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Calls for action to build and promote positive body image

JANUARY 13, 2020

The UK Youth Parliament has been campaigning to bring about social change since 1999. Each year, following the Make Your Mark ballot and a vote by Members of Youth Parliament in the House of Commons, they set about campaigning on the most important issues for young people. Body image was raised as a key focus of campaigning in 2107 after thousands of young people highlighted it as a concern and it is great to see it as the theme of this years Mental Health Awareness Week. 

New research from the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) has found that young people feel ashamed of their bodies with imagery of “idealised” bodies on social media driving these insecurities and that young people have changed their eating habits in an effort to alter how they look. 

Although having body image concerns is a relatively common experience these results are alarming, particularly because body image anxiety can trigger self-harm and suicidal thoughts in teenagers and the findings have prompted calls for advertisements for weight loss and cosmetic surgery to be vetted and for social media firms to do more to prevent young people feeling bad about their bodies.

These findings are also backed up by a new report from the YMCA which highlights the pressure felt by young people to look their best and finds that 67 per cent regularly worry about the way they look.

The results of the research, published in a report The Curate Escape, found that because of this pressure, two-thirds of the 2,000 11- to 24-years-old surveyed said they often edit photos of themselves before posting them on social media. Common edits include removing blemishes, smoothing skin and whitening teeth. Some 11 per cent admitted that they edit pictures they post so much that they don't reflect what they normally look like in real life.

This online pressure affects the confidence of young people with only 16 per cent saying that looking at social media positively affected how confident they felt about the way they look.

The report was commissioned as part of YMCA's Be Real Campaign, which calls for a fightback against unrealistic beauty standards with social media influencers and advertisers being seen by young people as key to challenging this. Over half of the young people responding believed that if celebrities and influencers shared more realistic images of themselves it would encourage others to post content that more accurately reflect what they look like in real life.

In addition, 41 per cent said influencers who promote unhealthy products and behaviours to promote body confidence on their social media channels should be challenged, while 42 per cent said adverts should have to say when pictures have been airbrushed.

Clearly social media is a key factor in the growing numbers of teenagers needing care because they have anxiety and/or depression or they self-harm. The number of teenagers needing hospital treatment after trying to kill themselves has soared during the last decade, especially among girls and there are also concerns that many campaigns are targeted at women, overlooking other groups such as young men, LGBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) young people, ethnic minorities, and those with disabilities or serious illnesses. 

NHS England has called for social media firms to pay a levy to help fund mental healthcare for under-18s, to reflect the harmful impact their content can have and are concerned  that findings not only lay bare the scale of the problem but also clearly point to where teenagers say the blame should lie and call for industry and wider society to listen and act when teenagers say loudly that idealised body images, driven by social media, is fuelling mental ill-health in their generation.

The Mental Health Foundation also says that action is needed to build and promote positive body image and support good mental health and well being because everyone has a right to feel comfortable and confident in their own bodies. They highlight some key recommendations for:  

  • Effective regulation of how body image is portrayed. 
  • The need for commitment from social media companies to play a key role in promoting body kindness. 
  • Taking a public health approach to body image by training frontline health and education staff. 
  • Individually being more aware of how we can take care of ourselves and others in relation to body image.  

The full report is available here.


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