Blogger and mental health advocate Lorna O'Connor survived a serious eating disorder in her early twenties. Now qualified as a Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor, she describes the importance of properly educating our young people on their body image - the theme of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week - so that we build their resilience and help them develop positive relationships with their bodies.
As a Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor I’m fortunate enough to speak to a lot of teachers, pastoral leaders and youth workers about different mental disorders they might come across in the young people they work with. One of these is eating disorders.
For me, teaching this subject is incredibly close to my heart. I suffered with anorexia nervosa from the ages of around 19 to 23, a disorder characterised by extreme food intake restriction and attempts to reduce weight. I’m all too familiar with the sense of self-loathing that stirs deep within your stomach when you look in the mirror and so deeply resent the image reflected back at you. The endless obsession with numbers, be that on a dress, packet of crisps or on a scale. The pure fear when staring down at a tiny plate of food and wondering how on earth you can bring yourself to eat it.
I was one of the lucky ones. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, and I survived. I never got professional treatment, but the love and understanding of those closest to me meant I was able to fully recover.
But each time I teach this topic I hear stories of young girls and boys desperately chasing an ideal image they may never reach, and harming their bodies in the process. I’m told of children throwing their sandwiches away and spending break times staring in mirrors instead of playing with their friends, of them hiding their bodies during PE lessons so as to avoid anyone judging them and of boys pushing their bodies further, even when injured, so they can get a physique they’re too young to achieve.
And every time I hear these stories, I am filled with despair and anger. Because we are failing these young people.
We are allowing the same warped version of body image we were taught to seep down and poison such innocent minds when we could be working to change things. We could teach our young people that current standards of beauty do not reflect more than a societal construct and that there is more to life than striving for a thigh gap or six pack.
When I’ve spoke to those working with young people, they openly admit discussing their diets, perceived flaws and how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ their diet has been lately in front of young people. I’m sure I’m guilty of this too, without even realising I’m doing it. We openly berate ourselves for enjoying a slice of cake, or for failing to slim down/bulk up for that holiday we have coming up. We make cutting judgements about celebrities who have ‘let themselves go’ because they’ve stopped starving themselves for a few weeks or not spent 20 hours a day in the gym.
I was taught so much information in school I have long forgotten. I wish I had instead learnt how many of the images we are bombarded with are edited and do not reflect real human beings. I wish I’d been taught how important it was to listen to your body when it tells you its hungry, not to suppress this for the sake of thinness. I wish I was allowed to explore how diet culture took hold of the Western world in the 19th century instead of spending hours on end learning about my local mill. Because I honestly believe these things could have prevented me from buying into such a warped standard of beauty and harming my body in chase of this.
I wish I’d gone to a school where staff openly complimented one another’s characteristics instead of their clothes, hairstyle or weight loss. A school where pupils are taught the function of cellulite, tummy rolls and the importance of seeing food as fuel and not calories. Where staff stopped referring to food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and simply called it food. Where all bodies were embraced and praised in the same way all abilities were accepted and nurtured. Where young girls felt safe to change in front of one another, regardless of how big their breasts were or whether their thigh touched. Where boys were taught that the men in magazines are probably exercising to excess and damaging their bodies with unnecessary supplements. A school where people discuss the parts of the body they love, rather than obsessing over the bits they would change.
Is such a school so hard to achieve? I would argue it’s not. But the results could be life changing. We live in a world so keen to embrace and educate young people on ethnic, sexual and gender diversity, why not body diversity too? It’s time to stop spreading the message that worth and beauty are size-limited.
So this Mental Health Awareness Week I want to challenge you to try and change the way you speak about your body when you’re around the young people in your life. Tell them the parts of your body you love. Show them celebrities who embrace their bodies as they are (Adele, Megan Crabbe, Amy Schumer & Demi Lovato are great examples). Stop calling food ‘good’ and ‘bad’. See what happens. You might be surprised.