Is Instagram Ruining the Way We View Our Bodies?

If you like to keep up to date with mental health related topics, then you’ll know that this week is a week of significance. It is Mental Health Awareness week. As a society, it is crucial that we do all we can to raise awareness for mental health related topics, in doing so we can break down the stigma surrounding it. The word stigma connotes social intolerance. The primary definition suggests that shame or disgrace is attached to something regarded as socially unacceptable. A person’s mental health struggles should never be deemed as socially unacceptable. This is why it is vital that we normalise the conversation surrounding it. Let’s end the stigma, open up, talk more and share our stories. Here at We Are ASSIF, we proudly take on an active role in which we share the experiences, challenges and ongoing battles which people face everyday concerning mental illness. We believe this is a powerful way to better the support around mental health issues.

Our aim is to reach as many people as possible in the hopes that at least one person will feel less alone in their strife. Everybody has ‘mental health’, however we fluctuate across the spectrum throughout our life times, and that is totally ‘normal’. If you look at the synonyms for health, the word fitness is pretty close to the top. Usually when you think of the word fitness, physical exercise comes to mind. Fitness should not only be a physical thing, mental fitness should be practised and we can only do this by normalising the conversation around mental illness, which is why weeks like mental health awareness week are so important.

This year’s mental health awareness theme is body image, in specifics; how we think and feel about our bodies. Body image is a person’s perception of the attractiveness of their own body and it can be closely related to unrealistic standards that have been set by society. This affects people from all walks of life, from children, to young people, adults and the elderly. Just remember, ill mental health does not discriminate. In 2018, the mental health foundation found that 30% of all adults have felt so stressed by body image and appearance that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. We need to ask the question, why?

Whether we like it or not, the media can have a big role to play in a person’s self esteem. On a daily basis, the average person in the UK is bombarded by unrealistic beauty standards from all areas, such as advertisements, social media and television. It seems you’d have to be living in the jungles of Papua New Guinea to escape these terrifying pressures. Only 3 months ago did we see Medical Director of the NHS, Professor Stephen Powis, urge social media platforms to ban celebrity ads for health products. Sadly, a large number of people have become seriously ill due to using diet pills, detox teas and appetite-suppressing sweets, which are amongst the many unsafe, unrealistic and harmful products being endorsed by celebrities on social media. But why are people using them in the first place? Well known celebrities such as the Kardashian clan, Cardi B and Iggy Azalea have all be known to promote these products to their fans with the message that “I use this, so should you.” The harsh reality is that these products mainly cause diarrhoea and life long stomach problems, yet young fans are lured in by the promise of fast results. This is exploitation at its finest and one of the reasons so many people have body image hang ups.

Many mental health disorders come under the umbrella of body image such as; Body Dysmorphic Disorder and eating disorders such as; Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder and other specified feeding or eating disorder. According to BEAT which is the UK’s eating disorder charity, approximately 1.25 million people in the UK alone suffer with an eating disorder. Around 25% of those affected by an eating disorder are male. Research has shown that eating disorders are particularly common amongst adolescent girls.

Eighteen year old student Zainab Attarwala was 10 years old when she started to develop eating disorder tendencies, which later led to a severe battle with anorexia.

“I had issues with eating from a young age. It started with emotional eating at around 10 years old to about 12 years old. I felt very inferior in comparison to others and would eat to take the pain away. Consequently, I was overweight from the ages of ten to twelve. This created a negative relationship with food. When I was thirteen, I decided to lose some weight in order to look "pretty" before high school. I thought I would become happy if I lost weight.

It started off as orthorexia from August to December of 2014 and then full-blown anorexia starting January of 2015. At first, I was very open about my eating and exercise habits, because I thought I was just being healthy. People would notice and comment on how good I looked which made me think I was doing something right and could share tips with others. When I started becoming underweight and noticeably emaciated, I started to hide certain things from my family and friends, such as how many calories I was eating. I also didn't realise that it was an eating disorder at the start, so I wasn't afraid to share things I was confused and wanted to figure out why I was so depressed. After I was diagnosed and taken into inpatient treatment a few times, the eating disorder actually got stronger and that is when I started hiding things from family and friends. That lasted for about four years.

