Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Mental Health Awareness Week - Body Image #BeBodyKind

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, watch my YouTube videos or follow me on Instagram, then you will probably be aware that I’ve struggled with mental health problems since my teenage years. I like to try and raise awareness of mental illness whenever I can, so when Mental Health Awareness Week comes around, it’s the perfect opportunity for me to create some content to help people understand mental illness that little bit more. 

The Mental Health Foundation started Mental Health Awareness Week in 2001 and for one week each May, they campaign around a specific theme. Since 2001, they have raised awareness of topics like stress, relationships, loneliness, sleep, alcohol and friendship. Hundreds of schools, businesses and communities have come together to start conversations around mental health that can change and even save lives. And this year, with our support, they want to reach more people than ever.

Last year, The Mental Health Foundation found that 30% of all adults have felt so stressed by body image and appearance that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. 

So, from 13th-19th May 2019, the focus for Mental Health Awareness Week is Body image – how we feel and think about our bodies. 

It’s pretty common to have body image concerns as you go through life, and a lot of the time this doesn’t lead to a mental health problem. However, it’s important to realise that worries about body image can be a risk factor for mental illnesses and research has found that higher body dissatisfaction is associated with poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders. It’s also important to know that body image concerns can affect anyone – men and women, children and adults.

In preparation for Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation conducted some new online surveys with YouGov in March 2019. They found that:
·     One in five adults (20%) felt shame, just over one third (34%) felt down or low, and 19% felt disgusted because of their body image in the last year
·     Among teenagers, 37% felt upset, and 31% felt ashamed in relation to their body image
·     Just over one third of adults said they have ever felt anxious (34%) or depressed (35%) because of their body image
·     One in eight (13%) adults experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image
·     Just over one in five adults (21%) said images used in advertising had caused them to worry about their body image
·     Just over one in five adults (22%) and 40% of teenagers said images on social media caused them to worry about their body image

With these figures in mind, I wanted to use this post to share some of my experiences of body image concerns and how they have affected my own mental health over the years. 

I don’t really remember ever being particularly aware of my body image until I reached Junior School at the age of seven or eight. Up until then, I had been fairly happy and carefree, and the only thing about my body that occurred to me was making sure it did all the things I wanted to do (playing, sleeping, eating etc.) But when I got to Junior School, I started being bullied. I vividly remember the first time someone made a comment about my body. We were walking back to our classroom after a P.E. lesson, and the boy in the line behind me gave me a kick and called me fat. I don’t recall ever being referred to as fat before then, and I think it must have set my mind whirring. All of a sudden, I became very self-conscious about my body. I was worried about what clothes I wore in case they showed off too much of my body. I hated doing any kind of sport at school because I suddenly just felt like some sort of elephant next to everyone else. I just didn’t want anyone to see me.

The bullying continued throughout Junior School and into Senior School. I wouldn’t say I was an unhappy child – I had a lovely group of friends and I think having them around me took some of the impact away from the bullies. But their comments and actions still hurt and they still affected me. I was always conscious about my body, no matter what I was doing. Even if I was just sat in lessons, I seemed to be hyper-aware of where my body was placed, how I was moving and what everyone else thought of me. Looking back, I don’t think I was a fat child. Sure, I wasn’t really skinny, but I definitely wasn’t overweight. But at the time, those comments just stuck in my mind and I couldn’t let them go.

I think body concerns are often amplified as you go through your teenage years. Your body is changing in ways you may not like or understand, and you have very little control over it. And at the same time, fitting in with your peers seems more important than ever. By the time I reached around the age of 14 or 15, I was starting to find my own way a bit. Fitting in with everyone else wasn’t quite so important, and I had a group of friends who were all different and had their own individual styles and paths they were following. Although I still had body image worries, I was starting to feel more secure in myself. And then I became unwell.

