Body image: how do you feel about your body and why does it matter?

Here in the UK, today marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week. Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, the initiative seeks to raise awareness around the importance of mental wellbeing, with a different theme chosen for the week each year. This year, the theme is body image: how the views we have of our bodies can impact our mental health.

We all have a body. For all our differences, for all the things that cause barriers, rifts and divisions, that one fact levels us. What’s more, our bodies are truly remarkable things. Did you know that just one drop of blood contains around 10,000 white blood cells and 250,000 platelets? Or that if you uncoiled all the DNA in your body, it would stretch out to about 10 billion miles – the same distance as from Earth to Pluto and back?

Unfortunately, for many of us, our bodies are associated with distress and dissatisfaction far more than contentment, joy or appreciation. Just last year, the Mental Health Foundation found that almost 30% of all adults have been so stressed by body image and appearance that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. That amounts to almost 1 in every 3 people – a truly staggering statistic.

We know, too, that eating disorders are on the rise. UK charity Beat now estimates that there are around 1.25 million people in the UK living with an eating disorder [1] and hospital admissions with a primary or secondary diagnosis are at the highest level they’ve been in at least eight years [2]. While these are complex illnesses that can rarely be attributed to a single cause, negative body image is a known risk factor [3].

So that’s the bad news – what’s the good? Well, the good news is that we all have the power to change the way we think and feel – and that includes how we think and feel about our bodies.

Awareness is key. One of the supporting ‘pillars’ of our work here at Positive, awareness is crucial to any sort of intentional positive development. With body image, internal dialogue is particularly important. Every day we have thousands of thoughts and we have a tendency to accept these without question. However, thoughts are not facts and we’re often far more critical towards ourselves than we are towards other people. Make an effort to tune into your internal dialogue and to consider the sorts of things you’re saying: would you speak that way to a friend? You might not always be able to stop thoughts from coming, but you always have a choice as to what you believe and what you act on.

Be aware also of what your mind is paying attention to each day. When you look in the mirror or see a photo of yourself, do you automatically see the good (‘I look so happy!’) or the ‘flaws’ (‘My hair is such a mess!’)? By being mindful with our focus and intentionally seeking out the positive, we can physically rewire our brains, altering how they work so that we take a more optimistic view as default.

Practising gratitude can also be a powerful technique. Particularly for those who have deep-rooted issues with body image, the idea of feeling ‘good’ about your body might seem unrealistic; however, there’s no denying that our bodies are incredible things, and taking time to acknowledge what they do for us and what they allowus to do can help us to reach a more compassionate place that’s far more beneficial for our overall wellbeing. Every time you find yourself feeling bad about your body, take a moment to consider (or better still, to write down) all the things it’s doing for you right now or all the things it’s enabled you to do over the past few days. We express gratitude when someone else does something for us, so why do we so rarely show our own bodies the same appreciation?

Sadly, there are no quick fixes, but positive change is very much possible. With simple, versatile techniques, every single one of us can change the way our mind works. We can develop protective skills and habits to improve the relationship we have with our bodies, optimise our wellbeing and ultimately enjoy a healthier, more positive life.

Positive works with schools, universities and organisations around the world to help improve general psychological wellbeing in a scientific, sustainable way. Our aim is to give every individual and team the tools they need to think, feel and perform at their best. Click here to find out more.

[1] https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/media-centre/eating-disorder-statistics

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/feb/15/hospital-admissions-for-eating-disorders-surge-to-highest-in-eight-years

[3] https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/body-image-0

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