Body image is a subject that has a vice-like grip on society. You only have to glance at the media to see that we’re obsessed with the way we look, and that it’s making us incredibly unhappy. This year alone the BBC has reported that children as young as five have a negative view of their bodies, while the Observer Magazine stated that a growing number of people in their 70s and 80s are also concerned about their appearance. According to one university research centre, 90% of British women feel body-image anxiety, and latest figures suggest cosmetic surgery rates have increased by nearly 20% since 2008.
Sadly, in all too many cases, this unhappiness leads to a serious and dangerous illness such as bulimia or anorexia, the latter of which affects one in 100 women aged between 15 and 30. Ruth Cumming was one of them. Overweight at school, she was subjected to name calling and bullying as a teenager and decided that dieting was the only way to stop the taunts.
A deadly addiction
‘It started off fine, but by the time I was taking my A-levels at nearly 18 I was underweight and the diet had become an addiction,’ says Ruth, who is now 28 and lives in Cambridge. ‘I went to university to study languages and got on fine – still underweight but stable – until I went on my placement year abroad. I was homesick and depressed and I ended up in hospital as my body almost gave up on me. I came back home and was admitted to an eating disorders clinic where I was finally diagnosed with anorexia.’
Though it was a slow process, Ruth gradually recovered and finally reached a healthy weight shortly before she got pregnant with her first child in 2010. She and her husband are now expecting their second child, and Ruth believes having a family has changed her perspective. ‘Before I was very much driven by work,’ she says. ‘I was a workaholic and that went hand in hand with the control of the anorexia. Now because life is about looking after my toddler and having a different perspective, I don’t feel I have to control my life any more. God has a plan for me and I’m not in control of that.’
Ruth was one of the lucky ones. Many more women – and men – never recover, with eating disorders having a mortality rate of approximately 10% in the UK. But tackling the problem is difficult, not least because there are so many contributing factors. For Ruth, it was bullying that tipped her over the edge, but there are many other considerations.
Who’s to blame?
‘We can be influenced at an incredibly early age, by what we hear as well as what we see,” says Wendy Haslam, a member of the Association of Christian Counsellors, who has helped many clients deal with these issues. ‘I always link body image in with self-esteem, whether that self-esteem is good or bad, it’s about how people see themselves. There’s enormous peer group pressure which comes through magazines, adverts, and just generally through people around you. For example, young girls often get unhelpful body image messages from their mothers.’
The media is one influence that has long been blamed for building unrealistic expectations of how we should look.
From air-brushed adverts to the catwalk shots of size 0 models that will saturate the press during London Fashion Week this autumn, being bombarded with bodies that do not reflect a healthy or realistic norm can be incredibly damaging.
‘None of us quite know what is “normal”,’ says Wendy. “What is the ideal body? What was normal in the 1940s isn’t “normal” now. If you look at Body Mass Index (BMI), it places most models very much in the anorexic category.’
In fact models 20 years ago weighed about 8% less than the average; now they weigh about 23% less. It’s a distortion that can have a powerful influence, with some extremists going as far as to set up what are known as “thinspiration” websites glorifying super skinny celebrities as glamorous and advocating emaciation as a laudable goal.
Anorexia sufferer Emma Scrivener says: ‘You won’t find the real face of an eating disorder in the fashion pages. Or on the TV. You might think you see it there – but the reality is too disturbing to show.
‘Look in the glossies and it can seem like starvation is where it’s really at. As Kate Moss reportedly commented, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. What’s a few ribs between friends, eh? After all, there’s nothing sexier than brittle bones, heart failure, bad breath and enough body hair to shame a coconut. Eating disordered? Me? Of course not; I just ‘work out’. .. (Morning, noon and evening). On a diet? No! I eat what I like. ..(As long as it’s cabbage. And since you see me rather than smell me, you’ll be none the wiser). When I do break down, it’s because I’m ‘exhausted’, not addicted. And you’ll never see the real cost of my size zero perfection.
The truth is, you feel in control – but you’re utterly enslaved. Every day, your world shrinks along with your body. You’re not powerful or superhuman. You’re scared and isolated and lonely. You’re killing yourself but you don’t know how to stop.
Glamorous? You must be joking’.
Fearfully and wonderfully made
Allie Marie Smith is the award-winning American author of HEAL: Healthy Eating & Abundant Living. Having struggled with eating disorders and poor body image as a child, she went on to found Wonderfully Made, a US-based non-profit ministry dedicated to inspiring young women to know their value and live ‘outward-focused’ lives.
She says, ‘I love the C.S. Lewis’ quote: “You don’t have a soul, you have a body; you are a soul,”’ she says. ‘We live in a culture that overvalues and undervalues the human body, and even within the Church the biblical view of the body is rarely explored or taught. In addition to living an outward-focused and service-centric life, cultivating a spiritual approach to one’s body based on what scripture teaches is one of the most healing things a girl or woman who has experienced poor body image can do. While there are dozens of verses that teach us God’s truth about our bodies, the reality is it’s a topic most people aren’t familiar with – it’s usually distorted or completely ignored.’
Knowing that we are, as Psalm 139 says, ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, is an important step towards understanding our bodies as part of the greater whole that is each one of us. The key is to find a good balance: live a healthy lifestyle including healthy eating and exercise, look after your body and make the most of it, but don’t forget that how you look is only one part of who you are.’