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Civil Service

Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 – how body image can affect us

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Health & Wellbeing
Portrait image of Debbie Alder
Debbie Alder, Director General, People & Capability, Department for Work & Pensions

Each year we are making progress on talking more openly about issues that affect our mental wellbeing – from stress, to addiction, to bullying, to relationships, to life-long conditions. The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is body image – how we think and feel about our bodies – and this can lead us to  thrive or hide in the workplace.

While it may feel internal, it has always played out in how we want to ‘appear’ in the workplace, and it is intensifying with social media and the pressure to look a certain way.

Why is image so important, and how can we bring our whole selves to work and be proud of who we are?

For the Civil Service, and the 430,000 people who work here, our identity, what we stand for and the difference we make, gives us meaning and purpose.

Being ourselves at work creates diverse and inclusive cultures, uniting teams and empowering individuals. Having this acceptance and trust can improve our creativity, decision-making and ability to perform and progress in our careers.

This positivity may feel normal until mental ill health or the work environment stops us from being the person we want to be – when we become uncomfortable in our own skin. Then, the difference between thriving and hiding feels real, as it affects our sense of self and the image we worked so hard to build.

Body image can cause low self-esteem, vulnerability and isolation. These emotions aren’t left at home, they come to work too. It may be difficult to know how to help, but sufferers are the experts in their conditions and what support they need. Sometimes the best way of helping is to listen, understand and be comfortable talking about mental health.

I want to thank Michelle Anderson, from HM Courts & Tribunals Service, for sharing her story of how body-shaming has affected her mental health from childhood to adulthood. Her journey highlights how body-image worries pose an ever-present risk to our wellbeing.

Michelle’s story

Photo of Michelle Anderson in bridal dress
Michelle Anderson

It started around the age of nine. ‘Friends’ at school started making comments about my weight. My dad started talking about me gaining ‘puppy fat’. At that stage I did not mind being in photos, but, as I got older and more conscious of the things people said, I started disappearing from family photos. It got to the stage family had to take sneaky photos of me just to capture the moment.

My weight problem became so ingrained in my psyche that throughout adulthood I have always been body-conscious. I always felt fat, wearing baggy clothes to cover up so people could not see how big I was. Constantly going on a diet, I’d successfully lose stones, start to feel better, then something would happen to start the comfort eating again and the weight would pile back on.

Even when I was asked to be a bridesmaid, I hated the fact that the dress I wore had to be ordered in a size bigger than I normally wear. I remember the lady in the shop telling me: “That’s just the way they size them. We always have to go up a size.”

I now look back at rare photos of myself from years ago and wish I still had that ‘weight problem’. I’m not sure I will ever be happy about my body image and now worry about my 10- and 12-year-old girls. They have started making comments about how fat they are. This is probably a learned behaviour from me, which makes me sad. I tell them every day how beautiful they are.

Wearing baggy clothes at work undermined my confidence. In my mind it was somehow linked to my performance and ability. If I wore baggy clothes I didn’t feel smart. And if I didn’t feel smart I was no good at my job.

I have learned that I can look smart and not emphasise my size. Now, I feel so much better in my work clothes, and that shows in my confidence.

I am used to managing my depression, but that support and understanding cannot come from within me. At work, I talk about my symptoms and how they affect me. That way my colleagues understand why I might be quiet or withdrawn and need some space. It takes the pressure off me to ‘perform’. It takes the pressure off me to ‘wear a mask’. I am a mum, a daughter, a wife, a civil servant and so much more.

Six ideas to help you

Whether it is body image issues, anxiety or any other mental health condition, help is available. It is inclusive support, not intrusive support. Share what you need to share to get better and flourish. Here are some ideas to help you on your journey:

  1. have a discussion with your manager on what support you need to resolve your stress or manage your condition
  2. chat to a Mental Health First Aider about how you’re feeling and what support is available.
  3. join a Civil Service or organisational employee network to discuss your situation in a safe environment with people who can empathise, such as the Cross-Government Mental Health Network
  4. use your volunteering days to support a charity or cause that resonates with you
  5. make the most of flexible working to attend counselling, meet your career coach, or de-stress through exercise and mindfulness
  6. prioritise your happiness and wellbeing by designing an action plan on how to feel good about yourself and fulfil your potential.

