Content Warning: Eating Disorders, Mental Health
“I hate my body.”
Our surveys about body image (one for performers, one for the general public) received 243 responses. And, reading them, this statement jumped out at me multiple times.
On one level it’s become normalised to throw phrases like this out when bonding with our friends over body shame, as a way of complimenting others, or as a ‘motivational tool’ that you use to spur yourself in the direction of fitness and physical health. I’ve definitely said this phrase many times in my life and, in the past, it’s felt almost casual.
Stepping back a bit though, hate is such a strong word to use – about your body, about your self, about anyone. Do people actually feel that way about their bodies?
Research by the Mental Health Foundation in March 2019 suggests that just as we are seeing in our survey, adults and young people in the UK regularly experience strong negative feelings about their bodies.
Online surveys were conducted by the Mental Health Foundation with YouGov in March 2019 of 4,505 UK adults 18+ and 1,118 GB teenagers (aged 13-19). The results highlighted 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.
- Just over one in five adults (22%) and 40% of teenagers said images on social media caused them to worry about their body image.
- One in eight (13%) adults experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image. Just over one third of adults said they had ever felt anxious (34%) or depressed (35%) because of their body image.
- Among teenagers, 37% felt upset, and 31% felt ashamed in relation to their body image.
- ‘Things my family have said’ were the third most likely factor to have caused teenagers to worry in relation to their body image. Overall, 29% of teenagers aged 13–19 said this. The figure was much higher for girls (37%), but it also affected 21% of boys.
- Discrimination, stigma and shaming disproportionately affect people from minority ethnic groups, LGBT people, people in later life, people with disabilities, and people who are overweight and obese.
Bear in mind that this research was conducted a whole year before the wake of a global pandemic brought lockdowns, restrictions around gyms and outdoor exercise, and a whole lot of time to think. Body shame has been a serious health issue for a long time, but we are now seeing government campaigns around obesity, concerning numbers of children, teenagers and adults reporting poor mental health, and recently reported increases in eating disorders such as binge-eating, anorexia and bulimia.
Post pandemic, factors like worsened mental health, economic uncertainty, reduced social exercise opportunities, the growth of social media and government campaigns associating obesity with increased risk of death from Covid-19 have likely played a role in increasing body-image related difficulties like weight-based discrimination or weight stigma, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
It makes sense that in societies where a thin-ideal, or a fit-ideal body is celebrated, people feel strongly motivated to be these body types. Research suggests that obese people earn less than non-obese people who performed the same tasks in equivalent positions (Black, 2016). Fitting society’s norms of attractiveness also improves romantic and social prospects. Unsurprisingly, there are high levels of worry about being overweight. We saw this in our own survey, where 57% of respondents said that they constantly worry about being or becoming fat. And it’s reflected in examples like the (less rigorous, but still shocking) Esquire magazine survey which found that 54% of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat.
Everyone is worthy of respect and fair treatment at any size, but our society doesn’t always reflect this.
In fact, weight stigma on its own can affect mental and physical health – regardless of actual weight. A 7 year study (Daly, Robinson & Sutin, 2017, Association for Psychological Science) found that perception of being overweight predicted ‘declines in subjective health and increases in depressive symptoms – gauged by cardiovascular, inflammatory, and metabolic functioning. These… were observed irrespective of whether perceptions of being overweight were accurate or inaccurate. This research highlights the possibility that identifying oneself as overweight may act independently of body mass index to contribute to unhealthy profiles of physiological functioning and impaired health over time.’
Put more simply, the shame and negative thoughts experienced by people who perceive themselves to be overweight are harming their health. As nutritionalist and bio-chemist Pixie Turner explains:‘Weight stigma is a chronic stressor and elicits a stress response in the body. This increases blood pressure and cortisol reactivity, leading to increased appetite and binge-eating. Weight stigma is associated with increased risk for depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. Weight stigma has repeatedly been shown to be a separate and unique factor affecting health outcomes and health behaviours. Both adults and children who experience weight stigma are less likely to engage in healthful behaviours like physical activity and eating a varied, balanced diet. Weight stigma reduces quality of life.’
Comments like ‘I hate my body’ are part of normalising body-shame, but it turns out that shaming ourselves and others doesn’t help anyone lose weight. And unfortunately, in the UK we have access to more sources of comparison than ever before, and therefore more opportunities to experience body-shame. This is another reason why government campaigns, personal trainers, or telling people to feel ashamed if they are overweight, are actively detrimental.
The shame many people feel about their bodies starts externally (with how friends, family, social media, environments and institutions act). Big shifts are clearly needed on systemic levels, alongside a kinder approach to other people.
But what about body shame we experience by ourselves? I’m sure I’m not alone in having thoughts that I know aren’t helping me. It’s not always easy or possible to switch those thoughts off, or change the channel on our thoughts, and repressing thoughts and feelings doesn’t help either. In my next blog, I will be looking at negative self-talk, what affect it can have, and if it’s possible to change this.
If your mental health is adversely affected by any of the issues raised during this project, please consider the following resources/
If you are in mental health crisis and need medical help fast, call 999 to contact emergency services, or go to your nearest A&E department.
If it is not a medical emergency, but you still need urgent help, call 111 for health advice or guidance on where to access appropriate health services. You can also make an appointment with your GP.
Offer a helpline for emotional and crisis support for anybody affected by mental ill health. They can talk with you confidentially, and without judgement. This is a free, 24 hour service.
Phone: 116 123
The UK’s leading charity for supporting anyone affected by eating disorders. They offer helplines, online support, and peer support groups.
Phone: 0808 801 0677
A source of free, reliable information on a range of health issues, by sharing people’s real-life experiences.
Mind provide a range of services relating to mental health, including information and support.
Phone: 0300 123 3393
Harmless is a user-led organisation that provides a range of services around self-harm and suicide prevention. This includes support, information and training to people who self-harm, their families and friends, and professionals. They also offer alternative coping strategies.