Leader of the Men’s Mental Health group at his school, year 12 student, Oli Smith, candidly shares his own struggle with body image and the impact sport has had on this, including his experience of anorexia. He also offers advice for anyone struggling with the same issues.
Body image is a major focus point which needs to be spoken about more during the secondary school years. A lot of people suffer with their body image due to what other people think and the comments made about appearance. Today most teenagers have social media, and on those platforms they see people (mostly celebrities) show their bodies online. These posts stimulate the brain and are often the cause of negative perception of how we look, which can cause body dysmorphia (a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance), eating disorders and other mental illnesses.
“When I started losing weight, I was so happy, but this happiness didn’t continue“
How can an eating disorder start?
The most common mental illness among teenagers is anorexia, which is also the highest teenage killer. The number of cases of eating disorders is on the rise in England, and NHS data shows that teenagers between the ages of 13 and 15 are most at risk.
The main cause for eating disorders among teens is often attributed to seeing photoshopped bodies on social media, seeing lean bodies be put in the spotlight as ‘healthy’ and labelling larger bodies as ‘unhealthy’ and ‘disgusting’. According to studies, 80 per cent of teen girls see themselves as ‘fat’ or too large and this often leads to extreme dieting, which is extremely unhealthy and can develop into anorexia and bulimia.
Teenage boys at this time in their lives will start seeing muscular adults and idolise them and often start going to the gym. This can develop the contradictor to anorexia, which is bigorexia. This is where someone doesn’t see themselves as muscular enough and wants to become even more muscular. Body image is often a topic attributed to girls, so it’s important to remember that males can suffer from body dysmorphia too.
“Body image is often a topic attributed to girls, so it’s important to remember that males can suffer from body dysmorphia too.“
My personal experience with sport and having an eating disorder
Due to having severe OCD and swimming competitively, I developed anorexia. I saw how Olympians have that ideal swimmer physique of abs on show all the time and that’s what I thought I needed, and I thought that would be healthy for me. But I nearly became hospitalized due to this goal. It started with just eating less at school and then gradually decreasing my meals as a whole.
When I started losing weight, I was so happy, but this happiness didn’t continue. My times in swimming didn’t get as fast as I wanted, and I was incredibly tired all the time. I became extremely weak as I decreased my body fat to lower than 10% and lost a lot of muscle too. But even now, after over a year of recovery, I still struggle with eating disorder thoughts as anyone who has experienced an eating disorder is left scarred.
Still to this day, I get affected in my sports when body image and weight are mentioned, and this mainly occurs in swimming. Over the last few years, I have changed the sports I’ve been competing in – including pentathlon and triathlon – but I still swim competitively at county and regional level. On top of that, I now play U18 rugby too, which has some contradicting factors like injuries, but I still love both sports.
How can we change how bodies are perceived within sport?
What people need to learn, is that things like BMI aren’t accurate. It will say that a very muscular person is morbidly obese because of their weight compared to their height. Everyone’s body is different, and everybody needs different things. Even if we all ate the same and did the same movement, our bodies would still look very different.
A key point is to not comment on other people’s bodies. Those who comment on others’ bodies and insecurities are normally very insecure themselves, so if we stop commenting on other bodies and shaming people, then no one will suffer.
How not to use the word ‘fat’:
The word ‘fat’ over recent years has been used to criticise people’s bodies. ‘Fat’ is perceived as a body type, when in reality, fat is a part of everyone’s bodies, and it is a requirement for our bodies to function and survive. Everyone needs different amounts of body fat.
Alongside this, there is no specific ‘healthy size’. Lots of teens perceive that someone having more fat on them means they are unhealthy, but we do not have the rights to shame them and make them feel bad about themselves. Bullying people because of their body can make them develop severe insecurities, eating disorders and sometimes consider taking their life. So, before you call someone ‘fat’ or criticise someone’s body, rethink and understand how you would feel in their position.
Oli’s advice for feeling confident and comfortable in your body:
- When it comes to your body and the way you view it, remind yourself that this body is the only one you will ever have. Your body knows what’s healthy for you, so you must let it find its healthy point.
- Don’t say to yourself: ‘I don’t have my dream body ‘yet’. Say: ‘This is my dream body; this carries me through life. It’s my vessel.’
- This body cares for me, so I must care for it too.
- You don’t need to do sport every day to be healthy. Your body and mind will tell you what’s healthy for you.
- Don’t compare yourself to others, and when you look in a mirror, say positive affirmations to yourself that make you feel comfortable and confident.
- Sport is not the only form of movement – think of walking as your movement too.
- When you do sport or movement, wear what makes you feel comfortable and confident within yourself.