"A way to be happier without changing anything at all…"

Insight from Dr Keon West introduces a themed trawl of our archive for Mental Health Awareness Week.

This year, Mental Health Awareness Week is focused on body image. We asked Dr Keon West (Goldsmiths, University of London) what psychologists can do for body image.

"We now live at a time when most people aren't happy with the way they look. Comparing themselves to ‘health’ magazines and Instagram, women think that their bellies are too big, and men think that their arms are too small. With the rising availability of idealised pornography, both men and women are increasingly dissatisfied with their genitals. Perhaps most frightening, more teenagers and young people are also suffering from the same insecurities.

Annoyingly, we also live in a world where the widely available strategies for feeling better about ourselves seem to focus on paying for something. We have to sign up to the latest fad diet, or purchase this season's slimming trends, or change our hair, our make-up, our gym membership, or our very skin. As Caroline Caldwell pointed out, ‘In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a revolutionary act’.

As psychologists we have the knowledge and power (and so, dare I say, the responsibility?) to point people to better ways of being happy and healthy within themselves. That's part of why I'm really pleased about my recent publication in the Journal of Happiness Studies* and the television show that came from it – Naked Beach. I won't spoil the details of either, but the take-home message from both is that communal nudity with other regular people (call it nudism or naturism if you like) makes people feel better about their bodies and themselves.

It's a radical finding in many ways. The least radical thing about it is the nakedness itself, though I do understand that many people would be reluctant to strip off in front of strangers. The most radical thing is that it gives people a solution to their body confidence issues that doesn't require them to look any different or to buy anything at all. That is one of the most powerful things psychology can offer: a way to be happier without changing anything at all, except our perspective.”

 

We’ve collected pieces from our archive on the theme of mental health and body image, and our favourite content from across the web.

From The Psychologist

‘Surgeons are crying out for people to work with them’

Our journalist Ella Rhodes speaks to Alex Clarke and Nichola Rumsey about aesthetic plastic surgery, including the risk of poor outcomes for those with body image dissatisfaction.

Taking up space – pregnancy in public

Harriet Gross on how medical, reproductive and communication technologies have changed women’s embodied experiences.

When a body meets a body: fat enters the consulting room

We run an exclusive chapter from ‘The Fat Lady Sings’ by Cheryl Fuller, on her experiences of thin gaze from therapists.

The body as a barrier

Nadia Craddock reviews ‘Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body’ by Roxane Gay.

Short-term exercise boosts body image without making any physical difference

Christian Jarrett, editor of the Research Digest, on how exercise can improve body image satisfaction.

 

Our special issue on psychology and visible difference (2008) included the following features:

Psychology and visible difference

Diana Harcourt and Nichola Rumsey introduce the psychosocial impact of visible difference and the role of psychologists.

Helping people with an unusual appearance

Esther Hansen and Alex Clarke on what clinical psychologists can offer.

Psychosocial adjustments to visible difference

Tim Moss and Ben Rosser examine outcomes and explanations.

"Don't worry... it's the inside that counts"

James Partridge and Adam Pearson give personal perspectives on visible difference.

Elsewhere

Body image – a key to better mental health

Mark Rowland, Mental Health Foundation CEO, explains why body image was chosen as 2019’s big theme for Mental Health Awareness Week.

Appearance Matters: The Podcast!

The official podcast of the University of the West of England’s Centre for Appearance Research, hosted by Nadia Craddock and Jade Parnell, covering a wide range of topics including burn injuries, social media and eating disorders.

Can body image problems affect our mental health?

BBC. A short film exploring the impact of body dysmorphia.

Why is women’s body image anxiety at such devastating levels?

The Guardian. Laura Bates on body confidence campaigns missing the point.

Virtual issue: Body image

A collection of articles (free for May 2019) on body image from the British Psychological Society journals.

*West, K. (2018). Naked and unashamed: Investigations and applications of the effects of naturist activities on body image, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 19(3), 677-697.

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