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Carnival Mirrors

How social pressure distorted my body image and impacted my mental health

One in 8 adults have experienced suicidal thoughts because of concerns about their body image. And just over 1/3 of teenagers reported feeling upset about their body image.

For roughly 5 years, this was my experience.

If you missed my recent blog on the two-sided nature of the gym environment, you may not know that I began using the gym at just 15 years old. In the hopes of looking like ‘other girls’, my goal was to lose weight. I didn’t need to lose weight but being surrounded by ‘smaller’ girls completely distorted my perception of my own body. With popular girls usually being the thinner girls, it was evident that ‘thinner’ was ‘prettier’ and more socially acceptable… or so I thought.

This social pressure to look a certain way wasn’t just at school or university. It was on the TV, on social media, on billboard advertisements, and even in the judgemental stares between others in restaurants and clothes shops. Conscious and unconscious, directly and indirectly, we are exposed to social pressures every single day. And, as is the case for so many others, these pressures completely changed the way I viewed myself.

I wanted to be thin. I wanted to be a size 6. And eventually, I was.

Before: Size 6 & insecure | Now: size 10 & happy (despite what my facial expression may say— I had just done an intense leg session!)

But I couldn’t see it.

As I stood at the mirror day-in-day-out I saw nothing but fat. I saw nothing but imperfections. And, as if I was stood at a funfair, looking in a carnival mirror, my reflection was completely different from reality. This only led to a continued worsening of unhealthy behaviours; obsessive exercising, disordered eating, and use of fat burners.

I want to clarify that disordered eating is not the same as an eating disorder. We do have some incredibly insightful blogs by Hattie Gladwell and Emily Bashforth on their experiences with eating disorders if you would like to learn more. We also have a blog by Catherine Shuttleworth, which I’d highly recommend reading, on improving her body image after over 2 years of battling Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

What began as a start-stop of healthy eating and exercising soon became obsessive behaviour patterns of specifically weighed meals, exercising 3 times a day, and only eating a salad at restaurants, while my friends and family ate full meals. Most days, I hated going to school and would feel anxious about eating in front of other people.

Coupled with the indirect social pressure that thinner was prettier (or so I thought at the time), I later found myself in a relationship where my partner constantly made me feel I wasn’t good enough. Occasionally, he even told me I was ‘fat’, ‘not even attractive’ and that ‘no one else would want me.’ How could I possibly see the reality of my tiny size 6 frame if the person closest to me sided with the inner voice that told me I wasn’t thin or pretty enough? It wasn’t until I left this relationship and began surrounding myself with better people, that I noticed a shift in these societal pressures… or at least a change in the effect that these pressures had on me.

My experience is definitely not one in isolation. Research highlights the impact of social pressure and peer interaction on body image and mental health. One study found that body image status was positively correlated with peer acceptance; those with positive body image reported greater perceived peer acceptance. Coupled with this, a recent study found peer teasing and bullying to be a recurrent source of negative body image in 68% of males and 73% of females during adolescence. This was experienced by an equal number of participants across the two sexes. This, therefore, shows peer relations can influence body satisfaction and vice versa.

Such effects also extend to the online world. The detrimental impact of photoshopped bodies, and subsequent unrealistic expectations, on mental and physical health are not new discoveries. A recent systematic review found social networking to be associated with body image concerns and disordered eating across several studies, showing that behavioural alterations can indeed occur as a result of social pressures to look a certain way. Further research extends these findings; those with greater internalised appearance ideals, in turn, engage more in emotional eating behaviours related to subsequent depression, anger, and frustration. This all further highlights the need for change in the way we approach body image and a need to re-write the narrative on the ‘beauty standard.’

Words of wisdom

To finish, if I could share any words of wisdom to those struggling with body image right now, they would be those from two amazing women — Beyoncé and Colbie Caillat — whose songs made me realise my self-hate was actually a reflection of other people’s opinions.

When you’re alone all by yourself. When you’re lying in your bed. Reflection stares right into you, are you happy with yourself? — Beyoncé
Why should you care, what they think of you? When you’re all alone, by yourself, do you like you? Do you like you? — Colbie Caillat


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