Body image within society

Did you know that there is an all-party parliamentary group on body image in the UK’s Westminster home of government?

There are two natural responses to this;

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1. A sense of alarm that it has been deemed necessary to establish such a body.

2. Relief that this issue is being acknowledged and looked into at such a high level.

Perhaps we should look at the first aspect and why we are so disturbed by the reality of this situation.

The history of body image

We should establish that body image issues are not an entirely new phenomenon that simply didn’t exist in years gone by.

To some degree or other they will have been around for generations – certainly people will have been aware of ‘ideal’ body types and their own perceived shortcomings just as long as they have been exposed to those supposed ideals.

This could go back as far as the first moving pictures and silent films and there has been a quite ‘racy’ printed media for much longer than you might believe, certainly back as far as the 19th century.

Body image and the media

People have always had the capacity to fret about themselves and their imperfections and the rise of the body beautiful, perfect lifestyle image has only compounded that.

Of course it is in much more recent times that media exposure to this has multiplied 10,000 times over.  Thanks to the internet, gossip magazines, voracious tabloid newspapers, so-called reality TV shows and the conferring of the title ‘celebrity’ on almost anyone who strays in front of a TV camera.

This is truly a modern development and it takes little perception or imagination to link all of it with an upward surge in issues related to body imagery.

The Sunday Times newspaper this weekend pointed to Caroline Noakes who chairs the parliamentary group, as she is keen for the government to bring in Body Image lessons for schools and that it would be a priority of the group this year.

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Body image classes for children?

The fact this is even being discussed shows how far the situation has become an all enveloping problem.

Most often associated with girls, the number of boys suffering has been on the increase for a while and this is no longer the preserve of the teenager going through dramatic changes.

Those later in life are still struggling and, perhaps most disturbingly, young children. One survey has shown that one in four children have been on a diet by the age of seven!

Noakes commented, “Without building self-confidence in young people, including about the way they look, they cannot grow up to be happy, healthy adults. We know that more young people are suffering from more mental health issues than ever before.”

The impact of the fashion industry on body image

Scrutiny has often been made of the fashion industry and the models used in shoots and on catwalks, and for good reason. It seemed that things had been getting better since the days of ‘heroin chic’ and a hauntingly emaciated look all in the name of being some kind of vehicle for high end clothing.

But this has been brought to the fore again by model Rosie Nelson who has launched a petition calling for a law to protect models from industry pressure to look skinny and be unhealthily underweight.

She felt compelled to do this after one of Britain’s biggest modelling agencies instructed her to lose a stone (14lbs/6.3kg). In some cases this might been deemed a reasonable request, but as Rosie pointed out, “I am 5ft 10 and weigh 58kg (9st 2lb)”. By any measure this is a person who is already lean and slender.

“I was told to get my hip measurement down and I exercised every day and ate only steamed veggies. And when I went back to the agency she put her hands on my hips and said I ‘had to be down to the bone’. But you could already feel my bones!”

Prioritise health over body image

Not unreasonably Rosie pointed out that she felt this was wrong and the emphasis should be on happy and healthy models rather than just too thin. Sounds entirely sane to me!

She spoke of knowing that girls ate cotton wool buds and drank loads of water so they wouldn’t put on weight. This shows just how out of hand things have got.

With that in mind maybe Rosie has a point when she suggests that perhaps the time has come when the the emphasis on such things as maths and English in schools also includes body image lessons as part of the PHSE curriculum which also covers sex education.

The more one considers the issues, looks at the growing trends and examines some of the underlying causes, then the more this seems like a necessary and reasonable course of action.

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Being a Gladiator and a role model

During my time on Gladiators we were very conscious of our position as influencers and role models. We knew we were reaching around 15 million homes every Saturday night and we were the kind of show that three generations of the same family would sit down to.

Actually most of what we got up to the TV viewers did not see – we were in schools and reaching out into communities all the time, taking part in events, giving talks and, at all times, being inclusive.

Even though I say it myself, I think we did a pretty good job of it over the years. Two decades later I know we all still receive thankful messages from now grown up fans!

Pressure placed on body image from a young age

I have not been immune from these issues and pressures myself as a young girl. I was a gymnast to GB national level and involved in the performing arts from a young age, going on the the National Youth Theatre and also two of the country’s leading dance academies.

It was all wonderful stuff and I loved it, but there is no doubt that consciously or sub-consciously there were pressures and I ended up with an eating issue that is a commonplace story among way too many youngsters.

Education is key

As a practising psychotherapist these days as well as a fitness professional, this is an entire area that fascinates me and is clearly one that is not going to be resolved quickly, easily or any time soon.

What is clear though, is that education and knowledge is key.

Removing the pressure for youngsters to feel they have to look a certain way or conform to a certain body type when it is not biologically practical or possible.

They have to understand that the people they aspire to are not perfect either, they have flaws and blemishes too. And don’t I know it… During the Gladiators years I found myself as something of a poster girl and people do put you on some kind of pedestal of perfection, but it’s not true!

The damaging impact of technology

And of course the growing increase in technology over the last 20 years has seen the growing prevalence of doctoring images on screen. This can literally re-build anybody from the ground up.

Those people the kids want to look like? They don’t even look like the media portrayal of themselves!

Remember that those Hollywood celebs you gaze on in the fashion, lifestyle and gossip magazines are benefiting from the best in hair styling, best in make-up, best lighting, the top photographer and then the wonders of Photoshop just to make sure perfection is achieved every time.

So the only way to truly achieve the same effect is to have exactly all the same facilities to hand. And how many of us have got that?

But what can we do?

Overall, I suppose it seems that body image issues may be here to stay for the time being… but that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do about that!

We can learn to understand why we think of ourselves the way do – sometimes the rationalisation can help us adjust our attitudes. There are also certain things we can focus on to improve our body image and stop the negative thoughts running away with us.

Most of all, we can remember to teach those younger than us how to love themselves, and be comfortable in their own skin. Not only by forming governmental policy and commitees, but being role-models and loving ourselves too!

Read more from WatchFit Expert Diane Youdale

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