"There have been different factors that have affected my body image - pregnancy, relationships, reaching 40, and now social media"

social media

There were times that I was reluctant to go out, worried that I might get called names and suffer abuse for being tall, having brown skin, or not wearing nice clothes. However, I feel lucky that amongst all this, I didn’t have media and social media reinforcing my ‘imperfections’. 

‘Body image is the perception that a person has of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception. These feelings can be positive, negative or both, and are influenced by individual and environmental factors.’

www.psychalive.org/what-is-body-image/

I grew up in a time when there was no social media. For that, I feel lucky.  Now reflecting on the young people that I have worked with and my own children, I can see the damage this is having on an individual’s perception of how they should look and how image is ‘everything’. 

Rather than spending time scrolling through images on Instagram liking celebrity pictures and taking selfies hoping I might achieve the same popularity, I was out playing with friends, reading books and spending time with my family. I was happy in myself because for a large part of my childhood I was protected from judgement and the pressures of society. I was ‘me’ because of what was on the inside and not what was on the outside. Looking at ‘me’ wasn’t important, but looking at what was around me was. 

This isn’t to say that there were not factors that influenced how I viewed myself. In the late 80s I moved from a multi-cultural area to an area that was predominately white.   Up until then, I didn’t view myself as being ‘different’ and was naïve thinking skin colour didn’t matter.  Suddenly it did.  I have memories of being called racist names by children and adults I had never met, purely for walking down the street and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. From jumping from one postcode to another, suddenly the way I looked mattered and I didn’t want to be me anymore.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, I went through a growth spurt, becoming the tallest person in my class, towering above everyone including the teacher.  With that came the names ‘lanky’, ‘jolly green giant’ and ‘stick insect’. To fuel the taunts I also had to wear second hand clothes because, as a family, we were so poor. 

Now you may think that this would have had a huge impact on my confidence and self-esteem.  In some ways it did, I became very conscious about looking ‘perfect’ when I went out.  Despite being poor, I saved to buy the best clothes and started wearing make up at a very early age.  This ‘perfectionism’ has remained with me and can be mistaken for vanity, constantly looking in the mirror checking I look okay, however, it is more insecurity and the constant worry of how others view me. 

There were times that I was reluctant to go out, worried that I might get called names and suffer abuse for being tall, having brown skin, or not wearing nice clothes. However, I feel lucky that amongst all this, I didn’t have media and social media reinforcing my ‘imperfections’. 

Decades on, there have been different factors that have affected my body image - pregnancy, relationships, reaching 40, and now social media. I battled with an eating disorder in my late teens, but on reflection this was not related to how I viewed my body, but how I viewed my life and at a time when I didn’t know my left from right, top from bottom, this gave me control. 

In amongst all these factors that have influenced how I feel about the way I look, the greatest one has been society’s view of the ‘ideal woman’ and these days it is hard to escape this. There is a danger that your ‘ideal’ self is so far removed from your actual self that you will never be happy with who you are.

What has kept me from indulging in these unrealistic expectations is surrounding myself with positive people, exercising, and education.  I also now see my skin colour and height as a strength and feel lucky that I am ‘different’.  It may also be that a changing society has ‘accepted’ me and that being ‘mixed race’ and tall is actually seen as attractive. 

I have never wanted to be anyone else other than who I am and I feel fortunate to have that mind-set. Of course, there are times I wish I had better hair, bigger boobs, and that my feet weren’t so big, but life it too short to constantly dwell on this. As the song goes ‘I am what I am and what I am needs no excuses’!

However, with a new generation of young people (including primary aged children) so heavily influenced by unrealistic expectations and social media, we need to invest in protecting them and promoting positive self-image. We need to prevent aspirations of perfection and that this will in turn give you happiness and instead promote education, positive role models and having fun!