Jo Swinson MP writes to Liberal Youth about our body confidence campaign.
Everybody knows somebody – eating disorders are more common than you think.
This is the message that eating disorder charity B-eat wants to spread this week. It’s important to raise awareness of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, which are the most fatal of all mental illness – with an estimated mortality rate of 10 per cent. For those of us who campaign for better body confidence in the UK this startling figure comes as no surprise.
Back in 2008, Lynne Featherstone and I were discussing how to reflect the evidence we had heard about body image problems in our forthcoming Liberal Democrat policy paper. We resolved to turn it into a campaign and in 2010 we co-founded the Campaign for Body Confidence, bringing together partners in the media, fashion and fitness industries, as well as those who spend their days trying to heal the damage caused by low self-esteem and distorted views of eating and exercise. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image followed in 2011, and gave the campaign a parliamentary focus, with cross-party support from MPs such as Caroline Nokes, Mary Glindon, Caroline Dinenage, Stephen Williams and Sharon Hogdson.
From smoothing skin and removing wrinkles, to enlarging muscles and slimming waists, airbrushing men and women to ‘perfection’ has become the norm in the advertising media. From a younger and younger age, people are aspiring to these biologically impossible ideals. There is also a real lack of diversity in the models chosen – another reason why these images don’t reflect reality.
For some, the desire to look as perfect as these models can become all-consuming, and there is a wealth of evidence to suggest the UK is experiencing serious body image problems. We are bombarded by videos, photos and images of women with ‘perfect’ bodies and which leads some to think they should like what appears in magazines and on TV. Now that so much self worth is focussed on appearance, it can be hard not to hate the way we look when we don’t live up to these unrealistic expectations.
Of course, people aren’t blind to this issue – but while the vast majority of people know that advertisements are airbrushed and they are therefore chasing an impossible dream, it still hurts. The pressure to conform to such narrow ideals is overwhelming. According to Professor Nichola Rumsey, Co-director of the Centre for Appearance Research, children as young as 5, 7 and 8 are now suffering dissatisfaction and anxieties about their bodies. Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach states that it is now normal to feel uncomfortable about our own bodies.
Evidence supports what common sense suggests: that body image is formed at the interplay of a number of influences, including individual resilience, family relationships, peer norms and – yes – social messages about desirability. Eating disorders affect people for a wide range of reasons, body image can be just one part of the puzzle. Significant research has identified concerns about body shape and weight as a strong risk and most importantly as a changeable one.
One thing we can all do, every day of the year, is to focus on the things that make us truly beautiful, qualities like kindness, intelligence, humility and humour, and hold those up as things to achieve to ourselves and to family and friends.
For more information the APPG on Body Image’s current campaigns visit http://www.ymca.co.uk/bodyimage/node/60
For more information on eating disorder charity B-eat visit http://www.b-eat.co.uk
For more information on the issue, read the APPG on Body Image’s Reflections on body image
MP for East Dunbartonshire
Co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence