Finding comfort in your own skin

Mikayla lets a smile take over her bright face, as she recounts a memory of shopping with her girlfriends during her high school years. She recalls being steered into a crowded clothing store.

She describes how her friends dispersed to search the shelves, but Mikayla quickly became overwhelmed by what she saw. Crop tops. Body-tight dresses. Tiny skirts. Her immediate thought was one of fear.

“Everyone is looking at me. I shouldn’t be in here. There’s clearly nothing here for me. I should leave.”

She says one of her friends held up a pair of denim shorts and gestured for her.

“Hey, these would look great on you!” as she waved them around in the air.

Mikayla huffs out a deep breath before continuing her story. She remembers not wanting to admit she was embarrassed to try on the shorts.

She knew before touching them that they wouldn’t fit, they wouldn’t complement her body type, and that they wouldn’t make her feel comfortable.

19-year-old Mikayla is only one of 60 per cent of Australian women who suffer from negative body image issues. For many, the simple task of clothes shopping becomes a thing of nightmares and unrelenting anxiety.

“I think my relationship to body image is primarily negative, because I am always faced with constant reminders. I see body image in media, magazines, books, movies. It’s everywhere, and it’s intrusive, and it’s invasive, and I can’t avoid it,” she says.

Dr Vivienne Lewis, a clinical psychologist from the University of Canberra who has authored two books on body image, says body image is a person’s perception of their physical appearance, and this can affect the way they think and feel about themselves.

“There is also a lot of research that shows its quite normal, especially for females beginning puberty or even pre-puberty, to be dissatisfied with at least one part of their bodies,” says Dr Lewis.

Clinical psychologist Dr Vivienne Lewis (Supplied)

Mission Australia’s Youth Survey Report 2018, which surveyed 28,286 young Australians aged between 15 and 19, reported 41.5 per cent of female respondents were concerned about body image. The report states body image is “the third most identified concern for females”, following coping with stress and school or study problems.

Body image issues typically affect young people which Dr Lewis says is when we start to compare our bodies to others.

“In our culture and society, we often discuss what attractiveness is and what an ideal body is, and so, when you compare yourself to those images and see a difference, you can feel negative about yourself.”

Louise Wigg is a body image consultant and coach for Body of Wellbeing, an organisation that provides self-care programs to people affected by poor body image. She explains how body image affects many different areas of life.

“It impacts what and how we eat, it impacts how we move and how we feel about our bodies, it impacts our mental and emotional health, it’s a serious thing. And I think it is important to acknowledge that.”

For many women, the anxiety and harmful impacts associated with poor body image can become a lifetime struggle.

“It’s not like you hit the age of 25 and it just disappears. Lots of people carry those issues through their life,” says Wigg.

“We’ve been taught for so long to be mindful of how we look, and how we look is so important that it’s become really entrenched in how we perceive ourselves and how we feel about ourselves,” she says.

A primary concern of poor body image is its impact on mental health. Headspace, an organisation that provides support to those suffering from mental illness, says body image issues can lead to depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

Mikayla understands poor body image can cause anxiety for her.

“I can have a constant loop in my head, where I question myself and compare myself to others. It causes a spiral of thoughts about not being good enough, and not fitting into a box.

“And I can definitely say body image affects self-esteem, because if you have so many of those negative experiences over and over again, it’s going to chip away at your self-worth. You question why you even bother trying to make it better,” Mikayla says.

There are many different factors involved in the development of poor body image. Dr Lewis believes the influence of the media, and social media in particular, are leading causes of this  development in our modern culture.

Surveys have found 79 per cent of Australians use social media, and 37 per cent of Australian women check-in at least 10 times a day.

Dr Lewis says social media is becoming more harmful to women suffering from poor body image.

“There are a lot of messages out there on social media around what is considered an ideal body or what’s a body that we aspire to.

“And because that body can be quite difficult to obtain, it often leads people to feel very unhappy with themselves, and with their appearance,” she says.

Social media can distort our view of the body type we aspire to.

The University of New South Wales’ School of Psychology conducted research into the link between the social media platform, Instagram, and body image issues.

The research states female Instagram users spend an average of 30 minutes a day on the site: “given Instagram’s primary use is for posting and sharing images, researchers have suggested that Instagram may be more detrimental to women’s appearance concerns than other social media platforms”.

This research also suggests that a trend dubbed “fitspiration”, a clever combination of fitness and inspiration, can be another major cause for concern.

“Women in fitspiration images largely match the current societal beauty ideals, which are unattainable for most women, often resulting in upward appearance comparison and greater body dissatisfaction,” according to the research.

Dr Lewis discusses how women who aspire to meet this certain beauty standard can enter into a negative cycle of constantly wanting to change their bodies and not necessarily being successful in doing so.

“They’re trying really hard, not seeing a result and that makes them feel really bad about themselves,” she says.

Mikayla relates to this influence of the media.

“Someone who is lean, skinny, fit, that’s what’s considered desirable in Western culture and I don’t really fit that. I have cellulite, I have hip dips, I am curvy, I have big thighs, and it’s really hard to remember that it’s not the be all and end all.”

With greater awareness on the harmful impacts of poor body image for women in Australia, we are now turning to concepts like body positivity to help combat the negativity.

Louise Wigg is a strong believer of body positivity, body acceptance and self-love to help fight against poor body image.

“They give people permission to feel okay about themselves and the body we live in. We are not our bodies, we are not designed by our bodies, we are so much more than our bodies. It is some part of us, but it is not all of us, and sometimes it is really important to look past the body.”

Dr Lewis explains how she, as a clinical psychologist, encourages her clients to challenge and question the information they receive from sources like the media, and to not just take it at face value.

“The key thing I always say to people is: treat yourself like you would treat your best friend. That means saying nice things about your body, looking at it in a beautiful way, thinking about your traits and qualities, and thinking about the really positive things, rather than focussing on the negative things, like what’s not going on or what you don’t look like.”

Dr Lewis also encourages anyone suffering from poor body image to seek help, whether from family, or friends, or from a professional.

“These problems are quite common, and there’s a lot you can do to feel better. It’s really important to seek that help and not feel embarrassed to ask for help”.

Mikayla has learnt to be comfortable in her own skin. (Supplied)

Mikayla smiles when she says, after seeking help, she was able to start putting aside her fears and anxieties towards body image.

“I love that when I really look at it, I can see my life and everything in it, and I have gotten to this point, gone overseas, gotten into uni, and achieved all of these amazing things in my life that I aspired to do for a long time, regardless of my body type. That’s a small part of who I really am.

“Sometimes I look at it and think that I could have been put in any body type, in any place, anywhere and I would still get to where I am because it’s who I am on the inside.”

She shrugs and simply says: “I am more than my skin. I am more than the makeup of my outsides.”