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The way we perceive our bodies has become more and more complicated in the age of social media., We are surrounded by images of bodies, plastered across social media, magazines, newspapers, buses, train stations. It is becoming impossible to escape these images, which makes it even harder to not perceive the heavily photo-shopped and altered mistaken realities as an ideal by which we should strive to reach. According to dosomething.org, only 5% of women possess the body image portrayed most frequently in the American media.

‘only 5% of women possess the body image portrayed most frequently in the American media’

I had never really sat down and thought about this before, or looked around to see how it might be affecting the people around me, until it was mentioned in my recent interview with Emma Woolf. As a writer and activist for beating and coping with eating disorders, she made me start to notice the impact body image has on many of our lives, often in really basic ways.

According to a study by Dove, 89% of Australian women are choosing to cancel plans, job interviews, or other engagements because of how they look.  This is a horrific statistic, which highlights the importance of ensuring people are more open to talk about their insecurities, and the need for organisations that try and promote confidence. Harriet Iles, an Ambassador for the Body Image Movement, strongly believes that positivity and openness is the way forward.

‘89% of Australian women are choosing to cancel plans, job interviews, or other engagements because of how they look’

‘These issues are not something which should be portrayed negatively’, Harriet explained, ‘I’m all about promoting awareness of these issues in a positive light’. With so much negative thought about the problems of body image, she argued that this only ‘will enhance the problem’.

Harriet before the screening of Embrace, supplied by Harriet Iles

The Body Image Movement is one of the organisations attempting to tackle this issue. It was started by Taryn Brumfitt, and describes itself as an ‘internationally recognised crusade that was founded on the belief that your body is not an ornament’. The Movement advocates ‘focusing on things that are important, rather than comparing ourselves to others’, and promotes ‘body diversity’. Harriet clarified that it is ‘promoting awareness of a healthy body image, and the standards which have been inflicted from numerous different societal discourses. It is also about mental and psychological wellbeing as well, and being happy and fulfilled with your own self. With the amount of anxiety and depression, and mental illnesses out there at the moment, it is important to recognise that we can have weird, distorted perceptions of ourselves. We are promoting that it is ok to have these issues, and its ok to have distorted perceptions, but to reconstruct them we need to be aware of what’s happening’.

‘it is important to recognise that we can have weird, distorted perceptions of ourselves’

The Movement is increasing in support here in Exeter, and just a few weeks ago Harriet hosted a screening of the movie ‘Embrace’. This is ninety minute documentary, directed by the founder of the movement. It details her journey tackling body image, and her experience talking to others who have had problems. Her story is incredibly inspiring, and highlights how significant body confidence can be on our mental health and well-being.

After having three children, Taryn struggled with her body, and engaged in an extreme exercise and dieting plan. ‘After three months she had an incredible body, toned and fit’ Harriet explains, ‘it was the type of body that society would approve of. She entered a body building competition and even standing on stage, she still didn’t feel good about herself, and neither did other women involved. The thinking was at this point, if I can’t be happy with myself at this perfect body, when am I going to be happy with myself?’ She posted an influential photo, detailing her body during the competition, and afterwards. The second photo shows her when she felt much happier, still living a healthy lifestyle, and maintaining a healthy weight.

Supplied by The Body Image Movement

‘We go to the gym and work our asses off and feel great about it temporarily.’ Harriet explained. It leads to a continuous cycle of us pushing ourselves more, but not being happy with what we achieve. Of course we should be working to different fitness goals, that is healthy, but we should be enjoying them along the way, not putting ourselves through hell for a body type.’

Speaking to some of my friends about it, there is often a misconception that promoting body confidence, is encouraging people to be unhealthy. In reality, this is about encouraging men and women to pursue their body and health goals, and to pursue their lives in a healthy way, but not to get so caught up in body insecurity that they put their health at risk in the process.

‘there is often a misconception that promoting body confidence, is encouraging people to be unhealthy’

The importance of this cause can be seen by a simple look at some statistics. According to dosomething.org, a staggering ’91 per cent of women are unhappy with their bodies, and resort to dieting to achieve their ideal body shape’. Of course, it is important to eat healthily, but diets can easily lead to more severe eating issues. If people do not seek the correct nutritional advice, dosomething.org explains that it can escalate into eating disorders. Being able to talk about body image issues and insecurities, and providing support for those who struggle with it, can help stop the problem here. The Dove study also shows how this is now a serious issue in young girls, with 48 per cent of first-third grade girls already wanting to be thinner. 30 per cent of girls, and 25 per cent of boys will be teased during their teenage years for their weight.

’48 per cent of first-third grade girls are already wanting to be thinner’

Body image isn’t just a problem for girls. Boys have their own version, and it’s important to be open and aware of it. ‘Boys are just as obsessed with what they look like as girls,’ Harriet discussed, ‘they pretend not to be, but they go to the gym, get their protein shakes, compare how much muscle they have’. Staying fit is important, but being aware of how it can affect our mental health is the point of the movement. Harriet explained how her blog targets girls, but she’s had boys say they have read it before. There isn’t enough out there to target problems that can arise from boy’s worrying too much about body image. It can cause insecurity, and serious issues. I asked Harriet how she thinks this could be tackled, to which she argued ‘we have to create a gender neutral tone when talking about these issues. The lack of discourse or positive discussion regarding boys and body image, or even eating disorders means that they are much less likely to talk about their issues openly. If we promote awareness that its ok to talk about it, hopefully they’ll be encouraged to be more open’.

Supplied by Harriet Iles

Healthy bodies don’t always look the same. Its hard to realise this when the media floods us with images of what we ‘should’ look like. Being aware of how this can impact our mental health is important, and discussing this openly helps people to understand that its ok to not be ok. These issues are normal, and with the staggering statistics they bring to light, we need to be talking about it. Silence is not the answer.

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