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Building Body Confidence

PUBLISHED: 12:54 22 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:20 20 February 2013

PHOTO: Lever Faberge Ltd

PHOTO: Lever Faberge Ltd

Martin Staniforth runs body image workshops in schools. He gives us an insight into how body confidence can be enhanced

I was struck when Nicola Kennedy shared some of her reflections as she has learnt to cope after losing an eye (October issue, Devon Life). What must be so hard is to put up with the natural stares that she receives when out in public. Fortunately, it seems that Nicola has the courage to make the best of her life, rather than to see her appearance as an excuse not to engage.

Sadly this is not true for so many young people. For instance, over 70% of girls have avoided an activity (like going to a party, school or the doctor) because they dont feel confident about their looks on a particular day. And 20% wont give their opinion on anything, believing that its better to be quiet rather than attract attention. Clearly these ways of being create a huge waste of potential, and so these facts have inspired me to try and do something about it.

Working for the Dove Self-Esteem Fund for the past six years, Ive helped to create a range of materials that make it more normal to talk about issues around body confidence. Ive learnt that while this topic might seem simple to grasp, it can soon become quite complex and relate to many other underlying challenges. Indeed, body image affects most people at some time in their lives. However, there are many examples of people who have overcome the hurdles of visible difference. They just get on with living life through their experiences and their friendships, rather than through whats wrong with them. These heroes can inspire us all.

Several times Ive witnessed powerful moments when young people get it for themselves

Nadine Gandy, a counsellor based in Exeter, said, People who have had real problems with their appearance and have triumphed over it are often not noticed. Sometimes it can be hard to spot these good news stories and learn from them when they are buried in a barrage of glossy imagery from other sources.

So, how can we help to build body confidence? Our bodies are changing all the time and this is a normal, natural part of being a living thing. We start off small and wrinkly and end up large and wrinkly. However, some people seem to forget this and can become dissatisfied with aspects of reality. So, there are times in our lives when it would be helpful to have a bit of support that the way that we look is OK. When going for an interview. On the first day of school. After giving birth. After surgery. When going out to a social event. Even just going to the shops.

Most psychologists agree that the ideal time to boost peoples confidence about the reality of their physical shapes is when they are children. Its easier to set young people up for life with essential skills, rather than try to correct or fix them later on as adults. Also, theres a huge need to support young people as they go through the weird and wonderful changes of puberty. With this in mind, Ive worked on a resource that has been designed to assist teachers in secondary schools. Its ideal for the regular class teacher to deliver. And, to keep my finger on the pulse, I also run a few workshops in schools. In Devon Ive hosted sessions at Okehampton College and Exeter School. Its always a rewarding experience to have open and frank discussions with pupils.

Over 70% of girls have avoided an activity because they dont feel confident about their looks on a particular day

Typically a workshop lasts for two hours and covers What do we mean by self-esteem and body confidence?, What affects these? and How can you strengthen these? Using a mixture of short films, images, quotations and activities, the young people explore this sensitive topic in a non-threatening and, at times, fun way. No two sessions are the same as the discussion can go off in many different directions:

Isnt it boys that put girls under pressure to look a certain way?
How can it be OK to look the way that you are what about really obese people?
Why do we need plastic surgery?
What should you do if someone calls you skinny/fat?

Several times Ive witnessed powerful moments when young people get it for themselves. Sometimes it might be because theyve received a meaningful compliment from a friend. At other times, young people confess that theyve been held back by beliefs that they have the wrong nose, hair, eyes, legs, muscles, etc. Its enlightening when they hear about other peoples (unfounded) concerns. Indeed one girl said, I used to think that I was the only freak in this class and that everyone else looked OK. But now I see that we all have something were not happy with. We waste so much time thinking about our imperfections when we could just be getting on with enjoying life!

This has been echoed in a piece of research carried out by Kathy Davis at the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands. She observed 50 people who were about to try and persuade a plastic surgeon to alter their appearance. Looking at what she saw, she guessed the parts of their bodies that had led them to this surgery. She guessed correctly just once, for a man with a cauliflower nose. Clearly theres often a large gap between what individuals might think of themselves and what their colleagues might think about them.

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