‘Body image’ is a term that can be used to describe how we think and feel about our bodies. Our thoughts and feelings about our bodies can impact us throughout our lives, affecting, more generally, the way we feel about ourselves and our mental health and wellbeing.
How does body image affect mental health?
Having body image concerns is a relatively common experience and is not a mental health problem in and of itself; however, it can be a risk factor for mental health problems. Research has found that higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders.
Higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders.
Conversely, body satisfaction and appreciation has been linked to better overall wellbeing and fewer unhealthy dieting behaviours. Though feeling unsatisfied with our bodies and appearance is often more common among young women, body image concerns are relevant from childhood through to later life and affect both women and men.
Body satisfaction and appreciation has been linked to better overall wellbeing and fewer unhealthy dieting behaviours.
What causes body image concerns?
The way in which our experiences and environment affect our body image will be different for everyone. However, overall, the research suggests that body image can be influenced by:
- our relationships with our family and friends
- how our family and peers feel and speak about bodies and appearance
- exposure to images of idealised or unrealistic bodies through media or social media
- pressure to look a certain way or to match an ‘ideal’ body type
There are further issues relevant to body image and mental health that are specific to certain factors and experiences, such as:
- long-term health conditions
- cultural differences around body ideals
- gender and sexuality
The above are often linked to other societal factors and discrimination.
New body image statistics
New online surveys were conducted by the Mental Health Foundation with YouGov in March 2019 of 4,505 UK adults 18+ and 1,118 GB teenagers (aged 13-19). The results highlighted that:
One in five adults (20%) felt shame, just over one third (34%) felt down or low, and 19% felt disgusted because of their body image in the last year.
Among teenagers, 37% felt upset, and 31% felt ashamed in relation to their body image.
Just over one third of adults said they had ever felt anxious (34%) or depressed (35%) because of their body image.
One in eight (13%) adults experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image.
Just over one in five adults (21%) said images used in advertising had caused them to worry about their body image.
Just over one in five adults (22%) and 40% of teenagers said images on social media caused them to worry about their body image.
What can we do?
Clearly action is needed to build and promote positive body image and support good mental health and wellbeing in relation to our bodies. Everyone has a right to feel comfortable and confident in their own bodies and our report highlights key recommendations for:
- Effective regulation of how body image is portrayed.
- The need for commitment from social media companies to play a key role in promoting body kindness.
- Taking a public health approach to body image by training frontline health and education staff.
- Individually being more aware of how we can take care of ourselves and others in relation to body image.
Effective regulation of how body image is portrayed
- The Online Harms White Paper should address harms relating to the promotion of unhelpful or idealised body image online, beyond content related to eating disorders. An improved practice on how social media platforms promote unhealthy imaging should be enforced by the new independent regulator.
- The Advertising Standards Authority should consider pre-vetting high-reach broadcast adverts from high-risk industries – such as cosmetic surgery companies and weight-loss products and services – to ensure all advertising abides by its codes. It should also make greater use of its ability to proactively instigate investigations.
Industry responsibility to promote body kindness
- Social media companies should sign the Be Real Campaign’s Body Image Pledge and investigate new ways of using their platforms to promote positive body image and to ensure that a diversity of body types is presented positively to their users.
- Social media companies should have clear systems for users to report bullying and discrimination and targets for action to be taken. They should give users greater control over the content they see in an accessible way.
Public health and education approaches to body image
- Training for frontline health practitioners and the early years childcare workforce should include information about how parents and carers can, from a very early age, positively influence their children’s feelings about their bodies through their behaviours and attitudes.
- Children and adults in distress should receive fast and empathetic support when they need it, regardless of where they live in the country.
- Public campaigns on nutrition and obesity should avoid the potential to create stigma and indirectly contribute to appearance-based bullying. They should focus on healthy eating and exercise for all members of the population, regardless of weight.
- A co-produced body image and media literacy toolkit should be a compulsory element of what children learn in schools. This should include the development of a charter for achieving a healthy and positive body image.
Tips for individuals
Individually being more aware of steps we can take for ourselves and others.
- If your body image is a significant cause of stress, or if you’re being bullied about how your body looks, consider talking to a friend, a trusted adult or a health professional.
- Spring-clean your apps on your smartphone.
- Notice the people and accounts you’re following on social media and be mindful of how you feel about your own body and appearance when you look at them.
- If you see an advert in a magazine, on television or online that you think presents an unhealthy body image as aspirational, you can complain to the Advertising Standards Authority.
- At home, parents and carers can lead by example, by modelling positive behaviour around body image, eating healthily and staying active.
- In our daily lives, we can all be more aware of the ways in which we speak about our own and other people’s bodies in casual conversations with friends and family.
- Find the best way that works for you to stay active.