It is Mental Health Awareness Week (May 13th-19th) and this has, as usual, brought discussions around mental health to the fore. The initiative began in 2001 and has been organised by the Mental Health Foundation, UK since then. Each year has a dedicated theme – this year’s is #bodyimage.
‘Body Image’ is a term that describes how one thinks and feels about one’s body, and this of course can influence one’s perception of oneself. Body image issues are in and of themselves not a mental health problem, but they can lead to body dissatisfaction, anxiety and depression, and result in mental health problems. Although this is more prevalent among young women, it is increasingly affecting men and women at all stages of life.
The Mental Health Foundation released its latest report on body image on the 13th of May, revealing high levels of distress and mental health issues associated with perceived poor body image. While this week is more prominently observed in the UK, this year’s theme of body image is extremely relevant for all the countries and regions including my country India. Forecasted to be the youngest country of the world by 2020 with median age of 29 years, India is also unfortunately the country with the highest suicide rates amongst its youth. At 35.9 per 100,000 population (2016), it far exceeds the global average of 22.6 per 100,000 population (2016). Poor body image, bullying and discrimination based on appearance, relationship struggles, academic/workplace stress and lack of family support are some of the reasons that contribute to such high numbers.
The body image report from Mental Health Foundation highlights many reasons that may influence the perceptions of one’s body image: they include one’s relationships with friends and families, the idealization by the media industry of unrealistic body types, cultural differences, health conditions, gender and many other factors, which are equally relevant in the Indian context.
The first two are arguably more significant than the others, since interactions with family and friends, with their notions of the perfect body, can strongly influence how we feel about ours. For instance, at a family gathering a few years ago, my uncle interrupted a conversation, saying in front of all our relatives: ‘leave all this, you tell me first, why did you gain so much weight?’ Such comments and questions are not only humiliating, they can shatter one’s self-confidence! Thankfully my education and the exposure I have gained from being part of several international conferences and discussions, have equipped me with how to handle such belittling comments. I however understand that not everyone has the same level of mental strength and resilience to deal with such situations without letting it affect them. I know some friends who have lost sleep over these kinds of statements.
The media industry also plays a very strong role in presenting a certain image as the ideal; Bollywood actors endorsing fairness creams for example, solidify the notion of beauty as being fair and thin. This is exacerbated by the messages young people receive on social media which promote unrealistic beauty standards, and create an undue pressure on them to match such standards. It is primarily impressionable young people who, often mentally unprepared, have to deal with this pressure. They end up drifting towards mal-adaptive strategies and this not only induces anxiety and low self-esteem, it also creates insecurities about their own capabilities.
Adult women of marriageable age are also an easy target for body shaming in India, where it is convenient for the family members and relatives to label excess weight and a dark complexion as potential obstacles to getting married. I have myself faced numerous comments and questions over the past couple of years, on my appearance, weight, skin texture etc., especially because I am getting close to the limits of“marriageable age”. ‘You already look so old and fat, no boy will choose you for marriage’, ‘your skin is losing its lustre, get married soon before you start getting wrinkles’ etc. (and fyi: I am not obese). Such disparaging comments do not only bring down an individuals’ self-esteem levels, they also make them feel unworthy of love and affection. It is truly surprising, how many people are willing to share their unsolicited advice, by the way!
This stereotypical notion of beauty and acceptance is so deeply imbibed in our minds and our cultures, that we need a paradigm shift to deal with these issues. It is high time, we as a society realize that neither the number on the weighing scale, the size of one’s waist, nor the color of one’s skin determines the beauty of an individual. Beauty in fact, is so much more than that.
The first step is to start having open discussions about these issues and start appreciating the natural beauty of the human body in all its variations. The media and advertising industry can play a huge role by using responsible marketing strategies that promote a positive body image and focus on highlighting and strengthening individuals’ skills rather than their outer appearances. This is not impossible, as is evidenced by the shift that is currently happening in Bollywood, where some actors have strongly refused to endorse fairness creams, declined offers to do item songs (where women are portrayed as sexual objects to be looked at and touched), spoken out against body shaming, and initiated open discussions about issues related to these (see for example: Miss Malini’s The Girl Tribe and Kareena Kapoor Khan’s Radio show What Women Want urging women to be unapologetically awesome). Having plus-size and transgender women as show-stoppers at the Lakmé Fashion Week gives another strong message on body positivity and a sign of hope for all the women out there. All these are, indeed, steps in the right direction; however, this is just the beginning and there is still a long way to go.
Along with responsible media behaviour, there is also a strong need to create awareness through public health education strategies and provide training from early childhood to positively influence children’s perceptions towards their bodies. Also schools, universities and workplaces need to be strict and adopt zero tolerance policies for bullying and discrimination of any kind, and focus on developing their skills and confidence levels. Teachers, parents and elders in the family can be role models for their children imbibing these principles in their early years of life. More emphasis should be placed on encouraging nutritional and healthy diets, rather than promoting extreme weight loss diet plans.
Last but not the least, we need to stop addressing this issue as “a third person”. This affects all of us, one way or another. So, we should stand up and support each other in this cause, do our bit in improving our own surroundings (home as well as workplace) in this regard, and contribute in creating a positive environment for the coming generations.