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Let’s be happier with our bodies

May 31, 2012

Anxiety about personal appearance is on the rise, with consequences damaging for health.   Many women feel they must have a perfect, thin figure.  Crash diets, smoking, eating disorders and depression are often the result.  Men sometimes follow the same path in pursuit of the six pack belly but many also want to bulk up their arms and pecs.  Does this striving to “look good ” make us happy?  And who decides what looks good?

For the last six months I have been working with a small group of MPs, listening to evidence on body image.  We heard from children and teachers, academics (especially from the Centre for Appearance Research, based at the University of the West of England in Bristol), magazine editors, cosmetics and supplements retailers, dieticians, cosmetic surgeons and many others.   We were given valuable assistance by the Central YMCA.  The picture that built up over many weeks was that millions of people feel unhappy about their appearance and are prepared to resort to drastic measures to conform with what society expects of them.

At the mild end this can be just a desire for trimming back the bulging belly.  I fall into this category, since being an MP my diet has worsened, alcohol consumption rocketed and fitness plummeted.  So I’ve periodically cut out the three course dinners, reduced the drink and gone to the gym more often than once a month!  This year I’m doing rather well and am almost back to my 2005 fitness levels.  Sensible behaviour, you might think.  But I’ve never been tempted to go on a diet plan or join a slimming group.  I’ve not taken any diet pills and certainly won’t be forking out for a personal trainer.  I’ve not become obsessive about my muscles or taken any supplements.  But attend any event with a large group of other gay men and it’s fairly clear that many of us are rather keen on the trim waist and bulging pecs, accentuated by that tight tee shirt.

I was the only male MP in the group and most of the evidence we took was about girls and women.  Anxiety about their appearance can cause many women health and relationship problems, leading to lack of progression at school or work.  The source of that anxiety comes mainly from the media image of the ideal woman.  Adverts and our celebrity culture reinforce the image of the “ideal” waist, face and boob size.  Women turn to diet clubs, supplements or more drastic surgical interventions.  Unfortunately, our evidence was that 95% of diets end in failure.  There are now more than 1.5 million people with some sort of eating disorder, putting it among the largest of mental illnesses and one most likely to lead to premature death.

So what should be done?  Our report makes lots of suggestions.  Some of them are for government, for instance by requiring schools to build body confidence into the curriculum and regulating cosmetic surgery.  Broadcasters and magazine publishers should review their editorial policies.  Shops should consider advertising clothes with models and dummies that aren’t “perfect”.   We need a better understanding of our own weight and sizes – who really understands what the Body Mass Index is all about?

For me, body image is another public health issue, alongside how we cope with other compulsive and addictive behaviours that cause us physical and mental harm.  But this issue is way behind where we are on tobacco control or awareness of the problems caused by alcohol and drugs.  So I hope the main impact of our report will be to spark a much needed debate on how we see ourselves and how much we worry about how others perceive us.  I know some people will wail about this being yet another intrusion by “nanny state” politicians.  But it would be wrong to ignore a problem that is growing and causing misery for so many people.


You can read the first report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image here

18 Comments leave one →
  1. John Yapp permalink
    May 31, 2012 11:37 pm

    A male friend of mine recently was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. They have had the OP & may now need Chemo treatment. I checked on line about Chemo & stumbled across Charlotte Gerson on You Tube who is now nr 90 yrs old. She inspired me so much, with her views on all the aspects of good health & to look at “Juicing” which I have done. She looks great for her age. I then stumbled across Jason Vale, again on You Tube, who is just crazy about Juicing & all its health benefits. I bought my Juicer & started concocting the most amazing drinks. I use it every day & already people are saying to me, “are you loosing weight”, which I have.
    I think Juicing should be much more spoken about—you loose weight—get the correct nutrition, with vegetables & fruit, all uncooked so the vitamins are not destroyed. Its absolutely delicious to drink. I feel so much fitter & also cut down on cooking, just having one cooked meal a day. Start with 2 apples & 1/4 of a lemon un-peeled, then go on to carrots & all the rest of the Veg–its amazing! Juicing will change your life.

    • June 1, 2012 9:56 am

      sounds like an entirely sensible way of living in harmony with your body! A like smoothies.

      • John Yapp permalink
        June 1, 2012 6:08 pm

        Just to make things clear Stephen. Smoothies are made in a blender while Juicing is a more elaborate gadget removing the fibre & using just the remaining juices, which can be added to other ingredients in a blender if required.

