The Importance of Self-Image in Mental Health

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Two dangerous extremes wreak havoc on the mental health of millennials and Gen Zs these days. One is the well-meaning but ultimately irresponsible acceptance of physically unhealthy diets and lifestyle choices in the name of battling against things like ‘fat shaming’. The other is the shaming and social stigma that so often leads young people towards those unhealthy lifestyle choices. The important middle ground, surely, is the removal of social stigma and bullying, but the application of genuine concern over young people’s health is based on a scientific understanding of the problem. 

The Pressure to Look Presentable

If you listen to the works of psychologists like Abraham Maslow, for example, you can see human beings as being fundamentally motivated by a hierarchy of psychological needs, not the least of which is a state of acceptance from your social group, upon whom you’re historically dependent on for survival. Social belonging, however, necessarily comes with notions of conformity, as the group demands a certain level of contribution and participation in the collective culture of that group. In terms of behavior, this manifests in laws, ethics, and etiquettes socially determining ‘correct behavior’, which varies from culture to culture. However, this, unfortunately, tends to cover more than just how we treat each other and covers just about everything right down to how we look and present ourselves in public. To defy these conventions is to risk ostracization from our social group, which once upon a time would threaten our very lives. So the fear of not looking acceptable is primal and extremely difficult to overcome for many. 

Finding that Balance

On the other side of the coin, self-discipline is important when it comes to looking after oneself, and this covers appearances as well, as an appearance that conveys a blasé attitude can betray negative connotations about a person’s potential attitude of negligence to more serious matters also. There is a difference, therefore, between fastidiously applying a dark spot corrector to iron out imperfections in the skin and transforming an already healthy body via plastic surgery. 

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, the only thing that should truly matter is who is suffering and where the cause of that suffering lies. Fitting into society is important, but society also needs to be more accepting in the first place to allow this to happen. If someone is a little overweight, then this ought not to be cause for alarm, or any overreaction for that matter, positive or negative, as it is fairly normal and unremarkable. If a person is severely overweight, however, then their health, perhaps even their life, may be at risk, as this significantly increases the risks of developing cardiovascular disorders, mobility problems, and, due to an unhelpful abundance of social stigma, social anxiety, and clinical depression. Such a person, therefore, requires compassion and help, not abuse. Similarly, undereating is also dangerous, as it affects everything from impairing the immune system to triggering early muscle atrophy, and so the same rule applies there. Everyone is beautiful, and this beauty can only be enhanced with a relaxed, subtle emphasis on healthy living in general, rather than obsessions with specific and often arbitrary physical characteristics. 


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