Following the growth of the body positivity and body neutrality movements, it seems to have become less acceptable to admit our physical insecurities publicly. If we're not preaching self love and confidence, it feels as if we're letting the side down, leaving many stuck in a hopeless double bind of wanting to "love our bodies" like our favourite bo po influencers, while simultaneously feeling pressured to adhere to the 'perfect' Kardashian-esque aesthetic that is so prolific on social media.
All this stress about our bodies, it turns out, is contributing to worrying levels of mental health problems, with one in eight people having considered taking their own life because of concerns about their body, according to a new report on 4,500 UK adults by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), one of the largest polls on the issue. Meanwhile, just over a third (34%) said they'd felt anxious or depressed (35%) about their bodies.
The report shows that while body image satisfaction can vary depending on factors such as age and racial and ethnic background, young women are most likely to experience body image issues (no surprises there). "While the differences across ethnicities may be small, where such differences have been observed, they tend to show that, in general, black women are more satisfied with their bodies than white women," the charity says.
Mark Rowland, the charity's chief executive, called on social media companies including Instagram and Twitter, and advertisers to promote body diversity on their platforms. "Body image issues can affect anyone and at any stage in life. Many people identified social media as an important factor causing them to worry about their body image – and the majority of respondents felt the government needed to take more action."
Low body image can be a risk factor for developing mental health problems, such as psychological distress and eating disorders, MHF clarifies.
Tom Quinn, director of external affairs for the eating disorder charity Beat, expounded on this distinction to Refinery29. "People who are dissatisfied with their body image are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder, although this is only one of many factors that can lead to the development of these serious mental illnesses."
Quinn says that educating people about body image can help to reduce the risk of eating disorders. He's also careful not to lay the blame for toxic body image ideals squarely on social media: "There are also positive spaces online where people can find inspiration and support if body dissatisfaction is putting their mental health at risk."
That being said, over a fifth (22%) of adults and 40% of teenagers surveyed by MHF drew a direct link between images on social media and and body image worries. Ahead, one woman who attributes her own suicidal thoughts to the bodily self-scrutiny engendered by social media, shares her story.
Katie Scott, 21, a nutrition student from Guildford, has a history of mental health issues including borderline personality disorder and anorexia, from which she suffered for several years between the ages of 14-18.
"I've always felt incredibly negative regarding my body image, which has fuelled my need to eat less and greatly impacted my daily life. If I wake up with bad body image I will usually be in a horrible depressed state for the majority of the day, feeling hopeless and like I'm worth nothing. I wish I could care less about scrutinising my body and focusing in on 'problem areas'. I wish I could be 'body positive' and love my body for all the things it can do for me. This is something I’m working on, it’s just so difficult to retrain my brain after years of hating my body and thinking I need to change it.
"I've had suicidal thoughts relating to my body, especially in my late teens. I often thought that being dead would be better than the constant torment from my brain telling me I was pathetic and disgusting because I wasn’t skeletal – in my eyes. The ironic thing is: my confused ideas about what I should and did look like meant I didn’t even see how underweight I was, and every time I lost weight it wasn’t ever enough. I couldn’t win against my own brain. I couldn’t achieve this abstract idea of perfection I had developed from pro-anorexia social media and societal ideas of the 'perfect body'.
These body 'ideals' are everywhere – all over reality shows where the qualifying criteria seems to be skinny and beautiful and not much else. This is the idea of beauty we've been raised on. This is what we supposedly should be aiming for.
"Comparison is the biggest thing that triggers my negative body image. Comparing my own shape in the mirror to celebrities and influencers on Instagram, who are almost certainly edited and/or on very dangerous diet regimes. These body 'ideals' are everywhere – splashed across magazine covers in local newsagents, filling the Discover pages on social media sites, and all over reality shows such as Love Island, where the qualifying criteria seems to be skinny and beautiful and not much else. This is the idea of beauty we've been raised on. This is what we supposedly should be aiming for.
"Anyone struggling with their own body image, who may be feeling invalid or like a failure for not being able to meet societal expectations, should remind themselves that there is no wrong way to have a body. The 'perfect' body is one that is healthy and allows you to do what you want to do in life. If you're affected by social media, I'd advise scrolling through your timeline and removing accounts that make you feel like you're not beautiful and perfect as you are. Try and remind yourself to be grateful for what your body can do for you and stop waging war on yourself – you haven’t done anything wrong."
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues, call Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please call Beat on 0808 801 0677. Support and information is available 365 days a year.