How Does Body Image Impact Mental Health?

It is Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 and this year the Mental Health Foundation has proposed the theme of ‘Body Image’.  To contribute to the week, we are featuring one of our fantastic Psychotherapists in Training; Gemma Saggers.  Gemma is undertaking an MSc in Person Centred Experiential Psychotherapy at the Sherwood Psychotherapy Training Institute (SPTI) and is developing a specialist interest in body image, and disordered eating. Gemma will be answering three questions over the course of the week, each being revealed here on our Featured Therapist BlogSpot. Today’s question is:

How Does Body Image Impact Mental Health?

Gemma Saggers Psychotherapist with Specialist Interest in Body Image and Disordered Eating.

Gemma Saggers Psychotherapist with Specialist Interest in Body Image and Disordered Eating.

I’m mindful before I begin to answer this question that a blog post will not be able to address all experience. A lot of this post is about how marginalisation negatively affects mental health and I want to be mindful of how the article will perhaps, although unintentionally, not include the experience of some, thus perpetuating the problem further. If this is the case, I hope you’ll accept my apologies for any exclusion. I’m always keen to learn about my blind spots in a genuine effort to be as inclusive as possible. I welcome any comment on how I can better do this. Please also feel free to get in touch to ask for further resources and I will do my best to point you in that direction. At the bottom of this post are some books that I’ve found to be useful.

Without realising, we learn about societies ideal body image from what we see on television, in magazines and on adverts. By the time you’ve gone to and from work it’s likely that you’ll have been subjected to this image countless times, without having sought it out.

This beauty ideal tends to look something like this: A young, able bodied, straight, cis gendered white women. She has long thick hair, a golden tan, taunt abs and long legs (probably featuring a thigh gap!) She smiles at us with a mouth full of perfect white teeth. Thanks to the recent trend of ‘fitspiration’ and #strongnotskinny there’s a high chance she’s rocking some Lycra leggings and a sports bra with her perfectly symmetrical & large chest that fills it no problem! It’s likely that she’s selling us an anti-aging cream, a diet, or a teeth-whitening kit. She’ll manage to tap into that insecure part of us with the luring promise of fixing whatever it is we’re being told not to like about ourselves this week. The reality is that this woman isn’t real. She’s been prepped, primed, edited, tweaked, filtered, smoothed (insert any and all photo shop tools!). It’s likely she doesn’t look anything like the woman that walked into the photoshoot. See Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign. Even companies such as L’Oréal and Dove who have campaigns that are beginning to represent a more varied intersection of people are doing so in the name of conforming to beauty standards. (And even their representations of intersection are still not entirely inclusive).

Even if you manage to recognise the fiction of these beauty adverts, our television is waiting for us when we arrive home, primed to give us another unrealistic representation of body image. How often is the leading lady in your boxset or film conforming to ideal beauty standards? How often is it that even if she isn’t a typically beautiful, she’s able bodied, heteronormative and slim? How many storylines show the fat friend or the gay friend in a supporting role whilst any ethnic diversity can only be spotted in a smaller, less integral to the plotline role. How much of the leading lady’s journey to her happy ending first involves confirming to ideal beauty standards? Pretty Woman, She’s All That, The Princess Diaries. I could spend all day listing films and television shows that follow this pattern. I could spend all day trying to think of more than one example of marginalized bodies as leading roles. I can’t recommend Dietland on Amazon Prime or Queer Eye on Netflix enough!

Although women on television must be ‘more real’ than the bodies we see in adverts, this body type still matches only 5% of the population. This means that 95% of us look different to the images that we are subject to day in day out.

Sadly, instead of recognising that mainstreaming only 5 percent of the population as the problem it definitely is, we look to the only place we are seeing any difference (our own body) and begin to see that as the problem. We’re not aware that there has been a conscious decision by media outlets to represent such a tiny percentage and flaunt it as the majority. Our focus turns inwards, and we begin to ask ourselves: Why isn’t my skin as smooth? Why isn’t my tummy as toned or my legs as long? Why can’t I afford the must have beauty cream? How can the ladies on television eat ice cream and burgers, drink endless milkshakes and wine, never exercise and exist in tiny, straight sized bodies (yes Gilmore Girls I’m looking at you!) What is wrong with me!? The answer – NOTHING!

In 2010, a study by Alexandra Henrik’s looked at the impact that seeing these ideal body images can have on women’s self-esteem. It found that 95% of women over-estimated their body sizes, proving that what we see every day is impacting negatively on how we see ourselves. And whilst constant feelings of ‘not good enough’ are alone enough to negatively impact our mental health, if we don’t recognise the misrepresentation of what we are being shown (which I certainly didn’t for a long time) we may attempt to change or correct our situation to fit in. And as Meghan Jane Crabbe, author of Body Positive Power explains, choosing to conform has nothing to do with how smart we are. “Being smart has nothing to do with it. Let’s give [credit] where it’s really due: to every person who survives another day at war with their bodies because of the kind of poison that those magazines pedal. Whether it’s unrealistic airbrushing, lack of representation, or yet another: “How to Get Your Best Body Yet Article.” It is in the attempt to conform that our mental health takes another, severely detrimental hit.

