Body image – a key to better mental health

Mental Health Foundation CEO, Mark Rowland, unpacks the big theme for Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May 2019) and how the way we view our bodies impacts our mental health...

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme, Body Image has a direct relevance to everyone reading this blog.  All of us live with our bodies as they evolve and change.  Just as all of us have a role in shaping an inclusive culture where we help others feel comfortable in their own skin.  

Why does body image matter? 

We are all intimately aware of the particular idiosyncrasies of our own body; its strengths and wonders and its limitations.  No piece of technology that you will ever buy will match the complexity, sophistication and regenerative powers of your body.  

And yet… For too many of us, our bodies are sources of shame and distress.  From an early age, we are bombarded with images that define what an ‘ideal body’ looks like.  Sometimes we have faced stigma or cruelty as friends and family have used how we look as a way to put us down for a cheap laugh.  I know I have been guilty of that within my own family.  

In therapeutic terms, we have internalised a sense of SHOULD when it comes to our bodies.  It is as if we each have our own internal GIF on a loop reinforcing what the ideal looks like. My GIF repeats Daniel Craig strutting toned and chiselled from the sea.  It’s no wonder that when I catch a glimpse of my actual reflection, I sigh with a sense of disappointment.   

And although we know girls and young women are particularly vulnerable to poor body image, this year we will explore body image as an issue that cuts across gender, age, sexuality and ethnicity. Bodyguard star Richard Madden is among the surprising voices to have spoken out recently against the demands they face to look a certain way.  

Body image is closely linked with mental health 

All this might not be so serious if it didn’t have profound implications for our mental and physical health. The opposite also seems true: the more comfortable you are with your body, the greater your overall wellbeing, and the less likely you are to engage in destructive behaviours.  

During Mental Health Awareness Week, we will release findings that will bring together the latest research on body image with one of the largest surveys ever completed to give a picture of how people of all ages and across the UK feel about their bodies. It will also set out the increased risk of mental health problems that accompany poor body image.   

We want to ignite a national conversation about how we can be kinder to our bodies as a guard against the individual, family and cultural influences that can lead to a gnawing and sometimes debilitating sense of dissatisfaction with our bodies.  

Since ancient times, there have been a long line of Western philosophers who influenced how we think about the separation of the body and mind. But the evidence definitively shows that this sort of dualism is not a helpful construct and that a holistic view about the inter-relatedness of our bodies and minds is vital to achieve a healthier population.  It is perhaps why it still surprises us that cultures that are focused on materialism, consumption and celebrity fare worse in terms of people’s body image and mental health. 

 It is perhaps why it still surprises us that cultures that are focused on materialism, consumption and celebrity fare worse in terms of people’s body image and mental health. 

So, during Mental Health Awareness Week, we will make the case that the distress related to poor body image and the related mental health problems can be prevented. We will explore the changes needed in our cultural values, parenting styles, schooling approaches, use of technology, advertising standards and reducing discrimination that will make a real difference.  

We know we can make a difference because with your help, we already have.  Last year, it was a concern over body image that led us to seek a ban on a series of cosmetic surgery ads shown around the TV show Love Island. We warned the Advertising Standards Authority that the ads ‘painted a false picture of perfection’ and ‘exacerbated young people’s insecurities’ – and I’m glad to say the ASA seemed to agree and ruled it should be banned.  

Evidence into action

So, we don’t simply want to publish a report. We’ve already offered some ideas about how people can help protect themselves against harm from social media. During Mental Health Awareness Week, we’ll publish further suggestions about body image in particular, and how we can look after ourselves and each other. We will also make recommendations to policymakers, about the changes they can make towards better mental health. 

But we are nowhere near having all the answers. We would love to hear about your experiences and opinions around body image, and what you believe should change to help us to be kinder to our bodies and healthier in our minds.    

Take action and join our #BeBodyKind campaign this Mental Health Awareness Week

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