Negative Body Image, Anxiety, and Consumerism

Recently, I went on BBC Radio Ulster to answer a couple of questions around the issue of self body image, and working towards a ‘beach body’, after a great video was posted by Caoimhe Ní Chathaill about the issue. To tell you the truth, it was a pretty frustrating experience. I think that the presenter on the radio show was half expecting me to come on and start promoting a diet or some sort of training regime that would help the masses get the six pack ready for the summer. Writing this, it makes me cringe even thinking about the whole thing, as I would rather stick a sharp pencil directly into my leg than be a part of an industry that encourages people to feel like crap about themselves as a way to push them into a certain way of training or eating. Whether the presenter was indeed excitedly awaiting the unveiling of the next ‘shredding diet’, or whatever, the most frustrating thing about it, is the same thing that has frustrated me any time I have been on the radio, and that is that it is impossible to explain such a complex issue in such a short space of time (usually about 3 minutes), without sounding like a raving maniac talking at  a million miles an hour. So I decided to write this little article to expand on the issue a bit for anyone who is interested.

Lets break it down really simple. In general, do many people have a negative body image? In my opinion, yes. Is this phenomenon more prevalent during the summer months? Yes. Is the issue more common in males or females? The issue is prevalent in anyone who is subject to the feeling of insecurity when a perceived blemish or deviation from the ‘norm’ is amplified, so it affects both males and females. However, females are clearly the target for much of the ‘beauty products’, fad diets, and glossy magazines out there, so I think it is more common in females than in males.

Why do many people suffer from poor self-body-image?

This is the complex part of the question in many ways, but then again, I am sure we can break it down nice and easy for ourselves.

I strongly believe that much of the negative self-thought that we direct at ourselves when it comes to body image, is due to a large discrepancy between how we actually are at this present moment in time, and how we think we should be. I.e. we think we are fat and out of shape, and we think we should be skinny and fit.

The problem comes into full swing when companies who want to sell you something, recognise this discrepancy, and amplify it so that it creates anxiety, embarrassment, and anger are yourself for not being ‘normal’, ‘skinny’, ‘beach ready’, or whatever other bullshit way that it is framed. When you feel bad about yourself, and a product, program, diet, or supplement ‘promises’ to take your pain away, and turn you into the version of yourself that you want to be, then most of us will pay whatever it takes to get that. We are all susceptible to this. Car companies sell us on ‘the lifestyle’ that you will have if you own a sporty SUV, suave Jaguar, nippy hatchback, or rugged 4x4. We generally buy with emotions, and the ‘health and fitness industry’ has the formula down to a T! It goes like this:

“You have love-handles, you should be ashamed of yourself, drink this special tea, eat these supplements, buy this workout equipment, and you will be beautiful.”

Or

“You have wrinkles. That means your getting old. Which means people won’t want to be around you anymore. Use this cream and you will be beautiful, and everyone will love you.”

It’s called consumerism. Side effects include getting people who have the money to part with it, people who don’t have the money to borrow for it, and people who can’t borrow for it to perpetually feel like a bag of crap. Consumerism is an integral part of the economic system that we generally subscribe to in the western world, which is called capitalism. Capitalism is mostly based on a kind of pyramid model, where the people at the top of the pyramid make the most of the money, and get most of the benefit (longer life expectancy, more fancy toys, better quality of life etc etc), and the people at the base of the pyramid generally pay the most for general living expense and taxes relative to their income, see the least gain in terms of access to healthcare, education, food, and living conditions, and ironically and cruelly, pay the MOST towards the galavanting of the pyramid peak dwelling folk. The people in the bottom half of the pyramid are generally separated with their hard earned cash through tax, essential costs of living, AND the spending of ‘disposable income’, which is generally whatever is left of the paycheck after the bills have been paid, and this is where the inventive marketeers of the health and fitness industry and beauty industry make their money. The over priced (under delivering) products, programs, supplements etc, are sold on the back of building up our insecurities, and promising to deliver us to washboard abs Nirvana!

Of course this leads us to believe we should look a certain way. And this can lead us to posting filtered and edited photos of ourselves on social media to show that indeed we are normal and ‘beautiful’ just as we should be, which feeds the perpetual cycle of seeing someone with the ‘perfect body’ online, feeling bad, posting your own filtered selfies, to show that you are also in the cool gang, someone else sees this, and the cycle continues.

It is interesting to note that it hasn't always been the way that skinny is best. I once picked up an old book from the 60s that had a photo of a news article with a headline that read something like ‘Men Wouldn’t Look at Me When I Was Skinny’ or something to that effect! I guess they figured out they could make more money making women feel like they should by skinny.