  2. John S permalink
    June 1, 2012 1:26 am

    Didn’t Orwell warn against the powers-that-be increasing the number of saints at the expense of the number of human beings?

    • June 1, 2012 9:58 am

      not heard that quote before. But to use it back – I and my colleagues are saying it is OK to have a flawed body – you don’t need an angelic appearance!

  3. June 1, 2012 7:31 am

    “I know some people will wail about this being yet another intrusion by “nanny state” politicians.” I am as always happy to oblige.

    So the government intervenes into ones body image, and shall we assume in some cases it does nothing to improve their self esteem, where does the person go next? It appears even with all the great resources of the state can’t cure them, then there is no hope.

    I think state intervention takes the onus away on individual responsibility and people expect others to take it on for them.

    I fully concede that some people when it comes to obesity it is not all their fault. I have a close relation who is overweight from comfort eating brought on by depression and some people genetically will be obese too. They deserve our sympathy. However the majority of people seem to wallow in self pity and refuse to get of their backsides and do nothing about it. A little bit of tough love might do them good.

    My great body regret is that I am not taller than my 5’8.” That’s too bad. After I gave up competitive football at 45 I put on 2 stone in weight and got off my backside and started cycling and jogging and rarely eat more than 1,500 calories a day and I am often hungry. My BMI at the age of 51 is a healthy 23.

    As someone who battles the nanny state on smoking I am subjected to abuse which most people would in any other context find objectionable. Here are a couple of choice comments from the Daily Mail Comments section:

    “Smokers disgust me. Me and my friends do see them as second class citizens. We all look down our noses at them and their disgusting and filthy habbit (sic). We make sure they know it too. John Long, Liverpool, 28/2/2012 4:14

    Smoking *is* disgusting, it *is* dirty and the sooner the smokers drop dead and wither away, the better. Angry, United Kingdom, 28/2/2012 7:30

    I defend the right to be offend and the right to offended. While I do not hope that others have to put up with that kind of language for their situation, however treading on egg shells with government intervention is not a recipe for success in my opinion.

    • June 1, 2012 10:04 am

      welcome Dave, I thought you would have something to say! You are a libertarian and I am a liberal interventionist, so we differ on the role of the state but we could have some common ground here. Could you agree that a big debate and more awareness of body image might be a good thing? After all, what we are saying is that more people should be happy with the natural state of their bodies and appearance and should not be pressurised into an appearance norm. Can’t we both be nonconformists here?!

      And I never personally abuse smokers.

  4. June 1, 2012 9:14 am

    Seems to me it would be entirely helpful for Govt to mandate an average size of 12 or 14 for front covers of magazines selling over 500,000 copies.

  5. June 1, 2012 3:37 pm

    Hi Stephen
    If this is an area you’re seriously interested in then I must recommend the book “Health At Every Size” by Linda Bacon. Very well worth a read. Proper science refs & everything.

  6. Gordon permalink
    June 2, 2012 9:19 am

    As a gay man, I am, of course, very aware of my body image. Having felt myself embarrassingly thin, I decided to do something about it and bought some weights.
    I was nearly 40 at the time. It worked wonders for me. Pounds transferred from the wrong places to the right places; pecs pumped up; arms and legs started to look good……but most of all it increased my self confidence in both my work and social life.
    Now in my 60’s, happily retired and back in Bristol, most of these benefits remain with me.
    So; the moral of the story for me is……..sometimes a degree of society pressure and self awareness can be a good thing and a spur to doing something positive. I recently returned from a train tour of USA and Canada. The obesity I saw there was frightening…including kids who just followed their parents’ example and piled obscene quantities of food on their plates and then inside themselves. Over a quarter of US citizens are now considered obese.
    We need to do something to avoid this here……and I am personal witness that the benefits of doing something about it ar elife transforming.

    • June 2, 2012 1:54 pm

      That’s great Gordon. I too go to the gym to keep self fit and yes this does boost confidence. What the group are warning against is the danger of obsessive concern about your body and taking drastic measures.

  7. June 2, 2012 3:50 pm

    Great post! I have battled with severe depression and anxiety due my body appearance since I was in my early teens. I was always taller and bigger boned than all my friends in school, my breasts have not grown at all since I was 12 and I am still completely flat chested 34AA, my friends use to laugh at me about it and told me to buy a push up bra. My mother had a boob job in my late teens which made me really upset as she had much bigger breasts than me before she had the op… She was so pleased with her new boobs that it made me feel really unattractive and masculine. I still am constantly struggling to feel comfortable with my body every day and it has prevented me from achieving many things in my life… I am waiting to get counseling as i have only just started to accept how unhealthy my negative body image has become over the years.

