suggests than people struggle with body image concerns when they both internalise these messages (believing that to be beautiful, we need to fit an unrealistic and narrow ideal, and that to be worthwhile, desirable, and loved we need to be beautiful) and make upwards social comparisons (with peers, celebrities, strangers on social media who are perceived as closer to society’s appearance ideal).

Pressure to achieve unrealistic appearance ideals can come from the media, social media, our friends, family, and partners. Appearance-based teasing or bullying can also result in negative body image.

According to feminist theory and research, when our (currently particularly women’s) bodies are positioned as a key symbol of worth, we start self-monitoring our bodies, viewing them as objects, purely for their aesthetic value from someone else’s (often men’s’) gaze. This hyper-vigilance and self-scrutiny of the body can also result in body image concerns.

Why can ‘hating’ on our bodies be detrimental to our mental health?

Hating our bodies (often referred to as body dissatisfaction in the research literature) can have a negative impact our mental *and physical* health. Research has found that body dissatisfaction can predict later depressive symptoms, anxiety, low self-esteem, and eating disorders.

It’s often the case that when people are unhappy with the way they look, they try and change their appearance in some way through, for example, restrictive diets, unhealthy weight control behaviours (such as diet pills/supplements), tanning, skin lightening, or even through cosmetic procedures. All can compromise our physical health. Research also indicates that people with negative body image are less likely to look after their bodies (e.g., using sunscreen, going to the GP, eating fruit and veg etc.).

How can we learn to love and be more accepting of our bodies?

Positive body image refers to accepting, appreciating, respecting, and having favourable opinions of one’s body, including its unique characteristics, functionality, and capabilities.

Increasing research is focusing on identifying evidence-based ways to improve our body image.

Engaging in embodying activities (such as yoga) may be helpful as they promote a sense of agency and connection with one’s body, and an appreciation of one’s body beyond its aesthetic characteristics.

Critical media literacy is another important mechanism (knowing images are photoshopped, that brands profit of people’s insecurities) that is useful in improving body image.

It is also important to acknowledge (and dismantle) oppressive ideologies that uphold narrow appearance ideals (e.g., weight stigma, racism, homophobia etc.).

 

You can follow Nadia on her instagram page https://www.instagram.com/nadia.craddock/ and make sure you check out her podcast ‘Appearance Matters’.

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