It’s tough to persuade a 14-year old that there is no such thing as a perfect body and that not everyone is happy with their physical appearance. Especially when they’re surrounded by wall-to-wall body perfection on Instagram.
As activist Natasha Devon wrote, “Young people are now utterly desensitised to the sight of photoshopped and filtered images, the cumulative impact of which is a shift in what is perceived as “attractive” and “normal”.”
The proliferation of idealised body images, especially online, starts at a young age. Think of the young child who receives a Barbie or an action figure for Christmas, taking in the unrealistic and exaggerated body shape of either toy.
Think of the number of young people watching celebrities on social media projecting a certain lifestyle and body image. Or the magazines and TV programmes celebrating The Perfect Body.
I have worked with many young people and have seen how the transition from child to adulthood in particular brings its own challenges.
Experiencing our bodies changing – seeing spots appearing or gaining weight – can quickly trigger anxieties around body image.
These transitional changes, however, are almost universal; if we look around we can see that others of our age are in exactly the same boat.
One of the keys to keeping on the right side of body image anxiety is avoiding isolation. Talking to others is often the first step on the way to feeling less body conscious and losing the negative narrative which can amplify body image concerns. Those around us may not have noticed the aspect of our physical selves we are least happy with and may instead draw our attention to some other physical feature we hadn’t considered, or to the qualities they admire in us as a friend.
Or they may just give us the perspective we need at that moment.
Building self-esteem is also vital. I know some people who have chosen to make a list of things they most like about themselves, inside and out. Returning to this list has proved invaluable in grounding them and allowing them to move beyond negative and destructive body image preoccupations.
Positive affirmations can work too: saying and repeating what you most like about yourself in the mirror every day can bring real benefits to mental health and self-esteem.
Knowing that there are few, if any, of us who don’t have elements of our body we’re not happy with is important. As is realising that the online celebrities we see on social media have armies of stylists and make-up artists working to maintain their client’s image. The casual selfie, might have been the best of 50 shots taken and filtered to social media perfection.
This is why I welcome the ‘Instareality’ movement, where celebrities and others on the social media channel shun filters and make-up to show people what they really look like.
This refreshing dose of reality is important for all of us, but especially for young people who can find it hard to find a sense of perspective online. Normalisation is critical to many young people who will never measure up to the high standards of – often artificial – physical perfection they see online.
If you are worried yourself, or about a friend or family member, the biggest piece of advice is: get talking. Talk to friends and family. Ask your friends or family members how they are. Opening up a conversation may be the start of them acknowledging a problem or concern and thinking of ways to feel better.
I know that in the case of eating disorders, friends and family are often worried about distressing the person they want to help. But the sooner that person receives support, the more likely they are to recover – and avoid the more severe mental and physical health symptoms.
What I’ve learned, having talked to many young people about mental health, is that when it comes to body image, we are our harshest critics. It’s crucial find ways to love ourselves, see the positives and accept everything else. I’ve also learned that chances are we will all find the love and the sense of belonging that we ultimately crave, whether we have a “perfect body” or (more likely) not.
Laura Brown, Counsellor and Regional Development Manager, XenZone