Around three months ago I began recovery. I decided to stop doing family-based therapy because it was preventing me from fighting the eating disorder, so I took matters into my own hands and came up with my own recovery plan with the help of my doctors and therapist. I have to push myself every day to face fear of foods and food rules. I also train my mind to see my body from a much more positive perspective.

It's definitely taken me on a roller coaster. From being taken out of school, being hospitalised 6 times, to the millions of doctor/ therapy appointments, I've missed out on a lot of normal teen experiences. I isolated myself from friends and family which would make my depression worse causing me to confine myself to my bedroom. I've always been an athlete and couldn't play sports for a long time which worsened my mental health. Throughout high school, my brain was consumed with thoughts about calories, negative body image, etc. which prevented me from living a "normal" life.”

Zainab is now in recovery and is passionate about speaking out about the negative consequences of the media's portrayal of the "ideal" body type. She recently spoke about her experience at a TED Talk conference in California and continues to open up and share in the hopes that her story could help others who are going through the same experience.

Despite eating disorders being generally more common in young women, statistics show that 1 in 3 people who have an eating disorder are male. Daniel Bird, a twenty three year old international journalist from the North West describes what life has been like with anorexia nervosa.

“I started to notice that I had the behaviours of an eating disorder at around sixteen when I was in sixth-form. Former friends used to joke saying I was chubby and had a chubby face, which I started to think about. Then it really hit me in my first year of university when I was eighteen, I had some personal issues which ultimately led to becoming stressed which induced an eating disorder. Not eating was a way of dealing with stress for me.

I would always fuss around food and say I'd already eaten, or I wasn't hungry. Especially when I went out for dinner with old friends, we would be sat at a table of around twelve of us and they would order a full three course meal, whereas I wouldn't even finish a starter and I'd use the excuse: "Oh, I had a little bite to eat on my way home" or "I had to have food with my family beforehand and didn't realise how much I'd eaten"

I've been in recovery now since around the age of twenty, I wouldn't say I've fully recovered because I don't think you can - it's always in the back of your mind - especially when people say: "oh you look well, you've put on a bit of weight", or when you lose weight and people comment. But, I'm in a happy and stable place and know what is healthy and what isn't.

As a society I think we can absolutely do more to normalise the conversation around mental health issues, especially around male eating disorders and mental health. Everybody thinks these issues only affect women, which is false. Suicide is the biggest killer for men - as you're reading this, a man will have sadly taken his life as he'll have felt he wasn't masculine enough by dealing with mental health. More needs to be done to end the stigma surrounding toxic masculinity and allow men to deal with their mental health."

When you think of a stereotypical eating disorder, many would assume that person is painfully thin and in some cases, yes they are, but not in all. This is not a'one size fits all' kind of disorder. One of the main thing to remember is that not everybody with an eating disorder looks like they have an eating disorder, so it is important to be aware of some of the warning signs of an eating disorder. Some of the main signs noted by NEDA are :

  • Withdrawal from usual friends and activities

  • Frequent dieting

  • Extreme concern with body size and shape

  • Dramatic weight loss

  • Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws in appearance

  • Extreme mood swings

  • Sleep problems

  • Cuts and calluses across the top of finger joints (a result of inducing vomiting)

  • Dental problems, such as enamel erosion, cavities, and tooth sensitivity

  • Dry skin and hair, and brittle nails

  • Swelling around area of salivary glands

  • Fine hair on body (lanugo)

  • Cavities, or discolouration of teeth, from vomiting

  • Muscle weakness

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or know somebody that is, please call Beat on 0808 801 0677. Support and information is available 365 days a year.

If you’ve been struggling with your mental health or are having suicidal thoughts, or you know somebody who is, these are the numbers to call to get some help.

Samaritans: 116 123

CALM: 0800 58 58 58

Papyrus (for those under 35): 0800 068 41 41

Childline (for children and young people under 19): 0800 1111

The Silver Line (for the elderly): 0800 4 70 80 90