But wait! Are we not almost completely sedentary these days, and because of that we are overweight and out of shape? Are we not right to feel bad about ourselves?!

Yes, it is true that there has been a monumental shift towards sedentary occupations, lifestyles, and hobbies, in the last 100 odd years. There are less agricultural and manual labour occupations in Ireland today that there were in 1918. We move much less today in general today on account of the advancement of technology, and transport, and the abundance of food at every corner. Conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart conditions, and blood pressure are on the up, in large part due to our inactive lifestyles, and poor diets.

I am not advocating that we all just accept our fate to become a totally sedentary and largely physically useless race. But I am making the case that we need to stand up against manic consumerism, marketing based on creating and exploiting insecurities, and allowing us the space and freedom to feel great about ourselves no matter what physical condition we happen to find ourselves in.

Sure, sometimes we feel unfit, overweight, underweight, or out of shape, but it is imperative to remember that if you can open your eyes, read this article, sleep, eat, and get around, then there is much much more right than there is wrong. Think of the people who love being in your company, who you enjoy hanging out with, the places that make you happy, the smells that bring you back to a holiday or your granny's kitchen, your favourite pastime, the things that you have achieved in your life so far, obstacles overcome, tips travelled, bridges mended, decisions made, and future plans. I know that people who work in the health and fitness world can oftentimes end up sounding like they are preaching or telling others what to do from their mighty high horse, but I want to put it out there and say that everything that I am writing here is based on personal experience. I have felt all the negative feelings of self-consciousness and insecurity, and the positive feelings of being able to focus on what really matters and what makes a positive shift in mindset when it comes to how I felt about myself.

We all need a push in the right direction sometimes, but not from some random infomercial, glossy photoshopped magazine, or some know it all personal trainer who could fit sideways through the backside of a closed door. We don’t need to be shamed by strangers, or friends for that matter, and no matter how fit or unfit you are, it doesnt change your value as a person, brother, sister, son, daughter, partner, husband, wife etc.

What are the effects of having a negative self image?

Firstly, I would like to say that if you do have a negative self image, it is not your fault. It is impossible to get away from the constant advertising, marketing, and idealising these days. It’s everywhere. Even in your pocket on your phone. But just because it is not your fault, doesn't mean that you can’t do something about it, which we will get to in a minute.

I think we all recognise the pitfalls about feeling badly about our bodies. We get self conscious, anxious, nervous, our mental health suffers, we try to deprive ourselves in an effort to reverse the situation in quicktime, and generally don't like to be in places where we are getting sweaty, or in a swimsuit, we doubt ourselves, and become more introverted. Of course not everyone experiences all of the above at the same time, but they are all general side effects than can come along with a negative body-image.

Maybe if you feel bad enough about yourself, you will get a burst of motivation to get yourself over to the gym, or start a new diet, but in my own experience, this plan of action is greatly flawed, as when the initial spark of motivation wears off, and you all of a sudden realise that your amazing new diet is not going to make you ‘beach ready in 6 weeks’, and concurrently find that you have all of a sudden signed yourself up for a routine that isolates you from your social circle because you can't eat out any more, or have to make your own meals separately from your family, or are no longer ‘allowed’ a glass of wine every now and again, then you quickly fall of the wagon and promptly make up for lost time.

What Can We Do to Promote Positive Self Image and Stay Healthy?

  1. Remember the things that truly matter in your life. For me, they are my family, friends, making the most of each day, and doing my best to be a positive being on a day to day basis.

  2. Engage in a hobby that gets you active and that you enjoy for teh sake of the satisfaction and challenge of the activity itself as opposed to just doing it because you think it's going to bring great results. When you love to do something, you will keep it going because you want to, not because you feel you have to.

  3. Start filtering out the things that make you feel self-conscious and feed your negative self-image. Delete social media accounts that give you anxiety about your body, dont buy glossy magazines, and if you find that you feel you feel bad when your with friends due to any kind of shaming, then have a chat with them about it...or maybe find some new friends!

  4. Give yourself a healthy timeline for getting back in shape if you feel like you would like to lose weight. As I mentioned above, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get fitter, but remember that you want to be fit for life, not for 6 weeks. One positive change with your nutrition each month for a year will make a much bigger and more positive impact over the long term than trying to make 12 changes in the space of a week or two. If you do want to work on your overall health, use your initial spark of motivation to get professional help from someone who lines up with your values and promotes a positive self image and sustainable methods of training and eating.

  5. Pick good role models who inspire you to do good, and get the most from each day, and be a good role model yourself by being kind to yourself and making a positive difference wherever you are.