Why is Body Confidence Worthy of a Public Health Campaign?

HOLLI RUBIN Msw, MBPsS – Psychotherapist, Body Image Specialist

Why is Body Confidence Worthy of a Public Health Campaign?

If you ask me, I’ve been on my own body confidence campaign for over 35 years – long before the term had entered the public consciousness and well before awareness grew of the link between body confidence and maintaining a healthy relationship with food. I am very excited to have witnessed how we as a society are beginning to change and notice how important body confidence is in living our lives more freely.

The Government-backed Body Confidence Week is set to take place next week, October 13th-17th 2014. One of Body Confidence Week’s initiatives is an Awards event recognizing brands, organizations and individuals who have positively contributed to healthy body image. The Body Confidence Awards will take place on October 16th at The House of Commons, hosted by Caroline Nokes MP who has chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image that I am part of, for the past few years. The very fact that there is an entire week dedicated to body confidence, demonstrates the importance and gravity of this topic today.

I was asked to be a member of a panel to judge the nominees for The Body Confidence Awards. As I sat in a room with other experts representing organizations all involved with body image and it’s impacts, like Girl Guiding UK, UKactive, Central YMCA, Unilever and The Centre for Appearance Research, we all tried to articulate what exactly we wanted the Awards to represent. In comparison with the 2012 event, which was Body Confidence Award’s first year, the amount of nominees and panel experts have grown by more than 50%. This all demonstrates the growing momentum behind the Body Confidence movement. People are waking up to the critical role it plays in the disruption of healthy living.

Body Image is a complex phenomenon and affects us all on so many different levels.
At first glance, we are our bodies.
We are evaluated on what we look like in that moment in time.
We are who we appear to be.
But what happens when we connect or engage with someone? There is another opportunity to get to know beyond or beneath appearance. That requires time and in our “time poor” lives, this proves challenging. We are bombarded by visual imagery and are forced to make judgements instantaneously. It is where we are seeing men and women, boys and girls portrayed in very unrealistic terms…
So… if you do not fit the very narrow beauty ideal well… too bad! Out goes the job, the date, the opportunity, the account!

Well that is how it used to be but actually we have found a way around that too. If you don’t fit, you can change that! Once again Technology has facilitated this and through our smart phones we can all be the masters of our own trickery as we photoshop our pictures to fit more with what we think others want to see, never minding what we actually feel about how we look.
Is changing how we look the answer? For whom are we making these changes? Hopefully, through public awareness, we are beginning to widen the beauty ideal to include more than our current stereotype- of 5’10 blond, 26’ inch waist… because I have a secret to share with you and I want you to share this secret… the average size in the UK is a 16!!!.This is a secret because there is shame around that number, that size. Shame because it does not fit with the fashion industry’s warped perception of who they are dressing. That is why All Walks Beyond the Catwalk exists to disband these myths by rewriting the Fashion curriculum and changing the thinking of big business to incorporate a variety of mannequin sizes to realistically represent the people buying their clothing. That is what Susie Orbach, a feminist activist and myself, a body image psychotherapist are doing by lobbying government to make them listen to what 5 year old girls are feeling when they are saying their bodies are fat. When charities like Endangered Bodies are relentlessly pushing government to help support mothers during pregnancy so they can freely attach to their babies and provide them with the security and care their lives depend on. When Shape Your Culture, an off shoot of AnyBody and Endangered Bodies is tirelessly approaching schools to engage with young girls to explore creatively who they are and how they feel about their bodies and to hook them in enough so they can become activists and change the world they live in. And it is why Dove continues to fund the self esteem project they began over 10 years ago….

This is all happening now and that for me shows that we are in a state of positive change. However, behind my door, I see parents who tell me their 13 year old daughter is fussy with food so much so that she cannot focus in school, or my client who has a 1 year old and sneaks around waiting for the nanny to leave so she can throw up in the bathroom before her husband comes home, or a woman who is still trying to get over her sons traumatic birth… 11 years ago and restricts her food believing that this will undo the guilt she has for having an emergency c-section. I can tell you that, ‘yes we are changing’ but these issues run deep and we have a long way to go.

Body Confidence is a pressing concern that we must address, so we don’t lose a handle on another generation
– so we can give women and girls their bodies to live in
– so we can learn to love food and listen to our appetites
– so we can stop punishing ourselves for not eating the right thing
– so we can begin to recognise that skinny is not a sign that all is well, the same way that obesity is a sign that all is unwell
– so we can quiet the voices in our heads and begin to live the lives we were meant to
– so we can stop wasting time and energy on the ‘achievement’ of being skinny but rather focus on the positive goal of body confidence

Body Confidence and how we feel about how we look is anything but trivial….. So on October 16th, when I am sitting in the House of Commons amongst like-minded positive Body Image advocates, I will celebrate each and every nominee and winner but more than their personal awards, I will celebrating that the platform now exists to support the change that is so desperately needed and to continue to educate people about why Body Confidence matters so much!