by Justin Standfield
Ask anyone attending a gym or an exercise class or a weight-loss meeting about where their idea of the ‘future’ them comes from – the chances are that they’ll will mention the media at some point. For example, they might cite the billboard advertising aftershave that shows a ripped male torso, or they could refer to the endless images on Instagram of slender, toned females with perfectly accentuated curves. It’s true that the media serves as a powerful contributor to the self-image that we create in our minds; it can tell us that we are ‘good enough’ because we’ve achieved the whitest teeth, the most bronze tan, the lowest body-fat percentage or the flattest stomach.
But it can also tell us that we’re falling short of the ideal and that we’re NOT ‘good enough’ in so many different ways.
Whether it’s online, on product merchandising, in magazines or on TV, the media provides clear guidelines for beauty and markers of success. When we compare ourselves to these standards (which most us inevitably do from time to time), it’s easy for us to decide that our body doesn’t match up to these aspirational beauty ideals – e.g. weight, height, body shape, skin condition, physical ability to name a few – and conclude that we’re unattractive. In psychological terms, this conclusion is likely to contribute to our ‘conceptualised self’, i.e. the version of ourselves that we hold to be true in our mind’s eye. This is also known as the ‘self as content’ or ‘self as story’, because it’s a mental construction based on the stories we tell ourselves about who we are (and who we are not). The construction of our self-image is an ongoing process throughout our lifetime; a representation of this can be found in our internal dialogue of ongoing private experiences and shows up in how we talk to/about ourselves in our heads. In short, the conceptualised self is who we believe we are; it’s the ‘Me Story’.
Dr Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), puts it like this
“We humans do not merely live in the world, we live in the world as we interpret it, construct it, view it, or understand it.”
A component of our own individual Me Story is our body image. The sources mentioned earlier are among many possible origins from which relevant body image information may be acquired and filtered into our Me Story to further reinforce it. Other potential sources include education, work, hobbies, religion and culture. Of course, the sort of self-relevant information we pick up from these different sources will vary greatly, however the process by which they influence the shaping of our Me Story is often similar. Most sources either provide information about the self directly (e.g. a parent telling his son that he is talented at karate), or they lead to the generation of self-relevant information (e.g. comparing myself to the idealised image of what it means to be a strong, healthy male). When we identify with this information, it becomes integrated into our Me Story. In other words, “identification with self-relevant information causes the individual to internalise this information, making it inseparable from what is believed to be the self” (Dr Hugo Alberts).
This plays a fundamental part in the creation of our body image, which is the focus for Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK this year. Body image issues can affect all of us at any age, so during the week of 13th to 19th May 2019 the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) are publishing new research and campaigning for change. There are some excellent resources on the MHF website which support individuals and groups in addressing body image issues that affect mental health. This is an area that we have explored extensively here at Incendo, as part of the creation of our public workshop ‘Developing Self Acceptance’; some simple tips that draw upon the workshop content which you might like to try are:
When you catch yourself in ‘mental story mode’ (i.e. telling yourself things in your head) and the content relates to your body in a negative way, pause for a moment and ask yourself:
- How am I feeling right now in this moment as I think these thoughts?
- Do I like feeling like this?
Assuming the answer will be ‘no’, as a short-term remedy switch your attention to something else external. If this tends to be a habitual way of relating to yourself, you’d probably benefit from working on this in more depth (e.g. with a therapist or through attending a course).
Consider beginning a simple, daily mindfulness practice that will help you learn ways to notice your thoughts ‘in the moment’ more of the time – you can find a range of good sources of basic mindfulness on YouTube or you might prefer to try an app with guided meditation exercises. You could also join a local mindfulness group.
If you love reading, try these two books which are fantastic sources of relevant self-help techniques and ideas to strengthen your resilience, adopt more mindfulness and end the search for high self-esteem:
- Overcoming the Myth of Self-worth by R Franklin (Focus Press, 1993)
- The Happiness Trap by R Harris (Robinson, 2008)
If you’re affected by any of these issues, you can contact these organisations for confidential support:
Samaritans: If you need someone to talk to then Samaritans are available on 116 123 (UK) for free, 24/7. They’re there to talk to, listen and they won’t judge or tell you what to do.
Mind: If you are looking for professional support then Mind can help you with their Infoline. They can find information for you on what support is available in your local area. You can call them on 0300 123 3393 (UK), they’re available Monday to Friday 9am – 6pm.
Beat: If you want to speak to a trained eating disorder helpline support worker then you can call Beat‘s helpline on 0808 801 0711 (UK); they’re open 365 days of the year 12pm – 6pm Monday to Friday, and 4pm – 8pm at weekends and on bank holidays.