Somebody Like Me: Young People's Tales Of Body Image Anxiety

30/01/2017 12:09 GMT | Updated 31/01/2018 10:12 GMT

One week ago today, the Be Real Campaign for body confidence, founded by YMCA and Dove, launched its Somebody Like Me research looking into body image anxiety among young people. As you would expect, the main focus in the media was on the headline figures and eye-catching statistics such as the fact that 52% of 11 to 16 year olds told us they "regularly worried about how they look". However, as it is often said, behind every statistic is a real person and, within our extensive fieldwork for Somebody Like Me, we spoke to young people across the country in detail about their body image anxieties.

These individual conversations reveal the heart-breaking extent to which body image anxiety affects young people. Their words were candid, brutally honest and, at times, quite upsetting to hear.

I wanted to share with you some of the words of the young people who took part. They spoke about the pressures from society, school, celebrities, the media and their families. Alongside dealing with the challenges of just growing up, one area which was mentioned frequently was the sheer relentless of the body image pressures they faced:

"It is everywhere. It's something that I think about every day, all the time, what I'm looking like, you know, how I'm dressing and how other people perceive me," - Isabelle

"I think with the added pressure of school work and trying to get good grades and everything. It's just like another thing and probably effects people more at our age because it's an added stress on top of everything else." - Clara

These thoughts were echoed throughout our discussions and young people also spoke about the need to not just present themselves in real life as 'perfect' but for their social media and online self to be seen this way, too. The lengths that young people would go to were highlighted by Josh who said: "I Photoshop every one of my profile pictures, I kid you not. I get rid of my spots, I get rid of my double chin. It genuinely takes me 25 minutes to make a profile picture."

However, looking perfect online is not enough without recognition from peers. Young people spoke of the need to have 'likes' on their photos and the pressures of not receiving enough.

"If you don't get so many 'likes', you'll take them off. Like I do that all the time. If I don't get 30 'likes' I'll take it off straight away," - Paris

And the necessity to look popular has even stretched as far as young people actually buying 'likes': "I buy likes; I buy 100 likes so I don't feel bad about myself," - David

Where the pressure to look perfect comes from is diverse a theme which I have covered previously and that again came up during the discussions was around the relationship between 'banter', bullying and body confidence.

"No matter if it is a joke, you are still knocking someone down in some way. That does have a knock on effect on them, even if they don't mean it to and they know it's a joke. Subconsciously it can just eat away at your brain. You think they wouldn't have said if it wasn't true," - Nathan

While presenting the challenging image reality they have to traverse, young people were confident in what solutions they felt were necessary: "You need to teach people that they are okay. You need to teach people that perfection isn't real. Instead of teaching kids that you should be this thin, you should eat like this, and if you are not like this you will be unhappy," - Charlotte.

The team who put this research together were in many cases surprised by the impact that body image anxiety was having on young people. Many of us who left school even just 10 years ago were amazed at how different and intrusive the pressures were that young people were under in school and adamant that action was so desperately needed.

The Body Confidence Campaign Toolkit for Schools, which we also launched last week, aims to take that first step in supporting young people and teachers to tackle this issue. Although early in the journey to creating a body confident nation, we are positive that, with the knowledge we have gleaned from Somebody Like Me and the resources we have created for schools, we are now on the way to alleviating some of the pressures young people are facing.