Body Image and Mental Health

Part of Exiting the European Union (Transport) – in the House of Commons at 3:25 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Climate Change) 3:25 pm, 23rd July 2019

It is a real honour to speak in this debate, and I regret that not many people are here to participate in it, but as we know, today is today. Even though I have only recently become a member of Parliament, I echo the comments about what a pleasure it has been to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jackie Doyle-Price, and I hope that she will continue in her post.

We have talked about many issues, and I want to pick up on what has been said about the cynicism with which advertising exploits vulnerable people. I will be speaking mostly on eating disorders, and many victims of eating disorders already have a massive problem, even before they go online. If they then order slimming pills online, for example, they will be bombarded by adverts persuading them to buy even more, which they then do. That is nothing short of exploitation, and we need to be alert to that.

We are all ultimately affected by our body image. People might say to me, “Well, you look all right”, but we all think, “Well, this could be better and that could be better.” We all want to please the people around us and ourselves when it comes to what we look like, and that is nothing new. It is only unusual or harmful when it so negatively affects us that it is the only thing that guides our lives. There is a certain intolerance surrounding having to have a particular look, and that is where the real danger lies. People feel they have to look in a particular way rather than feeling that it would be fun to look this way or that way and to be playful with what they look like. Instead, they are being shoehorned into a particular image, and anyone who does not fit that image can be badly affected and develop serious mental health problems, including eating disorders. I have been campaigning on the particular issue of eating disorders and mental health.

This debate is important for millions of people across the country, and I hope that we can set an example today by honestly exploring the issues. In fact, I think we already have. In a culture that is obsessed with image, we must talk more openly about the impact that body image scrutiny has on our mental health. It has been said before that we are focusing too much on how we look, rather than on who we actually are as people and what we can bring to the table, whether we are short or tall, male or female. That is one of the obsessions of our society: we are always thinking about what we look like, rather than about who we actually are.

For the past year, I have been campaigning for better treatment for eating disorders. Speaking openly about such conditions is more important than ever, because early identification and intervention are key. Mental health conditions thrive in the shadows and are protected by our ideas about what is and is not appropriate to talk about. Eating disorders have a reputation, and sufferers who do not fit cultural stereotypes are often afraid to speak out or, worse still, are refused help.