    Another really important issue that I think that needs to be addressed to the general public is body hair on women. I find it perverted that women feel the need to remove their body hair in attempt to look like a prepubescent young girl. I was once pressured into shaving because I started puberty so early and my classmates bullied me for years because i was abnormally hairy for my age. I’ve been with men who have refused to sleep with me because I was too hairy. It knocked my confidence so much that i considered spending £1000 on laser hair removal. Recently my mother lent me her hair removal laser gun that I started using but decided to stop as it was not the answer to my deep rooted insecurity and that I must love my body for the way it is despite what others think… It is a shame my mum didn’t tell me this growing up and I had to work it out for myself… She is brainwashed by the medias portrayal of women in fashion and beauty and I am so glad I have escaped that vicious snake pit. Luckily I now have a hippy boyfriend who doesn’t care if I have a flat chest, chunky legs and hair armpits, he has tried to help me heal myself though sadly my self esteem is still rock bottom and I always secretly doubt that he finds me truly attractive.

    The objectification of women in the media and advertising must stop, I am certainly not bringing children into this world with such inescapable deranged agendas.

    • June 2, 2012 5:53 pm

      Thanks for a frank and brave posting. You have shown others the personal experiences that demonstrate why our report should be taken seriously.

  8. June 3, 2012 11:45 am

    At a first quick read this report is better than many. However I couldn’t find any mention of international comparisons or consideration of the effects of societal body-shame, body-abhorence, and body ignorance.

    The report appears to have done a good job regarding the immediate causes but it has failed to take the next step and consider what causes them. The failure to follow the evidence trail back to the source is inexplicable. If the real underlying causes, the ones responsible for a very wide range of body-shame, body-abhorence and body-knowledge problems, are not addressed then the measures recommended will be much less successful.

    This report does not consider the adverse impact of the Bailey Report. That wants to stop children and young people from knowing what people really look like. Leaving it to the imagination is a recipe for disaster.

    This report does not consider the adverse impact of the Claire Perry Report. That also wants to stop children and young people from knowing what people really look like. Leaving it to the imagination is a recipe for disaster.

    Both of those reports have worthy objectives but they completely fail to even consider the effects of promoting body-shame, body-abhorence and body-ignorance.

    The present censorship of the media has been vastly more successful at preventing people of all ages from knowing what people really look like than it has at preventing access to the myths peddled by the glamour and pornography industries. Both the Bailey and Perry reports are being used to justify making that worse.

    I use the word ‘censorship’ quite advisedly. There is, as even the Bailey Report admits, no good evidence that anything more than a small part of the material censored is harmful. Conversely there is strong evidence that the gross over-restriction both encourages the attitudes responsible for widespread and often very serious harm and directly causes harm.

    It beggars belief that the government, and a few supporting MPs from other parties, is so keen to promote the attitudes prevalent in the countries with absolutely appalling outcomes. It is no coincidence that teenagers in the USA are several times more likely to have an abortion, about ten times more likely to become pregnant and several tens of times more likely to catch a sexually transmitted infection than their contemporaries in Denmark, The Netherlands or indeed any other western country with relatively low body-shame and body-abhorence. The pictures appears very similar for body-image but we have not researched that in as much depth.

    Page 24. “The need for evidence-based interventions”. We agree entirely but they must be based on all of the evidence. Not just that which fits preconceptions as is all too apparent in the Bailey and Perry Reports.

  9. Xenia permalink
    June 7, 2012 2:58 am

    What would you say to making all shops in Broadmead and Cabot Circus abide by some form of local legislation banning all ‘fake’ or unrealistic body representations from their windows and marketing? It would be a very difficult line to draw but it would be nice to set a precedent of community concern for well-being having authority over large corporations which bombard you with their version of the ideal.

  10. Edwin Carpenter permalink
    July 5, 2014 7:15 am

    Nowadays Physical Appearance really matters, if you’re good looking then it is easy to be accepted by society. Having a good appearance can help you to gain self-confidence and be at ease in any situation. I agree that physical appearance with women cause them so much anxiety because are very particular on how they look and even to men also.

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