Today, the government will launch a campaign called ‘Be Real’. The initiative, which consulted with hundreds of experts - myself included - aims to eradicate the crippling self-loathing being experienced by a hefty chunk of the British population because of their lack of body confidence. In turn, consideration will be given to the definition of body image dissatisfaction as a public health issue, and therefore one worthy of intervention by the Government.
I can already anticipate the backlash. As a body confidence activist whose services are regularly called upon for TV and radio punditry, my Twitter feed is constantly invaded by indignant, blustering huffer-puffers wondering why people like me are devoting our intellectual and creative capacity to something so ‘meaningless’ and ‘superficial’ as body image.
What these individuals fail to realise is that body image concerns and related issues cost the nation, and have a serious impact on a number of different areas. Of course, in an ideal world we’d have loftier considerations than the presence or absence of a bulging bicep or a thigh gap, but in a relentlessly capitalist culture which uses our relationship with our bodies as a money making mechanism, things don’t quite work out in an ideal way.
Indeed, the Be Real campaign’s nationwide survey has uncovered some truly unsettling statistics. Sixteen million people in the UK feel depressed because of how they look. Whilst a fifth are skipping meals to lose weight, eighteen million, seemingly paradoxically, do not exercise owing to body image anxiety. This compounds my long-held view that our obesity crisis is a direct result of a thin-worshipping culture, which prevents so many overweight people from living fulfilling lives, and causes them to seek solace from the shame and guilt they are made to endure in the comfort of food.
One in four Brits say that body image worries have held them back from a fulfilling relationship, whilst one in five have avoided going for their job they wanted. Our relationship with our body often informs how entitled we feel – whether that’s entitlement to happiness, wealth or even love. We make huge, life-changing decisions based on our perception of how attractive we are, and therefore what we ‘deserve’.
Quotes on depression
Quotes on depression
1/14 Alistair Campbell
Alistair Campbell: "One day, we will look back and wonder how on earth we used to believe that depression was a lifestyle choice, only to be debated and taken seriously when an A List film star took his life, and the world filled with people saying how shocked and saddened they were. "
2/14 On living with depression
Stephen Fry: "Depression is as real as the weather…it’s all about a kind of mental umbrella. 'Hey-ho, it’s raining inside: it isn’t my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow and when it does, I shall take full advantage.'"
3/14 On living with depression
Ernest Hemingway: "The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places." (He also said "happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know")
4/14 On living with depression
Jonathan Davis: "A lot of people don't realize that depression is an illness. I don't wish it on anyone, but if they would know how it feels, I swear they would think twice before they just shrug it."
5/14 On passing judgement on depression
Geoffrey Boycott: "Until you've had depression I don't think you're qualified to talk about it."
6/14 Jack Dee
Jack Dee: "I have had issues with depression all my life, and it's probably true to say there was a tendency towards it even when I was very young, during my schooldays. There was often - and this is quite common with comics - a sense of not feeling as if I belonged anywhere."
7/14 On living with depression
Jason Manford: "The world needs you even if you don't think it does. I promise, we need you here, now."
8/14 Author Jeanette Winterson
Art saved me; it got me through my depression and self-loathing, back to a place of innocence.
9/14 On life and depression
Agatha Christie: "I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know that just to be alive is a grand thing."
10/14 On living with depression
Albert Camus: "In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
11/14 On dealing with low mood
Dolly Parton "The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain."
12/14 If you're feeling depressed right now..
Annabel Giles: "If you’re depressed right now, then let's remember that we only have to do today, that's all. Nothing more. We can do just a day, can't we? And don’t forget, we haven't always been like this. The good days will come back. We've just go to do as much as we can, when we can."
13/14 Helen Keller on looking for the positive
Helen Keller: “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
14/14 On it happening to all of us
Mariella Frostrup: "Only those with skin as thick as elephant hide can hope to sail through their teens unscathed by self-doubt and bouts of depression."
As someone who visits three schools a week working with teenagers on mental health and self-esteem related issues, my concern is the devastating impact lack of body confidence is having on British young people as a demographic. In my opinion, there is no more reliable indicator of what is going on within the confines of a person’s mind than how they feel about their body and how inclined they are to look after it. When we are frustrated or dissatisfied, we tend to project those feelings onto the nearest tangible object: our physical selves. Self-harm, eating disorders, exercise addiction, ‘comfort’ eating, binge drinking – these are all ways in which we punish our bodies for something which, more often than not, has its genesis in the mind, and nowhere is this more apparent than amongst our youth. According to research carried out by the Samaritans, in an average British classroom three students are self-harming, whilst the charity B-eat tells us that one in ten will develop an eating disorder before they reach the age of 25.
Body dissatisfaction has a measurable impact on young people’s potential. Last year, Girlguiding and the Dove Self-Esteem Project conducted a study of young women which revealed that 64 per cent of 11 to 16 year-old girls would describe themselves as lacking body confidence. 47 per cent of those surveyed said that the way they felt about their bodies stopped them from partaking in everyday activities undertaken at school, including sports, presenting to the class or drama activities and even raising their hand to ask a question.
The enjoyment of physical activity, ability to present ideas to audiences and most importantly the confidence to question are, any reasonable person would concede, essential life skills. Yet almost half of teenage girls are missing out on the opportunity to develop those skills because of body-related insecurity. If one doesn’t feel able to fully participate in a normal sort of school day, it stands to reason that one will not get the most out of one’s education. This has implications on the qualifications one will receive, the decisions one will make about the subjects one will study and ultimately the jobs one will consider oneself capable of.
The link between physical beauty and entitlement is introduced to most of us at an early age. Aside from Shrek, I struggle to think of one feature length children’s cartoon which does not have a slender, youthful, doe-eyed, Caucasian-ised heroine at its centre and a buff, broad shouldered, square-jawed hero. Plump, less-than-symmetrical characters, or those with disabilities, are relegated to supporting roles. We are given an unequivocal message as children – only the conventionally gorgeous are allowed to be the main character in their own lives. This message is constantly reinforced by the society in which we live as we grow older. So it’s little surprise that the same Girlguiding/Dove survey found that eighty seven per cent of teenage girls believe they are judged more on their looks than they are on their ability.
Multi-billion pound industries depend upon inventing new body insecurities to occupy our time and worry. The very existence of thigh-gap surgery, toe liposuction and earlobe reconstructions (for older women whose earlobes may have lost ‘plumpness and elasticity’) proves this. We cannot ever be allowed to be entirely satisfied with how we look because this diminishes our value as a consumer. Hence beauty paradigms become increasingly extreme throughout history, demanding more and more time, energy and, crucially, cash devoted to attainment and upkeep. Young men must now be buff, tanned, with hair that has been preened and teased into a style which belies the amount of time they have spent achieving it. For young women, it’s no longer simply about being thin, they must now achieve the contrived curves of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Beyonce (a drastic, exaggerated hourglass not usually possible without the aid of plastic surgery).
So I ask sceptics simply to imagine how many days of work and school are missed, how many promotions not gone for, wages not earned and experiences not had as a direct result of body image worries. Imagine what we might be able to achieve, not just as individuals but as a society, if these body image issues were eradicated. The Be Real Campaign (and the involvement of so many commercial organisations who have recognised that they have a social responsibility) is, therefore, a step towards a better world.
Find out more about the campaign at www.berealcampaign.co.uk
Natasha’s book ‘Fundamentals: A Guide for Parents & Teachers on Mental Health & Self-Esteem’ is out in January 2015, John Blake Publishing.Reuse content