What do you see when you look in the mirror?
Many of us, it seems, don’t like what we see in our reflections. More than 80% of women are unhappy with their bodies and would like to be thinner, and 75% are dissatisfied with the size of their breasts. Meanwhile, more than 50% of men would like to be more muscular and toned.
These are the findings of Professor Viren Swami, a social psychologist who’s dedicated his academic career to finding out why so many of us are unhappy with our bodies. He is worried that negative body image has reached epic proportions.
“It is now normal to be discontented with your appearance, says Viren. “If you’re completely satisfied with your appearance you’re in a small minority.”
Viren is quick to highlight that body image is different from body size.
“It’s about how we perceive, feel and think about our own bodies: a mental picture that we paint about ourselves. This picture may not bear any relationship to how other people actually see us.
“Our attitudes towards our bodies are subject to all kinds of influences, such as our emotions, early experiences, the attitudes of our parents and peers, and images that we see in the media.”
Since 2015, Viren has been working on different approaches to promote a healthier body image. As a society, he says, we’re not paying enough attention to this issue – which goes much further than a superficial dissatisfaction with appearance.
“Negative body image is a massive public health concern,” says Viren. “It is probably the strongest predictor of disordered eating. People with negative body image are also much more likely to consider risky cosmetic surgery, they’re more likely to withdraw from social and sexual relationships and they’re more likely to have higher rates of depression.”
To further his point, Viren describes a collaborative project he’s leading with researchers from 40 different countries around the globe. The Breast Size Satisfaction Survey will be asking 16,000 women how they feel about their breasts. The aim is simple: to try and reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer by making women feel happier about their breasts.
Viren’s pioneering research in the UK has already shown that 75% of British women are unhappy with their breasts. The same study also showed that women who aren’t happy with their breasts are less likely to examine themselves for signs of breast cancer – and they are also less likely to see a doctor if they do find any abnormalities.
“The reason why this matters is because British women have some of the highest rates of mortality from breast cancer in Europe,” says Viren. “Helping women to be more satisfied with their breasts should result in better breast awareness, which would hopefully in turn result in lower mortality.”
So how can we help people, in general, to appreciate their bodies more?
Over the past few years, Viren’s research has shown that activities including dance and even life drawing classes can help to promote positive body image. The important thing is appreciating what your body can do.
“I weight train and do CrossFit now, which I enjoy because it’s much more about what your body is doing functionally rather than just focusing on aesthetics,” says Viren. “I’m much more mindful of my own body and have a better awareness of its strengths and limitations.”
More recently, Viren’s work with colleagues at Perdana University in Malaysia and University College London has revealed that spending time in nature has an immediate effect on promoting a healthier body image.
“There are a number of reasons why that might be,” he argues. “One theory is that spending time in nature gives you what we call ‘cognitive quiet’. It removes you from urban pressures, where you’re more likely to worry about what you look like. Just spending time in nature gives you the space and tools to be more mindful and respectful of your body.”
And if you’re a city dweller whose environment is more concrete jungle than bucolic idyll? Viren’s research suggests that simply looking at images of nature can be just as beneficial. He is collaborating with ARU’s StoryLab research institute to create short film clips showing first-person walks through nature.
“If this does work, and we think it will, you have a very simple intervention for promoting positive body image among people who don’t have easy access to green space.”
In today’s body-conscious, selfie-saturated age, Viren believes his latest research might hold the key to helping us all feel more positive about one very important thing. Ourselves.
Prof Viren Swami is Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University.