This year, Mental Health Awareness Week afforded us the chance to reflect on how we treat ourselves internally. Often, self-care is characterised as podcasts, bubble baths and expensive candles – and of course, we love all of these things. Sometimes, though, self-care means challenging those negative thought processes that sprout the roots of your bad days. It’s hard work to identify your own negative thoughts and patterns, let alone begin improving them, so we headed to UK Fast’s Wellness Festival to soak up some wisdom which we hoped would help us to make better choices mentally.
Our first talk was delivered by Emi Howe, a body image expert. We expected to learn about how we could improve our diet, which would improve our image, which would ultimately make us feel amazing.
Emi began by talking about her battle with breast cancer and how the intensive treatment and surgery altered her perception of her body. Through cancer, she realised that she didn’t have control over her body, and that she ever really had. It got her thinking about the relationship that she’s had with her body throughout her life.
A few years before, Emi had gone on holiday with a group of her friends. When they arrived, before everyone started getting into full blown holiday mode, Emi made an announcement.
‘Right everyone’, she said, ‘We are all going to have an amazing time in this gorgeous villa with this glorious sunshine. We are absolutely not going to get our swimsuits on and start comparing ourselves to one another and feeling awful.’
It’s a kind of refreshing positivity that comes with a level of honed confidence that most of us could only dream of. So it was as much of a surprise to Emi as the rest of us when she told us about her feeling of disgust towards the end of the holiday when she stumbled across an unflattering image of herself that someone else had taken.
‘Delete it!’ She shrieked, horrified by the reflection of herself that she saw through everyone else’s eyes.
The truth is that the picture wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t amazingly flattering, but how many pictures out of the 1000s that we take of ourselves actually are? It was just a picture of her, slightly slouched, after a long week of partying.
The truth is that there wasn’t any pressure on Emi to look her best at this exact moment. She began explaining the process of her self-acceptance to us – beginning with the realisation that imperfection is totally and completely normal.
She implored us all to ask ourselves, ‘Do I like myself?’
It’s a deep and personal (and often painful) question, and one that you have to sit with for a while before you come to any honest conclusion.
The truth is that if you don’t feel good about yourself then you don’t feel good full stop. It’s really difficult to enjoy life when deep down, you don’t believe that you’re good enough. So really, it’s worth doing the work to accept yourself just to get to a place where you can enjoy life more. Ultimately, the only task that your body has to do is organise your thoughts and feelings into a long and meaningful life – for you and your people, not the whole world.
There’s a longstanding stigma that female beauty marketing is the best in the world, but Emi argues that fitness and beauty marketing in general holds the golden ticket. What better way to make people spend money than to convince them that they’re ugly and sell them the solution?
In general, we aren’t encouraged to be loyal or respectful to our bodies. Comparative social media habits and celebrity culture convince us that we should always strive for the ideal body type. Emi divulged that actually 95% of women cannot genetically achieve the ideal thin woman figure. The standard is out of reach – and that’s what keeps us buying.
Our kneejerk reaction when we realised that Emi was trying to convince us to put less effort into conditioning our bodies was that we were teetering on the edge of encouraging unhealthy habits, but she quickly quashed that.
‘Educating people to be OK with their bodies isn’t the same as encouraging obesity. You’re three times more likely to be obese as an adult if you diet as a child – and the truth is that if you know that your body shape is normal then you don’t feel the need to change it’
‘I’m an advocate for protective filtering, which means that you start to notice when adverts are nonsense. It’s something that you have to practice, but individuals with a positive body image have been found to exercise it. It means that you start to notice when you’re being competitive and comparing yourself to people who aren’t real. Remember that basing your feelings on an image that came from a computer or a phone just isn’t real, and noticing that can be helpful.’
This made us think about the advertising that we come across on a day to day basis; on social media, on websites, and bus stops. Do brands knowingly play on human insecurity and our competitive nature to convince us to part with our money, even though the neither diet pills, the toning belt, the tights with extra support for your stomach nor the protein bars will ultimately make that much of a difference?
And what can we actually do about this? It seems that brands are making a conscious effort to incorporate more diversity into their aesthetic, but they just don’t seem to know how – one plus size model in a group of toned size 8s just doesn’t cut it. Ultimately, the landscape of advertising needs to change to reflect the widest scope of consumers – and not just aesthetically. More consumers need to that they feel as though it’s for them.
But until that happens, we need to be proactive in recognising when we are feeling awful because we are competing with an image of a person who not even the model in the picture can compete with.