Body Image and Mental Health

Part of Exiting the European Union (Transport) – in the House of Commons at 2:40 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 2:40 pm, 23rd July 2019

Let me start by welcoming the Minister to the Front Bench. I am glad that she is still in her post, and I sincerely hope that this is not her last appearance at the Dispatch Box in her current role. She has been collegiate, engaging and very co-operative, and I thank her for her kind words about eating disorders. I agree with most of what she has said this afternoon.

Body image” is the term that is used to describe the way we think and feel about our bodies, which can have an impact on us throughout our lives and cause poor mental health and a lack of wellbeing. While the association between body image concerns and poor mental health is definitely not new—we have been discussing it for decades, and I am sure that we will still be discussing it for decades to come—I think it is fair to say that the problem is worse now than it was just 10 years ago. There is a far greater exposure to the media and to social media, and there is also our need to have everything, right here and right now, in the impatient and judgmental world in which we live. As the Minister said a few moments ago, we still have a long way to go in tackling this issue. Would it not be great if we recognised that, literally, one size does not fit all?

Body image concerns are extremely common, and vary in severity. Not all body image issues will affect mental health. However, it is important to be aware of the risk factor, especially among young people, as the risk of developing an eating disorder is closely associated with poor body image. The Mental Health Foundation has undertaken a great deal of research in this area, and recently conducted a survey of 4,505 UK adults aged 18 and above and 1,118 UK teenagers aged between 13 and 19. The results showed that one in five adults felt shame about their body image, 34% felt down or low, and 19% said that they had felt disgusted because of their body image in the last year, with 13% saying, very worryingly, that they had experienced suicidal thoughts and feelings. The survey of teenagers revealed that 37% felt upset and 31% felt ashamed in relation to their body image.

Perhaps more worrying are the results from Be Real’s Somebody Like Me campaign. The researchers spoke to more than 2,000 secondary school pupils aged 11 to 16 from across the UK, and found that 52% regularly worried about how they looked, 30% isolated themselves because of body image anxiety, and 36% said that they would do “whatever it takes” to look good, including considering cosmetic surgery. Similarly, 10% of boys surveyed by the Mental Health Foundation said that they would consider taking steroids to achieve their goals.

As the Minister said earlier, we must recognise that body image challenges affect boys as well as girls, and men as well as women. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend Chris Evans is not present, but he has previously spoken powerfully about the body image challenges that he faced as a younger man, and I think that he is a great ambassador for this issue.

It is a shame that more Members on both sides of the House are not present for such an important debate. I understand the significance of today and the fact that other things are obviously going on, but for the benefit of those who are watching in the Public Gallery and others who may be watching at home, I want to reiterate my support, and that of the Minister and other Members in relation to this issue.

The shocking statistics that I have cited highlight the need for more support and help. Perhaps most worrying is the finding that a desire for the option of cosmetic surgery appears to be more and more widespread. I welcome what the Minister said about the need for stronger regulation, because cosmetic surgery has almost become normalised. Many of my friends have lip fillers and Botox treatments. I have not succumbed to either as yet, but people are now moving away from breast augmentation and talking of “bum lifts” and “Brazilian bums”.

A young and beautiful lady from a constituency not a million miles from mine, in Leeds, went to Turkey—last year, I believe—to undergo one of those procedures, which involves the injection of fat into the bum. I am not sure whether that is parliamentary language, Madam Deputy Speaker. She was a mum of three beautiful boys, and she never came home. She died during the procedure. I understand that inquiries may well be pending in that case, but it is very worrying that people are going overseas to seek cheaper treatments when there may be issues relating to, for instance, regulation.

Given mainstream television programmes such as “Love Island”, which shows girls as young as 21 who have already undergone plastic and cosmetic surgery, it is hardly surprising that those who watch such programmes aspire to the same treatments. The same applies to tanning salons. In those reality programmes, everyone is bronzed and slim, and the people watching think. “I want to go to one of those.” It is very worrying, partly because some of the less scrupulous tanning salons do not necessarily follow the regulations that are so important to avoiding skin cancer.

It has been widely accepted in many different body image studies that those who are most at risk of developing mental health problems associated with poor body image are women and members of the LGBT community, but, as has already been pointed out today, that does not mean that we should dismiss the incidence of such problems among other groups, although they are not as prevalent. There is no group of people who have not been identified as having certain risk factors or anxieties associated with how they view their body image.

Airbrushed photos have appeared for decades in the media, from the early glossy magazines such as “Just 17” in the 1980s to the internet today. Throughout the internet, images are portrayed that invade people’s lives daily. Indeed, when undertaking research on this subject, I found that the search results on the internet were not giving information about the history of airbrushing, but were offering tips and trying to sell software enabling people to airbrush their own photographs. It should come as no surprise that the increased number of airbrushed images across the internet that are accessible to millions of young people have played a part in the huge increase in the number of people suffering from body-image anxieties in recent years.

