How to avoid the trap of a body image: start with your visual diet

It's not just young people who suffer when trying to live up to unrealistic body images they see on social media

Saoirse-Monica Jackson (C) poses with fans after the launch of Derry Girls - Series Three on April 7, 2022 in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Getty Images
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Every January, even as many of us all resolve to shake off unhelpful attitudes and behaviours and do things differently, the one framework from which we are rarely liberated is that of our body image.

Too many of us, year after year, feel that we fail to live up to the ideal body image or beauty type because too often these ideals are set up in such a way that the majority of us fail, including some of the people who are the reference point or the standard for those ideals.

As a consequence, our mental health tends to suffer, impairing the regular functioning of our lives and coming in the way of our contentment, happiness or other goals.

This is even more significant for children and young people whose brains are still developing. They are being flooded with images categorised as good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Adolescents are in the process of establishing their own identity. Their self-beliefs are often based on how they perceive the world and the feedback they receive – on how they look to people around them, and relative to the images they see on social media.

Too often when we talk of body image and mental health there is a tendency to suggest to young people that how they look shouldn’t matter. But the fact is, it does. And we all think about it. Because our bodies and looks enable us to interact with the world and express ourselves.

A teenager tries to take a selfie in front of Queen Elizabeth II during a walk around St Georges Market in Belfast, Northern Ireland on June 24, 2014. PA Wire

Which is why new research by UK youth mental health charity stem4 of 1001 general practitioners in 2022 is alarming, with 95 per cent of GPs sharing the belief that mental health services for children and young people have deteriorated over the past six years.

By looking at one particular kind of body image again and again, our brains literally become recalibrated to accept that as the norm

Among other alarming findings, three out of four (77 per cent) of children and young people are unhappy with how they look; increasing to eight in 10 young people aged 18 – 21. Further, in the study nearly half of all 12-21 year olds say they are regularly bullied by people they know and are trolled online about their physical appearance: “You looked better when you were anorexic,” “You’re annoying and ugly,” “A creep from a horror film,” “Move out the way there's no space on the bus, walk it and lose some weight.”

This has led them to withdraw (24 per cent), exercise excessively (22 per cent), stop socialising (18 per cent), drastically restrict their food intake (18 per cent), or self-harm in some way (13 per cent). To feel better about their bodies, 48 per cent of young people have dieted, skipped meals or fasted, taken supplements to lose weight or gain muscle.

Young people are literally stopping themselves from living their lives, and in the process causing their bodies and mental health immense and likely long-term damage. And a dominant visual culture which social media proliferates triggers and accelerates this.

Or to put it another way, a poor visual diet is as harmful to our mental health as improper nutrition is to our physical health.

Some people argue that teenagers being unhappy with their bodies is just how it has always been. But this argument is unhelpful. Why should young people today repeat the unnecessary suffering of past generations? We have the opportunity to eviscerate the judgemental looks-based attitudes and pervasive yet unreachable beauty ideals that have powerfully governed mostly women but also men’s lives for centuries. Anyone who shrugs their shoulders is oblivious to the nature and impact of social media.

Social media is like social criticism on steroids. A 24/7 inescapable culture, amplified over the period of lockdowns when so many people turned online to fill their important needs for socialisation and communication.

Images on social media are wildly manipulated, but you simply cannot tell. Especially if influencers are allegedly showcasing their "normal" lives (without revealing the make up, editing, photoshopping and other techniques used.) The social media algorithms take you down a rabbit hole serving you up more and more of the increasingly harmful content, so children – whose life experience and exposure is limited, embed those ideas into their brains that are still forming.

By looking at one particular kind of body image again and again, our brains literally become recalibrated to accept that as the norm, against which most others are judged as abnormal, including ourselves.

But young people may not always know that even the people in those images don’t look like that. Recent years have seen the rise of a trend called "Instagram face" with women’s features becoming homogenised and converging into just one look. This has been exacerbated by apps and filters that adjust your image before it is shared online. As a result, the number of people undergoing plastic surgery has increased. People seek to make their real faces look like the artificially created visual images. In this case, visual diets literally affect people’s bodies.

If anything else was causing this much damage, we would put a halt to it. The first step this year for many of us, not just the young, should be to take control of our visual diet.

Published: January 13, 2023, 2:01 PM