What’s happening this week

The Civil Service is using the power of storytelling to break the mental health stigma by launching its This is Me video series, created by the Civil Service Leadership Academy.

During the week, organisations are hosting expert speakers and wellbeing workshops to discuss the different aspects of body confidence and how to feel good and thrive. Buildings are lighting up green and more and more people are wearing green ribbons to show their support for mental health.

More information

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  1. Comment by george green posted on

    great read and great Michelle for sharing. I completely understand where she's coming from, with a very similar experience while growing up and it still affects me mentally as strongly as then. Thank you for sharing this very personal experience.

  2. Comment by Jo posted on

    As a slim man I found that in the past when talking about weight, that I have got the comment such as 'it's ok for you, your skinny' a word that has the same effect of saying someone is fat.

    I don't have an eating disorder and I'm happy with my weight, but sometimes insensitive comments can make us doubt if were 'normal'.

    • Replies to Jo>

      Comment by Em posted on

      Knowing people that are into running, having been a runner myself, that's something I know well.

  3. Comment by Em posted on

    A very honest piece.
    Its interesting what you say about work and "dresscode" - does "dressing down" affect how we feel in the work arena I wonder?

  4. Comment by Gill Reay posted on

    Thanks for being courageous and generous in sharing your story. I love the photo you've included and while I totally get why you've avoided being in so many photos, what stood out for me, was your smile - it lights up your whole face. It sounds like you work with some lovely people who support each other to be the best they can be.

  5. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Michelle for sharing with us your personal story.

    I have to say that I cannot understand why there are some people out there who cannot understand how the way they behave can have such a significant impact on the self-esteem and general wellbeing of another person. I am also unclear as to why some people seem to feel such behaviour and comments is appropriate.

    Despite the challenges you had faced, you have been able to overcome these and become a Wife, Mom and Civil Servant and so much more!

    I hope that your story will inspire others who might be experiencing similar issues.

  6. Comment by Penguin posted on

    This is a thought provoking article. In this day and age, how do we go about combatting body image issues and "body shaming", when we are constantly bombarded with social media platforms, such as Instagram, where getting likes and follows is determined purely on how flawless you look, or how idyllic your life is. Reality TV shows, such as the Kardashians. Some news websites, celebrity magazines, fitness and fashion magazines, that consistently endorse the message that you must conform to the perfect body image or you will be shunned from society and unaccepted as a person.

    These media platforms are constantly pushing impossibly high and unrealistic standards that no reasonable person can live up to, it must be much harder for the younger generation, who are more vulnerable to influence, more impressionable. Even those who are more strongly centred and secure within themselves must feel swayed by it now and then, it's that relentless.

    It's easy to see why mental health rates are skyrocketing, this competitive culture of perfection can be brutal on self esteem. I think it will take more than talking about it, a complete overhaul on how we perceive body image, in a more positive light, needs to happen before we even get close to resolving this pressing issue.

    Maybe switching off the phone might be a good place to start!!

    • Replies to Penguin>

      Comment by Em posted on

      What hasn't a single - nor simple - cause, will never have a single - nor simple - solution.
      My ED will always be with me, but I have to say, when I was at my lowest weight I was fit, confident, doing very well as a runner (I am 1m 96 and 78kg running 18 minute 5km runs) & it was pressure in many ways from others that *stopped* me being "so skinny".
      I can't tell you how much of a buzz it was seeing my body change - legs, stomach, even arms - and then becoming good at something for once.
      I wonder: What am I good at now?
      One thing it never was, was influenced by "the media" though.

  7. Comment by Seonaid Webb posted on

    Thanks for sharing your story Michelle - I echo the comments above ?

  8. Comment by Jane Dolan posted on

    Massive shout out to Michelle for doing this article and sharing a photo,
    I must say you look fabulous.

    I've been encouraging people for some time to put a photo on their intranet profile and some good discussions have been had with body image being flagged for some so its good to have this featuring in Mental Health Awareness Week.

  9. Comment by Paul Carter posted on

    Thank you for sharing your story - the dodging photos issue will feel familiar to lots of people who have struggled with body confidence. You look great!

  10. Comment by Richard Small posted on

    Thanks Michelle for sharing your story. You look great 🙂