During the Minister’s speech, my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson and I were looking at an internet picture of Serena Williams, the famous and phenomenal tennis player. She recently appeared on the front page of “Harper’s Bazaar”, and had specified that she did not want the images to be airbrushed. I should add that those images were themselves phenomenal. It was a great lesson, and I hope that other celebrities will consider doing the same. Some have had their pictures taken make-up free, which is also a great thing to do.

We have also seen an increase in the number of television programmes that heavily promote the idea of a “perfect body type”. As I said earlier, “Love Island” is probably the most topical and talked-about programme of the moment. It focuses primarily on young men and women, all of whom can only be described as nothing less than beautiful. Even the show’s host allegedly admitted in 2017 that it portrayed unrealistic body image standards, and, at the start of the current season, Twitter was alight with comments from viewers about how inadequate the contestants were making them feel. I understand that a “plus size” person has featured in the programme this year. I have to say that I have never watched it—my research evidence comes from the internet, and from friends and, dare I say, staff members who do watch it—but I understand that the producers’ concept of “plus size” may not be the same as ours.

I love to read glossy magazines—many of us do when we get the time—and sometimes looking at the models I do think, as somebody who would love to lose a bit of weight, “Crikey, could they even put in someone who is average-sized?” The average UK female dress size is 16, and some of these models, frankly, look unhealthy.

I want to share a story. I went to a big department store in London just before Christmas last year, and I asked for a dress that was out on the rail in a concession in the store. The size I wanted was not available and the lady working there said to me, “Oh, I’ll have a look in the back for you, as that doesn’t mean we haven’t got it; we just only display sizes eight, 10 and 12.” There is so much that we can do working with the corporate world as well to change these attitudes, and it is very important. We cannot overestimate the impact of little things like not displaying bigger sizes because the designers do not want that look.

“Love Island” is far from the only culprit in the world of television. In recent years there have been many programmes, including “The Only Way is Essex”, “Geordie Shore” and “Made in Chelsea”, that seem to focus on what for many is an unattainable body type. It is almost an oxymoron to call them reality shows when in actual fact they do not portray the reality of the way the average person looks.

The TV programme “Loose Women” has to be applauded for its body confidence campaign last year. It is easy to think that people in later life do not suffer from body image anxieties, but a Mental Health Foundation study found the contrary: approximately 20% of adults aged 55 or over admitted to feeling anxious or depressed specifically because of their body image. Campaigns such as this are incredibly important by helping to show people that their anxieties are shared by many. Indeed, a friend of mine will often say that everyone is too busy worrying about how they look themselves to ever notice how someone else looks, and I do wonder how much truth there is in that.

Sadly, however, that does not appear to be true of how people in the public eye are judged. Body-shaming and trolling of celebrities are prevalent in the media and are on the increase. when Gemma Collins took to our screens last year as a contestant in “Dancing on Ice” she received the most appalling treatment from not only the public but also, disappointingly, one of the judges, most of it based solely on how she looked.

Sadly, it almost appears to be acceptable in today’s times for those we unaffectionately term “keyboard warriors” to hound and troll people who are well known. As politicians, we all, sadly, suffer abuse on social media too, and I am certainly not immune from that. Reference is often made to the fact that I am overweight, by saying, for instance, “You fat cow.” That is absolutely unacceptable, as it also would be if the trolls were referring to somebody as too thin. It saddens me greatly to see that.

All too often the social media companies are turning a blind eye and refusing to take action over comments that are ruining lives. I am sure we will all at some point have received a message after reporting a post on social media saying, “It does not contravene our rules and regulations.” Indeed, I reported something to Facebook a couple of weeks ago and the reply was, “It does not contravene our community standards,” which raises the question of what on earth its community standards are. The term “standards” here is an oxymoron, perhaps. I have often wondered how far someone would have to go before these companies took any action. A Mental Health Foundation study found that 22% of adults and 40% of teenagers said that images on social media cause them to worry about their body image. Personally, I would like to see much more regulation around social media and much more robust complaint mechanisms that make reporting easier, with more complaints upheld and firm action taken.

It is no coincidence that an increase in social media use is accompanied by an increase in body image issues, which in turn is accompanied by low self-esteem and poor mental health. While I appreciate that social media also has many positive aspects, we must ensure that these are not outweighed by the negatives. As parliamentarians, we all have a duty to do whatever we can to hold social media companies, TV producers, advertisers, magazines and individuals to account where they are seen to be promoting negative or unachievable body images. We also have a duty to ensure that the correct help is available so that everyone, specifically our young people, are able to use vital services and support to help combat the growing link between body image and poor mental health.