Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week took place from 13-19 May 2019. The theme this year was Body Image – how we think and feel about our bodies. An interesting topic for me, as it has been something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

We are all intimately aware of our own bodies; every little detail, every strength, every flaw, every scar, freckle and curve.  Our bodies are innately and impossibly complex. They are impressive as well as beautiful. However, our bodies are often sources of distress, shame and pain. From childhood, we are bombarded with images that define what an ‘ideal body’ looks like. Friends can use how we look as a way to put us down for a laugh. Even family members can make you feel ashamed of how you look, even if they mean to be kind.

As some readers may know, I have a history of self harm and bulimia, and the image I have of my own body isn’t the highest. I’ve always felt like my body wasn’t small enough/big enough/strong enough/’something’ enough. When I was in high school, I first started to be aware, and ashamed, of my body. I was very tall, I still am very tall, so I physically stood out from everyone else. I was also quite an early developer, and when my body began to change from a young girls to a young woman’s, people started to look at me differently. There were boys, and girls, who compared the developing bodies of my friends and classmates with my own, and it made me so self conscious. I thought I needed to look like someone else. Even when I got my first boyfriend, I was convinced I needed to look different to look better. I didn’t see myself as beautiful. This developed when I went to boarding school where, to me, everyone was beautiful and elegant. Everything I was not. But I learned that other young girls, girls younger than me and girls my age also felt the same way. And I became the person that these girls often came to talk to.

See, in my opinion, everyone is looking for reassurance. As I grew up, and I made new friends, strengthen old ones and went to new places, the people I met all had their own self esteem issues. Everyone felt there was something ‘wrong’ with their body, at one point or another. Even the most confident, the people who I admired, had some moments of self doubt, of self consciousness. But it never reassured my own self doubt. I never once thought “but I think these people are beautiful, they’re gorgeous, maybe the idealised standards of beauty are wrong. Maybe people don’t need to look a particular way to be beautiful.” If anything, it fuelled it. I thought, that these thoughts were right because other people felt the same way too.

The Mental Health Foundation explains “we have internalised a sense of SHOULD when it comes to our bodies.  It is as if we each have our own internal GIF on a loop reinforcing what the ideal looks like.” No matter if your’e male, female, gender-fluid, gay, straight, bi-sexual, pan-sexual, asexual, Christian, Muslim, Atheist or anything else. Our minds are filled with ‘should’s. Body image as an issue that cuts across gender, age, sexuality and ethnicity and it is closely linked with mental well-being and mental health.  

The M.H.F. also note how Western philosophers have influenced how we think about the separation of the body and mind. However, these ideals have been proved to be anything but opposite. The evidence provided by the M.H.F. definitively shows that a holistic view about the inter-relatedness of our bodies and minds is vital to achieve a healthier population.

And while the M.H.F.’s data is based on UK information, this information can be used as a guideline for how we can help to change attitudes on self-image around the world. I currently live in South Korea. In the Republic of Korea, there remains a tremendous amount of pressure about idealised standards of beauty. Even the nature of ones eyelids can determine whether one is deemed to be attractive or unattractive in the eyes of society. Plastic surgery is a popular gift for young women for significant birthdays or for graduation gifts, and k-beauty products are becoming the go-to cosmetic products around the world.

While I stood out in High School, here in Korea I stick out even more. Even if I were to drop all the way back down to the size I was as a teenager, I’d still look different. But would that mean I wasn’t beautiful? Does that mean I’m not beautiful now? I don’t look like a model, or a famous celebrity. I look like me, because that’s who I am. And, I can admire myself, without it being vain or arrogant, and I can see beauty in who I am. My body, my skin, my face, everything, tells the story of me.

So even though this years Mental Health awareness week may be over, lets not stop working on our own self image. And lets work towards building up the self image of others. Self image and self esteem are one of the hardest things to build up, and one of the easiest things to knock down. I’m making it my personal goal to love my body more, and to not be ashamed of looking ‘airbrushed’ and ‘perfect’. I’d rather look like me.