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Selfies, social media, self-esteem and taking care of your mental health

Drop a size! Build arms like this! Have smooth and shiny hair! Torch fat for good! (That last one was followed underneath by ‘when did we get so anxious?’. Irony slipped into a coma right there).

Throughout modern times, we’ve used other people as a benchmark of our own success, keeping up with the Joneses, and one of the key markers of ‘success’ in contemporary culture is social desirability – are we popular? But whereas we used to benchmark against whether our car was newer than next doors or if we had a Commodore 64 versus our mate’s ZX81, increasingly our perception of success is measured in terms of our looks and we’ve never had more ways to compare ourselves to other people. Whether it’s magazine covers in the supermarket, images on social media or billboard adverts when we’re walking down the road, everywhere we look there are images of ‘dream’ bodies, the looks we’re supposed to aspire to, the ones that will let everyone know we’re a success, or adverts letting us know that they’re within our grasp for a price.

But what are these supposedly inspirational images doing to our wellbeing?

Multiple studies in the last three years have connected viewing images of ‘perfect’ bodies to a decrease in our own body image. Not only are we seeing pictures of celebrities whose lives we cannot really hope to replicate but now we also have ‘ordinary’ people popping up on social media platforms such as Instagram offering to be our #fitspiration (oh please!), on the face of it promoting a healthy lifestyle but ultimately usually geared towards appearance. And when these images are the ones that culturally we are taught are desirable, acceptable and aspirational and we don’t replicate them, it can knock our self-esteem. On some level, we all know that these pictures and posts have been filtered, cropped and generally manipulated so that the end result and the actual original photo are a universe apart and we probably wouldn’t recognise the person in real life as the same one in the post but still, it can leave you feeling like you’ve fallen short. Even supposedly helpful advice to ‘embrace your flaws’ reminds us that we’re still not achieving the prescribed ideal. So how do we break the cycle before our self-esteem takes too much of a hammering? The Mental Health Foundation, hosts of Mental Health Awareness Week, suggest using social media more consciously, being aware of when you’re comparing yourself to others and unfollowing people or pages that don’t make you feel good about yourself, which can make social media a much more positive place to be. But these images and the message they give out are so embedded into our daily lives that they can be hard to avoid and even with the best intentions, without a solid foundation of self-esteem it can be so easy to slip back into the comparison mind-set.

In an age of images and aspiration, we tend to forget what our bodies are actually for. Maybe, instead of berating them for not having toned thighs, flat abs or a perfectly chiselled jaw or whatever, it might help to think about them differently.  

How often do any of us take a little time to marvel at the miracles that our, on average, 37.2 trillion cells perform for us every day?

Those bad boys work as a team to help us hear bird song, see the faces of our friends and family, keep us safe from danger. They can produce and feed babies, climb mountains, dive to the depths of oceans, write books, sing songs, bring us the joy of winning a sports fixture or the butterflies of a first date.

When we each have a machine at our disposal that does all of this, why not look after it and make the most of it?

Give it the vitamins and minerals it needs, get it outdoors, get it moving and thinking and singing and playing. Give it friends and family to look at, bird song to hear, matches to win and dates to be nervous about. Let it write poems, draw pictures, run, laugh and love. Let it learn more languages, visit new places. In short, I wonder if we spend more time making the most of the amazing capabilities our bodies have and less time worrying about whether or not they’re achieving some abstract ideal if we’ll even notice the billboards, magazine covers and filtered posts….

About the author

Justine Mason

Justine Mason

Justine came to Wrexham Glynd┼Ár University in 2012 having worked in mental health settings for previous 10 years. She currently leads our BSc Mental Health and Wellbeing, which has broadened her research interests to include widening participation and the impact of culture and second language on a student’s higher education experience. Outside of university, she enjoys baking and working on her allotment.

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