Body Brilliant is published today! And it has it’s first proper review and what a wonderful one from unsurpassed children’s books expert, Joy Court, on LoveReading4Schools, where it’s also a staff pick of the month. I’m launching it at Haggerston School, which I’ll write about later.
It’s a deep and detailed book, covering really important topics. Here are ten core points that I hope come out of it, singing loud and clear. (There are more than ten in the book! Quite a lot more…)
- Body image is not what we look like: it’s what we think we look like and what we think about what we think we look like. It’s our opinion of and feelings about our appearance, and can include height, weight, shape, colour, hair, age, whether we look (or think we look) healthy; and can include specific features such as hands, ears, eyes, hair, and visible differences such as scarring, birthmarks, asymmetry, limb differences and all the many variations in human bodies.
2. Our body image is usually not accurate. Most people (possibly all people) do not see themselves exactly as others see them. Even people with a positive body image tend to see themselves as larger than they are. (There are some cultural differences, as shown by research.)
3. Positive body image is when our mental picture is both fairly accurate and fairly positive; if there are any bits of our bodies that we don’t like, we don’t agonise over this. Negative body image is when our mental picture is very distorted, negatively, and we spend a lot of time wishing we looked different. We may also act on that desire, restricting food and/or over-exercising. That’s why it’s important to build a good relationship with our body and have a sufficiently positive body image.
4. People of all ages can have a negative body image and very many adults feel bad about their bodies. Parents can often pass their negative messages to their children, by unwittingly making comments about their own dissatisfaction. Teenagers may be more vulnerable than adults because they are going through so many physical changes and there are many pressures to be thin or muscled or both.
5. Body image suffers from the ideals people (often unknowingly) set themselves. Those ideals are strongly affected by the culture we live in and the images we are surrounded by, which may be different for different groups of people in different parts of the world and over different generations and centuries. There is no fixed idea or definition of beauty or physical perfection. If we are surrounded by thin people or images, we are likely to think that we are larger and we are more likely to desire to be thinner. If our idols are a certain shape, that’s the shape we set ourselves as an ideal. (Of course, many of us manage to avoid slavishly following these models – and arguably our mental health depends on how well we manage to avoid it.)
6. The media have a strong role and online media even more so than printed media because they’re so ubiquitous. Spending too much time looking at celebrity idols online – and setting too much store by imitating them – is highly likely to lower self-esteem, raise narcissism, raise perfection-seeking, raise the desire for cosmetic surgery and increases the likelihood of disordered eating and disordered exercising.
But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking it’s all worse nowadays: when I was growing up there was Jackie magazine etc and the body-shaming in such places seems really obvious to our eyes today. Nowadays, however, the likelihood is that you are seeing far more repeated messages than I saw in printed magazines. And today’s body-shaming culture online is perhaps more via visual images (lots of thin women and muscled men) than by overt plot-lines or dialogue in magazines or stories.
7. Body Dysmorphic Disorder describes an anxiety disorder where a person strongly and wrongly believes that there is something very ugly about their body. This dominates their thinking and often makes them seek solutions either by dieting, exercising or surgery. Cosmetic surgeons should (but don’t) always screen for BDD because BDD sufferers are almost never helped by cosmetic surgery. BDD is a mental disorder, not one that can be helped by surgery.
8. Many people with eating disorders have a very negative body image but one thing does not necessarily cause the other. Eating disorders are very complicated mental illnesses and body image is only a part of the picture. Disordered eating – which is different from eating disorders and describes a general set of negative and controlling behaviours around food, such as restriction and rituals – is strongly linked to negative body image, however. So improving our body image – how we feel about how we look, not how we look – is really important in the context of a healthy relationship with food. A healthy relationship with food is critical, not an over-focus on “healthy eating”.
9. We should give our bodies the food, water, exercise, sleep, care and respect they need – because that’s how we give them the power to give us the power to live our lives and do all we want to do. So, do the right things for your body not because you want to look a certain way but because you want your body to be powerful, fit, strong and as healthy as it can be.
10. We can improve our body image! I’ll write about that in more detail over the coming months (and, of course, I offer lots of tips in Body Brilliant) but here’s my Body Brilliant pledge to start you off:
- My body is brilliant because of what it can do, not how it looks
- I value character, actions and ambitions more than looks
- I choose only to follow positive role models
- I will give my body the food, exercise, sleep and care it needs to be brilliant
- If someone insults me, they lower themselves, not me.
I have free teaching notes here. And a poster of tips, perfect for classrooms or bedroom walls, here.
The book is full of ideas, inspiration, science, advice, actions and lots of personal quotes and stories from people of all ages. You’ll find chapters on media, adolescence, eating disorders, dysmorphia, gender, sexuality and a whole huge section on actually looking after your brilliant body. Do read it!