Reclaiming Summer: thoughts on body image and mental health

Late spring to early summer is my favourite time of year. I love the outpouring of delicate blossoms, the tender green of new leaves, the emergence of warmth and light.  The whispers of sea and sand presaging holidays in the sun.

There is, however, a downside to the changing of the seasons. I have memories that are still triggered by the scent of newly-mown grass or the first day it’s too hot to wear a coat. The dread of having to shed the black tights and school blazer I wore all winter in favour of compulsory cotton ankle socks and short-sleeved blouses. The fear of flesh being exposed by wearing shorts for athletics.

It wasn’t always like that. As a child I loved running around the garden in a sun dress and sandals or splashing in the paddling pool in my swimming costume. It was a delight to embrace the fine weather and rid myself of thick, itchy fabrics and clumpy shoes.

That unselfconscious joy ended some time before my early teens. Maybe it was the first time I walked in a dress past a gang of cool kids, who gave me a sarcastic wolf-whistle before collapsing with laughter. Or the first time I got abuse in the street for being an ugly fat slag. Or when friends said, “no offence, but you don’t have the legs to wear that skirt.”

I often think about that phrase: you don’t have the legs. Since I do have legs, as well as the privilege of being able to use them, it clearly referred to an aesthetic judgement of them. Back then I assumed that others’ opinions were more important than my physical comfort. I hid in jeans and long sleeves through sweltering heatwaves, not for reasons of modesty or faith, but for shame at not being blessed with ‘perfect’ limbs. Summer, I concluded, wasn’t for me.

The irony is that medically I was never even overweight. I was/am a UK size 12 and well within the ‘healthy’ BMI range. But this was the early 90s when models and cool celebrities strived to be size zero, surviving on cocaine and cigarettes, because nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. We were bombarded with airbrushed images and the vicious tabloid scrutiny of women’s changing figures, not to mention a dieting industry reliant on us hating ourselves enough to buy their products. None of which has changed.

I realise now that body-shaming is a means of abuse and coercive control. If you call a woman fat, whatever her size, the majority of the time you’ll be rewarded with an emotional reaction. Humiliating us helps to diminish our power. It makes us want to shrink and be small, fearing to take up space or be visible. And although fat-shaming is disproportionately directed at women, there’s increasing evidence that the same issues are affecting men.

Our appearance influences our economic prospects too. In a competitive consumerist system where jobs must be fought for, looks are part of our social capital. People perceived as unfit or unattractive are routinely discriminated against in the workplace and elsewhere. According to one study a woman just a stone heavier earns an income of £1,500 less per year than a thinner woman of the same height.

The constant pressure to improve our natural selves takes a toll on our mental health and confidence. Food or exercise-related disorders are the obvious result, but poor self-image is also a factor in depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. It’s not all about weight either: we can fall short of the ‘ideal’ body in a multitude of ways: strength, muscularity, the appearance of our skin, the thickness of our hair, and more.

Body image isn’t a brand-new issue facing a younger generation. When I was growing up, even those who weren’t affected themselves knew someone with anorexia or who self-harmed. But these effects have been heightened and amplified by technology. It’s easier than ever to create and share altered unrealistic images, to promote extreme dieting online, or to attack and bully on social media.

Combine this with political upheaval, socioeconomic uncertainty, the impact of austerity and a desperate lack of support services, and it’s not surprising that rates of eating disorders, anxiety, low self-esteem and other mental health issues are soaring. We are dealing with an unprecedented crisis in the wellbeing of our young people.

What gives me a glimmer of hope is that we’re beginning to find our voices, as evidenced by the body positivity movement and the theme chosen for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Thirty years ago the signs of trauma were there, yet the culture of silence around mental health was so ingrained that in my experience, they were never spoken about or addressed.

I remember it being a revelation to me that you could choose to see yourself as beautiful, regardless of society’s values or a number on a scale.

I don’t believe it’s wrong to care how we look or to appreciate the beauty of others. I enjoy make-up and nice clothes as much as anyone else. The problem arises when the judgement of physical appearance is used to trample over people, to restrict their choices through inflicting cruelty. And this will only ever change if we move away from competition and dominance towards equality, inclusion and empathy.

Then, perhaps, we’ll get to enjoy the warmth of the summer sun on our bare skin without fear or shame.