Mental HealthArts

Mental Health in Relation to Body Image

A year ago if I had thought of writing an article about my own personal experience and struggles with my weight/body image of societal “norms” or standards, I would’ve been sick to my stomach with anxiety. A year ago, I would’ve felt ashamed and embarrassed to share the problems I was dealing with. Frankly, a year ago I didn’t know my habits, actions (related to food ingestion), and views towards my own appearance were problems. I didn’t understand that my thinking and attitudes towards losing weight and overall body image were warped and hurtful (not only to myself but to others as well). If you’ve made your way here and are reading this, I hope you find yourself in this and hear your own thoughts through mine.

You will have heard this phrase before but I’m not sure how else it can be said: my whole life I wanted to be skinny. Ever since I can remember, my own ideas about how my body looked were influenced by what I was seeing/hearing/reading around me. I began associating being thin with being normal, well-liked, successful, and socially superior. My desire to be skinny became persistent so that I began hearing a second voice in my head, one which was louder and more influential than my first. I couldn’t separate the negative voice from the positive one and soon began thinking that what I was experiencing was normal. It wasn’t perception for me; it wasn’t some unconscious tick that I could separate moment from moment. I truly began to cope with these thoughts, this constant worry and shame related to my appearance and recognized my desire to be skinny as a natural and unwarranted process. I was fat. I was ugly. I needed to lose weight. I needed to starve and restrict and control. Nothing could change my mind.

That was when I knew I had a problem.

Mental Health in Relation to Body Image

I knew I had a problem when I couldn’t shut that voice out, when I couldn’t concentrate on any other topic, when I woke up every day and stepped on the scale, assessing my physique in the mirror obsessively. I would alternate the days where I ate food, thinking I was simply only fasting and that this was a healthy and legitimate process of losing fat. Little did I know that it would only evolve into a much more chaotic regimen. I didn’t eat one day, and then the next day I would eat and become so obsessed with eating that it was out of control. My stomach seemed to want an excess of food and I was never satisfied. So I ate and ate and ate. The next day I was appalled with myself and ashamed. I wanted to hide away and starve myself. And the process only repeated. I dreamt of looking like people on various social media platforms when, in reality, they only project unrealistic beauty standards. It was a cycle I couldn’t get out of.

I know many people share these struggles, particularly women and especially young women. It is not uncommon. In fact, 3 in 4 women have an unhealthy, irregular relationship with food. Men are not left out of these confounding statistics, however. At least 20-40% of men are unhappy with their body appearance and health. More alarmingly, 90% of male college students are dissatisfied with their bodies. As a result, the stigma surrounding weight continues to grow, especially in a brutal social media landscape that perpetuates images of a “perfect” body, or what is seen as such. Its influence soon becomes unavoidable as people turn to social media to inform their perceptions of body image.

For me, Instagram was the biggest perpetrator of appearance standards, what to do, what not to do, and how to look. It’s not surprising that more than 45% of Instagram influencers promote health and fitness in some way. This just goes to represent the impact of appearance standards, especially within an image-based social media platform.

Mental Health in Relation to Body Image

The rhetoric and engagement of Instagram further promotes two subcategories of health and fitness: thinspiration (the representation of slenderness) and fitspiration (the representation of a more muscular and defined body type). Users become warped in this image-based world where pictures can be distorted and purposely manipulated to appear a certain way, where hashtags can be used to search for content, and where comment sections fuel body-image ideals.

This is not unique to Instagram, however. Media everywhere promotes body-image. In retrospect, it’s unavoidable and we can’t blame social media. Wouldn’t it be nice to open a trending page and not see a health and fitness post? Of course, it would be, but social media is designed to work this way. The problem is deeper. It’s ingrained in mentality, in Western thinking and attitudes towards appearance standards. And it’s often impossible to escape from this reality.

To refocus on health, as opposed to ideals perpetuated by the media, it is nonetheless important to focus on what this kind of thinking does to an individual’s mental health and outward look on life. Obesity is a very real problem and so is self-esteem. Our issues are much more complex than simply the limits of social media. Obesity rates continue to climb, people continue to become disgruntled with how they look in the mirror and how hard it is to lose weight. Young people are placing more and more emphasis on beauty/body standards, and at an earlier age too. The way you look or rather the attitudes you hold of how you look (regardless of what others think) can impact your mental health and self-esteem in so many ways.

Mental Health in Relation to Body Image

For me, it was about restricting and then going over the top. It was about having no confidence in myself, it was about walking into a room slightly hunched over to hide my stomach. It was about looking in the mirror over fifty times a day. It was about throwing up in the bathroom when my parents were asleep. It was about scrolling and scrolling on Instagram and watching numerous videos about weight and how to lose it. It was about contemplating a 21-day fast. Once you’re in a mentality of self-hatred towards how you look and how you feel about yourself, escaping it, coming away from it alive, unscathed, and maybe even hopeful, seems impossible at first.

Though social media may shape attitudes towards body perception, ultimately it’s ourselves that take it further. We internalize it and we’re fearful of changing this thinking. It takes so much courage to finally accept things for the way they are and to block out the opinions of others. Even writing this, it seems too daunting a task, but I can tell you that it is the only way to repair self-esteem and to better mental health. Let yourself breathe. Take a couple of steps back. Don’t feel like you immediately need to start exercising and dieting. Allow your mind a rest first. Allow yourself time to organize your thoughts, respond to those self-loathing feelings, however long it takes. Know it’s okay not to restrict yourself and follow extreme diets. Most importantly, surround yourself with people you love. They are your shield in this fight. It’s not an easy one. It’s not easy to turn around and change your outlook mentality. But it’s also not easy feeling belittled by yourself either. Ultimately it comes down to the first day. It comes down to finally realizing that you’re more than what others tell you to be and you’re much more than your body. These are some of the ways that helped me overcome negative attitudes towards my body:

  • Walk every day, it doesn’t matter how long as long as you get outside.

  • Journal every day.

  • Talk to someone about what you’re experiencing.

  • Only visit social media sites for an hour a day.

  • Find value elsewhere whether it’s in starting a new hobby or spending more quality time with friends and family.