Mental Health Awareness Week: How to talk to a friend who’s struggling with body image issues


May 18, 2019 - 152 views

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is body image. Even though the body positivity movement is no longer on the fringes, scrolling through Instagram or flicking through a magazine will show you that the ideal shape is still overwhelmingly slim and seemingly ‘perfect’.

Mental Health Foundation CEO Mark Rowland says this year’s theme was chosen because “we want to ignite a national conversation about how we can be kinder to our bodies, as a guard against the individual, family and cultural influences that can lead to a gnawing and sometimes debilitating sense of dissatisfaction with our bodies.”

Dr Sue Peacock, consultant psychologist at BMI The Saxon Clinic in Milton Keynes welcomes the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. She thinks it’s really important to talk about it, “because if we don’t address body image, it can lead to different mental health issues” – anxiety and depression included.

Dr Peacock reveals how to help a friend who might be struggling with body image. A lot of it is about letting them know the different ways you value them, that are nothing to do with their body or what they look like, she says, as well as giving them space to express their feelings, before exploring practical steps.

Listen to them

Friends hiking through the hills of Los Angeles
Listening is everything (iStock/PA)

You might want to rush in and tell your friend that they have nothing to worry about and they’re beautiful as they are, but these kind of platitudes can often fall on deaf ears. “When you say things like that, they can sometimes think you think they’re overreacting,” Peacock explains.

Once you’ve opened up the conversation about any struggles your friend might be having with their body image, it can often be much more productive to just be an open ear. “Sometimes, it’s about giving them the opportunity to vent their frustrations about how they look,” Peacock says. “Everybody needs to be heard, and sometimes just being heard makes you feel a little bit better about things. She doesn’t recommend diving in with advice right at the beginning – instead, listen to your friend until the initial strong feelings have been expressed.

Take them out of negative situations

If you know your friend is struggling with their body image, small actions can go a long way – or as Peacock says: “Sometimes, it’s about helping them step away from the frustrating situation.”

Even if you don’t have any major issues with how you view yourself, it’s easy to recognise the situations which could potentially be harmful. “Like when you’ve gone shopping together and there are the mirrors that aren’t that flattering in the changing rooms, it’s about saying ‘Let’s get out of here’,” Peacock explains.

She also talks about being with your friend and putting down the magazine with the unrealistic body expectations, or leaving the gym changing room if you think they might be feeling bad. “Get them out of that situation and sit them down in a quiet place where they can express themselves,” she says.

Talk through practical steps

Two women eating
If appropriate, you can gently encourage your friend to make healthy choices – but only if they want to change themselves (iStock/PA)

“Depending on how close you are with your friend, you could ask about what triggers their concerns – how do they feel about these thoughts, have they considered taking any action, what coping mechanisms they use, and do they think they need to see a professional?” Peacock says.

This can lead into a more practical conversation about the steps your friend can take to help shift their mindset. Maybe this could be helping them recognise they need to seek professional help, or they might find it helpful to talk through triggers, so in the future they’re more equipped to avoid anything potentially damaging.

“It’s also about encouraging them to use the healthy coping mechanisms they might have anyway,” she says. For example, if you’re going out for dinner, maybe don’t choose a fast food joint, but suggest somewhere with some healthier options. “You don’t need to make a big deal about it, but show there are other options out there as well,” she notes.

Friends painting nails together
Doing self-care activities together can be a good way of boosting self-worth (iStock/PA)

“It’s about accepting them for who they are, but if they really need to change and want to change, then it’s about being supportive and helping them do that.”

Another practical step could involve suggesting small acts of self-care you can do together. These are “things that improve your self-worth and self-esteem”, Peacock explains, like “manicures, pedicures, facials or a day spa at home”. They might seem small, but Peacock says: “These little things can make such a big difference to people.” What she does suggest is putting these dates in the diary, and setting it in stone, so it’s more likely to happen.

Change the conversation

It’s hugely positive if you want to help a friend who is struggling, but make sure you don’t do so to the detriment of your own mental health. “Remember to take time for yourself too, because dealing with emotional stuff is quite stressful,” she says.

If your friend’s problem is on the more severe side of things, it’s worth signposting them to a professional, because you might not be able to take it on yourself.

Peacock adds: “Remember that self-care is self-preservation – look after yourself, so you can help look after them.”

© Press Association 2019

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