Is society’s obsession with body image causing mental health problems?
Opinion / by Corinne Lamoureux of Mental Health Switch
Corinne Lamoureux of Mental Health Switch ponders the impact of society's obsession with body image on our collective mental health.
Since time immemorial, people, and women in particular, have chased an image of what is perceived to be physical perfection.
The Mayans used to strap stones to babies’ heads to force them to grow into an elongated square shape. The Chinese began foot-binding in the 8th Century and it was only made illegal in the 20th Century! Elizabeth I was so determined to present the image of the youthful Virgin Queen that she painted her face with lead. For hundreds of years women were laced into corsets to achieve impossibly tiny waists – 14 or 15 inches being the ideal. In more recent years, we have seen women squeezing their feet into vertiginous stilettos or people damaging their skin and risking cancer through the pursuit of the perfect tan.
So what is the problem with this?
A deep-rooted issue
There is increasing evidence that this obsession with looking younger and slimmer is creating increased stress, anxiety and shame. Although this predominantly affects women, it is also affecting more and more men, as seen through the corresponding rise in the number of males being diagnosed with eating disorders like anorexia.
In “Objectification Theory, Towards Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks” (2006), Frederickson and Roberts show that women are more likely to feel “looked at” in interpersonal encounters. Worse still, “Empirical research demonstrates that how a woman’s body appears to others can determine her life experiences”. Their evidence shows that this can lead to lower educational and economic attainment, which in turn can affect popularity and dating and marriage prospects.
This issue of body image is one that is so deep rooted in our society that most of us have internalised it without even being aware we have done so. Why wouldn’t we when we are surrounded by images in magazines, on television, social media and so on? When “reality” shows like Love Island only feature incredibly beautiful, slim, athletic young people, no wonder that we all internalise the idea that to be beautiful or successful we too need to look like this. Or when an incredibly popular series like Vera is lauded because not only is the lead a female, but one who isn't slim, young or even particularly charming!
Worse still are practices such as breast ironing which are designed to make women less attractive. Or a legal system which still implies that women “deserve” to be raped if they dress “provocatively”. The issue of body image is a pernicious one in our society.
This has led to a boom in fashion magazines, diet crazes, exercise DVDs, gym memberships, beauty products and, more worryingly, resorting to surgery in order to achieve this image of perfection. Would Sharon Osborne have had such a successful TV career without all the plastic surgery? Who can remember the last time “Pop Princess” Kylie Minogue’s forehead last moved?
My image and me
I now realise that my perception of how I look has a significant impact on how I feel.
For many years I battled with Endometriosis and I would judge how “well” I was by whether or not I could face putting on a full face of make up and presenting an image to the world. This condition meant I went through a premature menopause at the age of 34 with all the physical changes that caused. I certainly would not dream of delivering training or speaking at an event without ensuring that my hair and make-up was done, as if this will somehow guarantee success.
And yet, bizarrely, for over 20 years I did Jiu Jitsu (the martial art of the Samurai). No-one wears make-up (the risks to your physical health if you put make-up on someone else’s Gi were not insignificant), everyone wears the same white pyjama suit, and you are differentiated and respected not by body size, gender or looks, but by the colour of the belt that you wear. A good Jitsu session would leave you looking sweaty and dishevelled with the best of them!
You would think that this would, at least in respect of physical activity, have gotten me over my issues with image. My body is now too bruised and battered to cope with being thumped in to a mat and so I have taken up golf. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that I play better if I “look good” in my golf clothes and I will spend quite a bit of time looking for the perfect golf outfit. Talking with my golfing girlfriends I know that I am not alone.
Dealing with the fallout of Braving the Shave
Last year I really challenged my issues of body image when I did Brave the Shave for MacMillan. Having made the decision to do the Shave, it took on a life of its own and before I knew it, I was going to have my hair shaved at my Union’s Conference in front of lots of people.
At the same time, people started telling me ‘how brave I was’. When they first started saying it, I was generally puzzled – after all, it was only hair and it would grow back. But after a while you start to question: why are people saying this?
I have had various hair styles over the years and I have dyed it (again in various colours) for so long that I had no idea what my “natural” hair colour was. The hairstyle I had before The Shave would be one of my top 3 favourite styles – I absolutely loved it. It made me feel funky, sexy, sassy and, I (vainly) liked to think, made me look younger. So why the hell was I going to cut it all off so that I looked like a bad version of G.I. Jane or Sinead O’Connor?
There were lots of things about having no hair that were great (I didn’t have to use a hairdryer for months!) but there were other aspects that I really struggled with. One of the weirdest things was my shadow – as a woman who has always had hair, my shadow has always reflected this, even when my hair has been short. But when you have no hair, your shadow is just a head shape with two ears.
I found this difficult to live with and looking at my reflection was pretty hard. I would look in the mirror expecting a familiar image to look back... and instead, I wouldn't recognise myself (my own form of body dysmorphia). I wear a mixture of contact lenses and glasses but I found that I could not bring myself to wear glasses as I felt that I looked like some sort of alien when I did.
I had hoped that shaving all my hair off would also liberate me from hair dye. I had visions of lovely silver locks appearing, but as my hair grew back, it had the temerity to do so in shades of “dead mouse” or “salt ‘n pepper”. I became increasingly depressed and could not identify why. Then one morning I realised that it was my hair. I phoned my hairdresser and I begged for help. They squeezed me in that afternoon and bleach was liberally applied. Ironically enough, changing my hair’s natural colour meant I felt more like “me”!
Since then, I've kept my hair short (and bleached) largely because a lot of people told me I looked younger with it. However, I have recently made the decision to grow it again. I just can’t shake off my internalised perception that longer hair is more glamourous.
It has also made me apply my MHFA training a bit more closely if people start to complain that they “look fat” or “feel ugly” etc. Are these comments masking more serious issues that are causing them to suffer poor mental health?
Perhaps we all need to adopt Paloma Faith’s song “My Body” as our theme tune:
“Each part of my anatomy It's just the way it's meant to be Cellulite is just more wife It conjures up the freak in me I love my hair where it grows 'Cause inner beauty, it shows I'm happy naked or clothed”.
The wonders of Facebook have reminded me that it is now three years since I braved The Shave and this last year has once again raised the issue of body image.
How many of us have spent lockdown putting on the “Covid stone” or longing for hairdressers to reopen to cover up the dreaded roots? How many news articles have you read about dressing for lockdown? Or have you loved spending your days on Zoom with your pyjama bottoms still on?
I know that once again I have had to address my body image. I put on the Covid Stone and have had to work hard to address it which has led to a total overhaul of not only what I eat but how I cook and shop (on the plus side I have finally, at the ripe old age of 53, learned to love cooking).
Over the winter months, I have forgotten what it is like to wear a skirt and heels (there doesn’t seem much point when I am working on Zoom) and my hair has once again been a focus for how I feel about my image. The first lockdown happened so quickly and I was due to see the hairdresser on that first Monday! I have sported a variety of interesting hair do’s, and the ROOTS – oh my goodness! Was it just me or did hairbands suddenly become very popular?
I am not going to lie, my mental health took a nosedive in the first lockdown. I am fortunate because I was able to “practice what I teach” and I applied the self-care that I talk about on all of my courses. It has also led to me not fighting the grey anymore and instead embracing it. I was always worried it would make me look old but actually I think I look okay.
As I have said, I am one of the lucky ones. I know how important it is to talk about mental health, including my own, and I know how to practice self-care. Not everyone is that fortunate.
If you would like to know more about how Mental Health First Aid Training can help your organisation, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07974 603042.