“For women to stay at the official extreme of weight spectrum requires 95% of us to infantilize or rigidify to some degree our mental lives. The beauty of thinness lies not in what it does to the body but to the mind.” Naomi Wolf – The Beauty Myth.

Whilst it has been proven that an increase of nutrient dense foods such as fruit and veg, wholegrains and foods with vitamins and minerals in can help improve our physical health; what we eat (or restrict ourselves from eating) can really impact our mental health. One of the most common and socially accepted ways that we attempt to change our bodies to conform to ideal beauty standards is by dieting. I define diet as any restriction on calories, food group or time of eating with the intention of making ourselves smaller. (I.e. weighing less.) At any one time, it is estimated that around 2/3 of the UK population are on a diet.

Diet books, programmes, calorie tracker apps and weight groups each pedal a different version of the same message: We can make you smaller! This is either done by eliminating entire food groups: Atkins and South Beach. Limiting calories: The Cambridge Diet, 5:2 and Slim fast. Or sneaky marketing from companies that claim their programmes are lifestyle plans and not diets: Weight Watchers and Slimming world. (They’re also diets!) Initially, as the pounds fall off and you begin to lose weight you may feel a boost in your mood. “I’ve got this!” you think, as you sip your protein shake meal substitute. But, within hours, days, months (the length of time will vary person to person) your body (that is biologically designed to fight hunger and keep you alive) will begin to protest. Before we know it, we are experiencing intense cravings and obsessing about the food we are not allowing ourselves to eat. We notice a shift in our mood, thoughts of food creeping into our every waking (sometimes even our sleeping) thought. It becomes unbearable and as the initial drop in weight begins to slow down, we find ourselves rebelling and breaking the diet rules.  I don’t mean just having one chip before returning to our rabbit food. We break It fully, often binge eating the foods we have restricted for so long. The intense cravings are no more – but what we are left with are deep feelings of failure and shame around not being able to stick to the plan. We try again, the same thing happens, and the shame and feelings of failure increase. Needless to say, this is absolutely no good for our mental health whatsoever. Despite the scientific evidence that 95% of diets fail (just as 95% of people are not represented in mainstream media) we blame ourselves, impacting negatively our mental health once again! If you want to know just how bad shame can be on your mental health, I refer you to Brené Brown, who’s research on shame and mental health found that: “Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.” The diet industry may offer us hope, but as she points out: “Hope is a function of struggle.” A struggle the diet industry has created. How clever!

In addition to eliciting feelings of failure and shame, there is concrete evidence to show that dieting can negatively affect mental health even whilst it’s ‘working.’ I point you to The Minnesota Starvation Experiment. The Minnesota Starvation Experience was a clinical trial that was held at the University of Minnesota between 1944 and 1945. The study’s aim was exploring the psychological effect of what they called ‘severe and prolonged dietary restriction.’ (At this point I was thinking they probably made them exist on something wild like 200-300 calories a day. Bearing in mind diets such as ‘The Cambridge Diet’ often promote eating between 500-800 calories a day.)

The programme run by Ancel Keys took 36 conscientious objectors to the war. The men chosen were all mentally healthy and physically strong. For the first three months of the study, they were given 3,200 calories a day. This was followed by a six-month period of 1,800 calories a day (with a 22 mile per week walking requirement.) Numbers were adjusted if the men didn’t meet their target loss on 2.5 pounds per week (a loss that is cause for much celebration in a weight watchers or slimming world meeting!) The results: Severe Mental Illness struck. It didn’t take long for profound change to be noticed. Not only did their moods become increasingly impatient and irritable, they lost interest in dating and their sex drives disappeared. Some men developed rituals at meal times in an attempt to make their food last longer. Others became obsessed with food and cookery, completely changing their life plans around their new passions for food. Despite their bodies shrinking in size, they experienced physical symptoms such as extreme tiredness, dizziness, hair loss and anaemia. The men told their assessor that they experienced an increase in violent urges and felt like they were  going crazy.

“If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business.” Dr Gail Dines. One of the other problems with societies ideal body image, it that it opens up a market of selling quick fixes, expensive beauty products, creatively packaged health foods and so on. These things all cost money. If the very fact of feeling at war with our body isn’t enough to impact on our mental health (and as I’ve explained – it is!), the results of spending money we cannot afford to, or the shame at not being able to buy the organic kale to achieve the body of ‘your’ dreams will happily knock your mental health some more.

As I’ve begun to show here, a negative relationship with our body image can negatively impact our mental health. Later in the week, I’ll be looking at how creating a healthy relationship with our body image can help improve our mental health and I’m delighted to say, it absolutely involves eating (insert your favourite food.) I’ll have 3 Taco’s a Sprite and some Oreos please!

For further resources on the topics mentioned today, I recommend the following texts.

  • The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
  • Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach
  • Body Positive Power by Megan Jane Crabbe
  • Happy Fat by Sofie Hagan
  • Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon
  • Notoriously Dapper – How to be a modern Gentleman with Manners, Style and Body Confidence by Kelvin Davis


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