There’s never a good time to get ill, but right at the start of your GCSE years seemed particularly bad timing. All of a sudden, everything was being flipped on its head. I wasn’t able to go to school, I lost contact with a lot of my friends and I was spending a lot of my time either at medical appointments or at home, isolated, feeling really unwell. It’s really hard to have a positive body image when your body isn’t working properly. My illness (which at the time we had no idea what it was – now we know it was my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and related conditions) was doing all sorts of things to my body. I lost a lot of weight; I was in terrible pain, felt exhausted all the time and was getting all sorts of strange symptoms. 

It was the weight loss that seemed to attract the majority of comments and attention. Some comments were positive to begin with – saying that I looked good/well etc. But even when I started getting more concerned comments about my weight and my health, my mind was already fixed on losing weight. I’d only ever heard people telling me I was fat before (I’m sure those that loved me dismissed those ideas, but I think I probably only focused on the negative stuff), so to have people now telling me I was thin or too skinny felt kind of good in a weird way. I guess perhaps because I had been called fat for so long and it had made me so upset, that hearing the opposite from people felt like a huge positive. 

I’m not saying it was just these comments that caused me to slip into the depths of an eating disorder because that would be too simplistic, but the long-term bullying and the quick turn-around definitely contributed to it. And before I (and a lot of the people around me) realised, as well as having complex physical health problems, I was also drowning in mental illness. I was clinically depressed and had an eating disorder. 

Eating disorders (whichever type you have) really screw with your body image. No matter how much weight I lost, it was never enough, and I still believed I was too fat. I hated looking at my reflection in the mirror, but at the same time I had this compulsion to check myself to look at which parts of my body I needed to change. Eating disorders are addictive. I would weigh myself several times a day and became obsessed with the numbers on the scales. If they went up, it was the end of the world and I would need to reduce my intake even more or get rid of what I had already eaten. If the number went down, I would get this moment of elation that I had done something right, but that would soon turn to anxiety and the need to make it go down even further. You just get completely lost in this eating disorder bubble of numbers, reflections, food, weight and constant anxiety. 

I look back at photos from my worst times with my eating disorder now, and can see how terribly thin and frail I was; even just a few years ago when I had another relapse. It scares me that I just couldn’t see it then. But that’s what mental illness can do to your perception of body image. And what scares me even more is that, sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly low or the eating disorder thoughts are becoming stronger again, I can look at those pictures, look in the mirror or look at the number on the scales and want to go back to being that thin again. Even now, when I’m in a much more stable place, I know that it only needs something small to tip me back into the clutches of my eating disorder. Every day I have to find the strength to fight with my eating disorder to make sure I win and it doesn’t. Every day, even when I look in the mirror or see a photo of myself and the first thing that comes to my head is ‘I look fat,’ I have to somehow convince myself that my mind is playing tricks on me and that it’s my eating disorder speaking.

I remember being in eating disorder treatment (several times!) and one of the things we were told to do was to look at our bodies in a different way. Instead of looking just at the outside, like you do when you look in a mirror, we should look at what’s going on inside. What our body is doing inside to allow us to do all the things we want to do. Looking at our body in a much more practical and almost mechanical way, being grateful to it for working so we could do things like go shopping, go to the gym, hang out with friends, have children or anything else that meant something to us. And being kind to our body because of these things.

Now, I can see how this can work in a generally healthy individual. But it’s a technique I really struggle with because of my physical health problems. My body isn’t working properly. It isn’t allowing me to do all the things I want to do. It keeps breaking and malfunctioning; making me feel unwell and terrible. Don’t get me wrong – I do try to be grateful for what my body can do and I know others have it far worse than me. But when you’re already fighting with your body image, it’s really hard to feel any love for a body that just won’t work properly. And I know this is quite common amongst people with long-term illnesses. 

