This bonus blog is all about the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) research report on body image produced for Mental Health Awareness Week 2019. I’ve already touched on some of the statistics in my last blog post, but now I want to fully digest the report.
I’ve read all of it, and I’m going to be summarising the key issues from each section, sharing the statistics I feel are most important, what’s really hit home for me, and what we need to be more aware of as a society.
Before we start, if you haven’t read the report (it’s 48 pages long), I’ve broken this down into a little summary for each section. It’s in the same style and order as the original report, I’ve extracted, and reworded parts I feel are worth commenting on.
I really liked it grouped in this way. It both shows how body image is inclusive and affects everyone, but also how different groups face different challenges.
Children and Young People
I was shocked when I read these. I knew things were bad for my generation and that there were increasing pressures on us, but I didn’t realise the extent of the problem.
Over 52% of 11-16-year-olds surveyed by Be Real worry about how they look. In the Mental Health Foundation’s survey, 35% of 13-19-year-olds said their body image caused them to ‘often’ or ‘always’ worry.
I was so shocked by the extent of the problem and the extremes that my peers were taking with body image causing self-harm, suicidal thoughts and weight control behaviours such as laxatives.
These things exist outside of the sphere of eating disorders as part of a much wider issue. I only found out about Body Dysmorphia (BDD) while researching this week. Before, I was under the illusion that body dissatisfaction was only caused by eating disorders.
The ‘Body Ideal Internalisation’ was a really interesting read. It discusses how because of the media and social media and pressures from peers and family, children internalise the view that they should look a certain way. Believing this view then makes them conform to the stereotypes placed upon them.
The influence of peers has been a factor in my body dissatisfaction growing up, and although I have matured to rise above such comments, I’ll still be sharing my story later this week.
Body Image in Adulthood
The MHF’s survey found 20% of adults felt shame, 19% felt disgusted, and 34% felt down or low because of their body image. The statistics are slightly lower than children, but they are considerably higher than what I was expecting.
I feel the reason for this is because, like most mental health conversations, these are not things we are talking about. I’ve never had any discussions about my body image before this week. I’ve certainly never had a real-life offline one about it.
Sometimes things are said such as “I look ugly” or “I hate myself”, which are passed off as meaningless conversation, said out of anger, or even as a joke. Sometimes this is true, and these comments are brushed off. But sometimes they can have a deeper meaning, a real and very upsetting feeling that someone has towards themselves.
Around one in five adults said that images used in advertising and on social media caused them to worry about their body image. Again, the pressures facing adults are from the same sources as young people.
We often place our stereotype of the classic, white anorexic girl when it comes to body image. But body image affects young children right the way through to the older people we’re going to talk about next. The stereotypes of what we should look like are always there and need to be combated in exactly the same way we need to combat the classic anorexic stereotype.
In other words, to first solve the stereotype of how we should look like we need to first remove another stereotype about the types of people we should be helping with first. We shouldn’t just be targeting white anorexic girls and removing them from the ‘ideal body.’ We should be doing it for everyone.
Body Image in Later Life
One in five adults aged 55+ felt anxious or depressed specifically because of their body image. Although 69% of those over 65 said they were satisfied with their bodies, concerns still exist across all age groups.
When considering body image I’ve always excluded the older generations. In fact, in the wider context of mental health, I’ve really only linked old people with loneliness, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This report helped me realise that everyone is included in these concerns.
In fact, it goes further and lists the unique challenges that older people face around their body image. Things like retirement, bereavement, downsizing or moving into later-life housing can change roles and responsibilities that an older person has in life, which can be linked to mental health problems.
Body Image and Long Term Health Conditions
When it comes to physical health problems we often forget the mental health side behind the conditions as well. Or sometimes that’s the other way around. This is improving, and hopefully, as further research continues mental and physical health will be better in tandem. PTSD in those suffering physical injuries is a good example of this, and one we may all be aware of.
Cancer is an example the MHF provides. They say it can contribute to feeling shame towards people’s bodies both because of the physical changes (such as hair loss) and of ability to perform daily tasks.
It also mentions mental health problems and learning disabilities, however, this is an under-researched area. There are not many statistics I can give here however there is evidence to suggest that people with learning disabilities are less aware of their bodies and more likely to experience bullying which can cause body dissatisfaction.
It mentions people on the autistic spectrum experiencing their body differently. Being autistic I can say that I experience sensations differently to an extent. I’m much more aware and conscious of my body and where it exists in the space. I’m also more sensitive to touch.
Hopefully, further research may mean we can revisit these statistics and be able to say how body image affects our mental health in the detail of the above sections.
Body Image and Ethnic Background
There’s not believed to be that much difference between backgrounds in body image however the report does mention that Black (it’s capitalised in the report) women are more satisfied with their bodies than White women. Studies have found that Black British girls are more likely to express a positive body image and less likely to have disordered eating behaviours. The same is said to be true for Black Males
There’s a comment on cultural influences which is mainly based on body weight ideals in different cultures, exposure to the media, and the Western “thin ideal” which one study found Dutch children from non-Western minorities had to some extent internalised.
Body Image and Sexual Orientation and Gender
Much like ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender have been found to have little impact on body image. However heterosexual men reported higher levels of body appreciation than gay or bisexual men. There is some research suggesting that the gay community has an appearance idea centred around being athletic, and that puts greater emphasis on physical appearance.
People who are transgender may also experience distress from the incongruity between their biological sex and their gender identity. This can have negative impacts on their body image
The stigma and discrimination experienced in the LGBT community can lead to negative body image. Studies looking at homosexual men found internalised negative attitudes towards homosexuality (installed by society) predicted overall body dissatisfaction.
40% of gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals said they felt shame because of their body image compared to 18% of heterosexual adults in an MHF survey.
The report then goes on to talk about how different groups of people can have better body image, and the necessary actions and policy to bring about these changes. Because these statistics may be startling, but there is hope for us.
Although the steps suggested may not immediately give you a sense of body satisfaction. However the tips the MHF share, and the tips that are circulating on social media, those I’ve been sharing on Mental Monday hopefully help to fix a large problem.
The official citation for the report is below: