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The importance of body confidence

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Dr Sarah Riley

Senior Lecturer and body image researcher in Aberystwyth University’s Psychology Department

As part of the body confidence campaign, Senior Lecturer and body image researcher in Aberystwyth University’s Psychology Department Dr Sarah Riley explains why body confidence is such an important issue.

Body confidence is a serious issue. We know that people who feel comfortable within their own bodies tend to have good mental and physical health; they engage fully with the world, take opportunities and have aspirations.
Yet, a significant number of men and women of all age groups suffer low body confidence. This translates into a range of negative psychological and behavioural patterns. For example, children with poor body image don’t put their hand up to answer questions in class for fear of being looked at.
Poor body image has a price not only for mental health, but also for society at large: worrying about how they look stops people from reaching their potential and fully participating in society. To spell it out for
those who focus on the bottom line: poor body image is bad for the economy.
But here’s the good news: we have reached a tipping point. Enough people are pushing back to start making change happen. People from different backgrounds and spheres of influence are working to create evidence-based change.
For example, advertising agency Credos, pretty as a picture project showed advertisers that their target demographic was put off by airbrushing; retailers such as Debenhams and M&S have increased the mannequin sizes in their stores widening the diversity of idealised body shapes their customers can see; and school intervention programmes such as those by Body Gossip are helping young people to critically engage with consumer culture and make personal choices around appearance that feel empowering.
The Government’s body confidence campaign has played a significant role in this momentum. Recently it hosted an academic seminar on body confidence, which was attended by leading academics from the UK, Australia, Canada and the US. I was invited to give the gender and cultural studies perspective, along with Ben Barry (business and economic perspective), Dianne Newmark-Sztainer (public health perspective) and Susan Paxton (psychology perspective). (Click here for our accompanying written reports).
Jo Swinson MP (Minister for Women and Equalities) co-chaired the event with Phillippa Diedrichs (Centre for Appearance Research, University of West of England). Highlights of the talks included Susan Paxton’s explanation of the risk factors associated with poor body image and her call for understanding body image as a complex issue that spans biology, psychology and culture – what’s known as a ‘biopsychosocial’ approach.
I followed this by suggesting advantages to thinking of body image not as an individual ‘thing’ fixed inside someone’s head, but as a dynamic between a person, their relationships and the social context around them; an approach that helps us develop interventions that avoid unhelpful individual judgement and blame.
Diane Newmark-Sztainer then reported research which shows that public health campaigns that use body shaming do not help weight loss – quite the reverse – overweight young people who felt their bodies were a problem were fatter five years later than their counterparts with more body confidence. Her work suggests that body confidence is a protective factor against obesity.
Finally, Ben Barry showcased work that demonstrated that retail would benefit economically from using models that reflect their target demographic rather than reproduce a limited view of beauty as thin and white.
Read more for details on the presentations and debates that ensued.

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