It’s really hard to feel good about your body when you’re trying to get your head around everything an illness is doing to it: 
·     Taking medications that change the way you look 
·     Having embarrassing medical situations (i.e. fainting, seizures, sickness, losing control of your bladder or bowels) in front of people you don’t know
·     Having to rely on others and lose your independence at a time when you should be making your own way in life
·     Having invasive tests that feel like they take away your dignity 
·     Feeling like you are losing your identity
·     Having to use mobility aids like sticks and wheelchairs, which completely change the way other people look at you

There are so many ways that having a long-term illness can affect a person’s body image, especially if you are also struggling with mental health problems already. As a young woman, I find it really difficult to feel attractive and to form relationships when I struggle to find the energy to get dressed, put on make-up and go out to meet people. Despite loving my wheelchair and mobility aids for what they allow me to do, they still affect my body image massively and make me almost feel invisible at times. For me, and for many others, it can be so hard to love your body when actually, a lot of the time, you really do hate it. 

Even now, at the age of 30, I still find myself comparing myself to images of other people on social media. Now, I love social media when it’s used in a healthy way or for doing good. But I also realise just how hard it makes it for young and old alike to feel positive about themselves. There are so many ‘beautiful’ people out there posting photos of themselves and their lives, and because social media is always there, it can be hard to get away from perceived perfection. In reality, I know that no one is perfect and beauty is simply one person’s perception. But if you’re already struggling with a mental illness, body image worries or are vulnerable to things like this, it can be so easy to get pulled in to comparing yourself with others on places like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, I would almost punish myself by following accounts that I knew made me feel inadequate, ugly or fat. These days, although I can still feel bad about my own body when I see someone I feel looks nicer than me, I’m much more in tune with my thoughts and can usually tell if I need to take a break from looking at social media. And I also try to follow a range of accounts with people of all different body shapes and sizes – it’s helping me to see that you don’t have to look a certain way to be beautiful or to be loved.

The Mental Health Foundation are hoping that their report and the awareness raised during Mental Health Awareness Week will help us all to feel better about our bodies and to reach out for help when we don’t. They have a series of tips to help us improve how we feel about our bodies and to help us to protect, promote and maintain a positive body image throughout our lives:

1.   If your body image is a significant cause of stress, or if you’re being bullied about how your body looks, consider talking to a friend, a trusted adult or a health professional
2.   Spring-clean your apps on your smartphone – be aware of how you feel when using them
3.   Look at the people in the accounts you’re following on social media and be mindful of how you feel about your own body and appearance when you look at them
4.   If you see an advert in a magazine, on television, or online that you think presents an unhealthy body image as aspirational, you can complain to the Advertising Standards Authority
5.   At home, parents and carers can lead by example by modelling positive behaviour around body image, eating healthily and staying active
6.   Our language is important. In our daily lives, we can all be more aware of the ways in which we speak about our own and other people’s bodies in casual conversation with friends and family
7.   Find the best way that works for you to stay active – make sure it’s suitable for you and your health though

They are also running a body image challenge – it’s easy to take part and they would love to have as much support as possible. Simply post on social media a picture of a time or a place when you have felt comfortable in your own skin – this could be now, five years ago or at the age of five. It can be a photo of yourself or something else that reminds you of that moment. Use the hashtags #BeBodyKind and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and tag @mentalhealthfoundation

I really hope that this post has helped to raise awareness of body image and mental illness, and that hearing some of my story has helped someone else feel less alone in their struggles. If you have any questions or comments, please do let me know, and if you want to share this post on social media or with anyone you know, please do tag me so I can follow where it goes.

For any help and support with mental illness, you can contact a number of places including:

·     Samaritans - on 116 123 for free, 24/7
·     Mind - on 0300 123 3393, Monday-Friday 9am-6pm
·     Beat - on 0808 801 0711, 365 days a year, 12pm-6pm Monday-Friday and 4pm-8pm weekends and bank holidays
·     CALM - on 0800 58 58 58, 365 days a year, 5pm-midnight
·     Maytree - on 0207 263 7070

Can you relate to anything I’ve spoken about with regards to body image and mental health?

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