This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week carried the theme of body image. Here, public health marketing officer Hannah Scorer shares her experiences.
As the person who looks after public health communications, I was tasked with writing on this difficult subject. One of the key rules of comms is to never make yourself the story (there are other, much more important rules on things like the necessity of coffee and the correct number of spaces after a full-stop, but they’re not relevant here), but I’ve decided to make an exception, partly because it would have felt disingenuous to write about this without talking about the issues I’ve had over the years, partly because being a case study is much easier than getting someone else to agree to being one and there are dog videos on YouTube which aren’t going to watch themselves.
My anxiety about my weight began when I was 19 and at university, and I started restricting calories and skipping meals. There were a number of reasons my relationship with food and my body became problematic and part of that was, unquestionably, the way I saw women’s bodies talked about, sexualised, criticised and discussed in the media. I remember reading as a ‘tip’ in some magazine which should have been called ‘Women: however you look, it’s wrong!’ which suggested following Baywatch star Pamela Anderson’s method of brushing her teeth instead of eating when she felt hungry. It’s unfathomable to me now that this message – that you should ignore your body and starve yourself – was printed. But at the time, I took in on board and stored it away for future use. And I did use it, often.
Over the next 15 years, I had periods when I generally felt okay about myself. But that dissenting voice of self-criticism was always there. I shouldn’t wear this thing. My thighs were too big for that. I couldn’t bare the tops of my arms, because they were flabby. All of this was always fed and confirmed by everything I saw everywhere about women’s bodies. Online, on TV, in magazines, in shops, from the mouths of my friends, my colleagues and myself.
In 2017, after a stressful period including a divorce, adapting to sharing parenting and the shock of things like having to pay all the bills and it always being my turn to take the bin out, I started seriously restricting food and over-exercising. It was a friend who pointed out I’d barely touched a meal the night before and had a meltdown over an avocado being included in a breakfast smoothie and that things might not be okay.
For whatever reason, I took him seriously, despite the fact I’d known for a while things weren’t okay. I took some time off work, saw a therapist, told people what was going on and (eventually) started taking meds to help deal with the anxiety.
Two years on, the issues haven’t gone away, but they are better. I am better at dealing with them. That voice still tells me I’m too fat and I shouldn’t eat that, but I know how to make sure it isn’t the loudest voice. I still worry if I’m out of my exercise routine, but I can take days off and the exercise I do – yoga and climbing – is because I like the skill and challenge of it rather than balancing an equation in burning calories. Rather than take on board those messages in the media which tell women we need to change, I am angry with them. Raging.
The thing I have learned, and continue to learn, is that how we talk about bodies matters. It matters desperately, and nothing is more important than being kind. To others and to ourselves. We are all so much more than the flesh on our bones. Bin garbage magazines telling us to change, bin diet teas and pills and influencers talking about how they lost weight. Bin shape-wear and diet culture and calorie-counting. Bin everything that reduces us to a number on a scale. It’s all cancelled.
What isn’t cancelled is talking. If you’re struggling, talk. If you think someone you care about is struggling, ask them if they want to talk. Talk loudly and at every opportunity about the fact that our value is so much more than our bodies.
It can help. And for me, eventually, it did.