Experts discuss why and how we are living through a 'body confidence epidemic'

Woman looking in mirror, representing low body confidence. (Getty Images)
'Body confidence is about how ok we feel in and about our body.' (Getty Images)

Is body confidence at an all-time low? It can certainly feel like it at times, with new research revealing just 16% of young women in the UK love their bodies.

What's more, 83% of 18-34-year-olds admit to avoiding certain events or activities due to concerns over their appearance, 70% have struggled with an eating disorder in the past, and nearly one in four have such low body confidence they don't like their partner to see them naked.

Only 4% never worry about their appearance, with most doing so every single week, the survey by leading health and wellness app Kic reveals.

So, are we living in a body confidence epidemic? BACP-registered psychotherapist, Hannah Beckett-Pratt, says these stats – as well as other "clues in our everyday lives and the structure of society" – certainly suggest so. But how exactly is this affecting us and what can we do to help once and for all?

Read more: After 17 years of dieting, I’ve finally stopped and learned to love myself as I am (Yahoo Life UK, 8-min read)

What is low body confidence?

While some don't struggle with it at all, others will to varying degrees.

"Body confidence is about how 'ok' we feel in and about our body, it is the quality of the relationship we have with how we not only look, but feel in our physical selves too," explains Beckett-Pratt.

So when does low self-esteem become a mental health problem? "A disorder is only a disorder when our thinking, feeling and behaviour about eating, shape and weight fit particular diagnostic criteria that a medical psychiatrist has assessed. These criteria revolve around how significantly and seriously our relationship with our bodies is impacting our physical and mental health and ability to live our lives, perform daily tasks, and stay in work."

But, she urges, this does not mean that anyone without a diagnosis cannot gain and benefit from psychological help to explore the way they feel about and act towards their body and relationship with food.

Read more: Being naked boosts my mental health – I wouldn’t live life any other way

Why are so many young women affected?

Woman looking at mobile phone screen
Social media and cosmetic surgery has a role to play. (Getty Images)

While young women now see the body positive movement online (promoting different sizes, skin tones, and stretch marks), they also see endless available ways to change their looks.

"There are clues in our everyday lives and the structure of our society that more and more of us are not feeling ok about our bodies," says Beckett-Pratt. "For example, the increasing availability of body modification services (tweakments, plastic surgeries, even how commonplace tattoos are now), the growing size and impact of industries focussed on physical appearance – beauty, fashion, fitness, wellness etc and the increasing pressure and waiting lists for psychological help with issues relating to eating, shape and weight."

Her concern is that as a society, we have forgotten about the "real and varied" purposes of the body. "Our bodies are built to enable us to live life – stay alive, physically express our feelings and emotions, connect with each other, move around as we want to." Instead, we may find ourselves trying to adapt to beauty standards (which can vary across the globe and change over time) to 'fit in'.

How does low body confidence impact daily life?

upset female suffering from migraine, sitting on sofa with pillows in living room and holding forehead, lonely tired or exhausted girl at home
It can make us miss out on things we would otherwise enjoy. (Getty Images)

"Feeling unconfident in our bodies can sap enjoyment from our daily lives because there is a sense that we are always judging our bodies. There may be preoccupation about what our body looks like to others, rather than being able to lose ourselves in what we are doing," explains Beckett-Pratt.

This extends to our relationships, with insecurities preventing us from connecting with our partner. "In younger women, this can cause significant anxiety because they are more likely to be dating, having shorter relationships and active on social media so how they present to others is at the forefront of their lives in many ways."

And while women's hobbies are by no means all centred around beauty, some activities with friends like getting ready to go out or taking photos (which is also done for enjoyment) can sometimes also make women feel pressured to look "socially attractive," reinforcing the idea we need to change or 'better' ourselves, and lowering self-confidence.

Happy woman exercising (Getty Images)
How does body confidence change throughout the years? (Getty Images)

Of course, men can struggle with low body confidence too (reality shows have brought with them endless 'gym' bodies), but women typically have higher beauty standards to adhere to. Does this pressure ease with age?

"It’s often said that the older we get, the less we care about how we look. This might be true in the sense that we may feel more free from social judgement if we are not constantly looking to attract a partner, but it can also make women feel invisible which reduces confidence in a different way," points out Beckett-Pratt.

"Youth is a highly valued part of what we consider to be attractive, which is partly social and partly due to evolution (youth suggests fertility and therefore attracts interest from potential mates).

"As we continue to age, we may associate this negatively with loss of vibrancy and aliveness. However, it really depends on how a person looks at it and their individual circumstances; if we have an active social life, feel fit and healthy, enjoy our work and feel a sense of purpose; then what we look like becomes the least interesting thing about us."

Body positivity - women friends posing at home in lingerie
There is no 'right' type of body. (Getty Images)

How can we overcome low body confidence?

Other than just finding 'self-love' (though this is great too), these are Beckett-Pratt's top tips.

Shift your mindset

"An underrated goal is to notice that what your body looks like is only one small part of you. In a sense, the aim is actually to become far less interested in what your body looks like. If we enjoy our lives in terms of feeling a sense of meaning and purpose, have enriching relationships, an active social life and overall feel like we spend our time in fulfilling ways; then we are likely to be far less preoccupied with worrying or beating ourselves up about how we look.

Focus on your body’s functioning

"Instead of just thinking about how it looks, what about what it can do? How it feels to be strong in the gym, or how amazing it is to remember carrying and giving birth to your children. These are what the body is designed for, they show its capabilities and we often neglect these when thinking about ourselves.

Find acceptance

"Signs of ageing cannot be concealed forever, so focussing our efforts here is ultimately futile. Life is much easier and more enjoyable when we let go of what we cannot control. So get a blow dry, paint your nails, but question whether investing in your physical appearance (including using mental energy beating yourself up) to the detriment of having fun with friends and family or having amazing adventures is really the route of all happiness.

Read more: The most common mental health conditions – and where to get help

Two female friends taking selfie during exercise break
Workout or eat healthy with balance, for the right reasons. (Getty Images)

Address the root cause

"With temptation to have tweakments or plastic surgeries [though this is down to the individual], the issue [for some] is that if we change one thing we think is the problem with our body, the feeling of not being good enough might not die. The problem is not eg.our body shape, it is what we have told ourselves our body shape means. This is what needs addressing to feel better, so money, time and effort would be better spent in therapy to work through this more permanently.

Make lifestyle changes for the right reasons

"If we workout when we can because we enjoy the feeling of being strong, flexible, or being able to walk the dog without feeling too out of breath [instead of looking good], then it becomes a valuable and enjoyable way to use our bodies and care for our physical self, creating a positive body-relationship [far less concerned about our looks as a result]."

If you are struggling, you can call Mind's info line on 0300 123 3393, Samaritans' helpline on 116 123, Beat on the right helpline for your location, or speak to your GP.

Watch: Almost one-third of women have never told anyone about their physical issues