This year, Mental Health Awareness Week (13–19th May) focuses on a theme that affects (or has affected) most people at some point in their life: how they see themselves when they look in the mirror. Body image issues are a common problem in a society that promotes unrealistic body ideals – but this week, the message is simple: love yourself just the way you are.
No one is perfect, so stop being unkind to yourself and learn to love your body, quirks and all.
How do you feel when you look in the mirror? Do you find yourself criticising little details or complaining ‘I’m too fat’ or ‘I’m too short’ or ‘if only I had a different nose/bum/hair colour I’d be happy’?
If you’re frequently making negative comments about your appearance, you’re not alone. You can be confident that most of your peers will be equally as critical of their looks, especially given all the physical changes that happen as you get older. But while it’s normal not to like every part of yourself, for some it becomes so extreme it affects everyday life. This is because body image – how you see your face and body – is closely linked to self-esteem. If you aren’t happy with your body, you will lack confidence. If you have a positive body image, however, you will be happier and healthier both mentally and physically.
What affects how you see yourself?
Shapeshifting As you mature, your body shape changes in ways you may and may not like. Hormones can also make you feel more sensitive and self-conscious about your appearance as you want to fit in, be accepted and carve your own identity.
Friends and family Without realising it, you become influenced by your friends as they also change and start wearing make-up, having different hairstyles and clothes. You may want to be like them or create your own style – but it can get you down if you start comparing yourself to them. Remember, everyone is different. People are also quick to judge on appearance and if you’re sensitive, anyone who comments on your looks can also influence your self-esteem.
Social media Think how many friends post images of themselves on social media for others to ‘like’ or comment on. How people react to photos can have a huge impact on body image and self-confidence. If someone responds with a mean comment it could negatively affect the person, even if it is just ‘banter’. On the other hand, 100 likes could boost their self-esteem no end.
Celebrities Flawless images of perfect-looking celebrities are everywhere in he media – on TV, in magazines, on social media – and can give the wrong impression of what is a ‘normal’ shape and what the perfect person looks like. Despite knowing they are often airbrushed, these images can have a big impact on how you view yourself.
How to deal with negative comments
There will always be one person you know who, because of their own insecurities, will mock others’ appearances. If you are at the receiving end of their insensitive comments, there are a few things you can do:
Ignore them Don’t let this person affect your life. Hurtful comments are horrible and it’s normal to be upset, but try to move forward and don’t let one comment or person who doesn’t matter to you prevent you from being yourself.
Talk to a friend It’s good to vent to someone you trust. They can advise you on what to do as they will see the person’s comments from a different perspective.
Confide in a teacher If it happens at school and is making you feel low, talk to a staff member about it so they can help resolve the problem and find ways to boost your self-esteem.
Tell the culprit If you feel it’s best, tell the person who’s upset you why their comment is unkind. Be calm and avoid arguing. They may not realise how hurtful they are being.
How to improve self-esteem and body image
1 Accept your amazing self and stop comparing your features to other people’s
This is you – unique, wonderful you – and your body, face and glow. In real life, very few people fit into the airbrushed, picture-perfect ideal in the media, so instead of worrying what’s wrong with you, focus on what’s right. This is your body, so make the most of it.
2 Silence your inner critic
Whenever you become aware you’re thinking negative thoughts about yourself, say ‘stop’. Imagine what advice you’d give to a friend or young child who was putting themselves down and pay heed to these wise words. You wouldn’t suggest they be unkind to themselves.
3 Compliment yourself
Each day, look in the mirror and focus on something you like. It could be your eye colour, your skin, your smile. Pay yourself a compliment instead of being harsh on yourself as this will boost your mood. You may fake positive comments to start with, but stick with it as eventually you’ll start noticing they come naturally.
4 Change what you can – accept what you can’t
If there is something you really dislike and can easily change – such as a hairstyle, make-up, skin cream for spots or exercising for health reasons – do it. But do remember that real people aren’t perfect.
5 Remind yourself of what’s important – who you are
If you’re a good-hearted, kind person and you’re healthy and fit, that’s way more important than looks. Everyone has body issues at some point – it’s part of life – but clichéd as it sounds, it really is what’s inside that counts.
- Words: Donna Findlay
- Illustration: Maria Mangiapane
- This article is an extract from Be Kind, part of a four-book series released by Teen Breathe in May 2019 to help teenagers treat others and themselves with respect, compassion and care. Find out more and order your copies here.