Features, Psychology

Time Management Isn’t The Solution To A Stressful Schedule, Time Valuation Is

time valuation
Is time valuation more important than time management?

In the chaos of modern, fast-paced living, it often feels we don’t have enough time for… well, anything. Time is of the essence, time can be well spent or wasted, time is money, time is valuable, time is ticking, and above all else — time flies. If only we could manage our time efficiently, we’ll have all the time in the world and achieve all it is we desire time after time. Modern convention says time management is absolutely essential to keep track, to help achieve our goals. Not so fast, though; I’m going to argue time management is secondary to something more important — time valuation.

This approach is less focused on the physical act of scheduling in a journal or diary. Instead, the focus is the abstract, mental visualisation of how each of us perceive future time. Entries in a diary within themselves aren’t stressful, but the way we perceive our timeline of upcoming events often leads to stress or anxiety. Let me begin by explaining my distinction between time management and time valuation.

What Is Time Management And How Can It Cause Stress?

Time management is a way of managing and arranging the things we need to do into the time we have. I visualise this process as a calendar in our mind’s eye. The things we need to do are entities we attempt to fit into this mental calendar, from the important (go to work, pay bills) to the not-so-important (take the bins out, shower, tidy room, organise internet bookmarks) — and everything in between.

These are usually a mixture of physical entries in a diary and mental notes floating around in the recesses of the mind. However they are stored, stress arises when the things we need to do don’t comfortably synchronise with the time we have.

It can drain a lot of energy, and make us incredibly frustrated, when we mentally pluck tasks out of the air and try to squish them into an apparently restrictive amount of time. Let’s call this squishing process the square peg, round hole approach. For example, I may have a number of things to do floating around my mind’s eye for an upcoming week. They may or may not be entries in a diary:

  • Coach
  • Write
  • Exercise
  • Food shop
  • Call parents
  • Reply to Whatsapp messages
  • Meditate
  • Make time for reading
  • That errand I’ve been putting off for too long

When I attempt to manage my time, I float each of these entities to fill the vacant space in the calendar of my mind’s eye. This may be accompanied by a visualisation or prophecy of each event, playing like a movie in the mind — along with a perception of how much time it will take. As is frequently the case, during this process I may feel there’s no way I’ll fit the things I need to do into the time I have. I feel stressed, I feel powerless, I sometimes feel paralysed. This leaves me despairing: “How am I going to get all of this done?”

The square peg, round hole approach is a recipe for stress due to a number of problems with the process of assigning the things we need to do to the time we have. It can apply to any time period: the next hour, day, week, month, year, or even lifetime. Fortunately we can train our brains and take control of this process, making it serve us effectively in both pragmatic planning and emotional ease. Before understanding how to take control, I’ll highlight the problems with the square peg, round hole approach. Becoming aware is the first step in making change.

Problem #1: Most Of Us Don’t Accurately Perceive Time

“Temporality temporalizes as a future which makes present in the process of having been.” ― Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

Humans are notoriously bad at mentally perceiving time. Not so much the rationalisation of “it’ll take me 30 minutes to exercise,” but more the experience of time. Time’s nature is one of life’s greatest mysteries; it’s heavily subjective, illusionary and is influenced by the context of events. This is understandable as our brains lack the pathways to process temporal information.

Unreliable future-projection certainly has a big influence on my life. When I visualise the things I need to do, I struggle to visualise accurately how much time they will take. Let’s say a smouldering passion of mine is to write a book. Write a book becomes an entity in my mind’s eye, floating around in an abstract manner, waiting to be assigned to the time I have. Writing a book is a long, drawn out process and I might have formed the following mistaken belief:

“Writing a book takes a long time. I’ll need to dedicate a number of hours each week to writing, even when I don’t feel like it.”

Eager to get going and excited by the prospect of structuring time for writing, I say to myself — the most important thing is time management. Write a book becomes another mental entity on the list of things I need to do. The trouble is, even before attempting to write a book, the things I need to do don’t fit the time I have — at least from my perception. I may have formed an additional mistaken belief:

“In the past I’ve never had time to sit down and write, because the things I need to do always outweigh the time I have. The only way to write a book, which will take a number of hours per week, for a year or more, is to get more time so the time I have fits the time it takes.”

Now the process of time management has a few deceptive layers. I have an attempt to synchronise the things I need to do into the time I have, with an erroneous belief of how much time it takes. This leads to another mistaken belief — the only way to do what I want to do is get more time. Yet time isn’t a commodity, something to gain or throw away, so I have tricked myself into believing there simply isn’t time to write a book, and consequently writing a book is a fanciful, impossible dream.

Interestingly a 2009 study led by Dr. Zauberman, a professor of marketing at Wharton School of Business, explored the subjective feeling of elapsed time. “For many people, we think about our [past] goals, and if nothing much has happened with those then suddenly it seems like it was just yesterday that we set them,” he told The New York Times. This perception can change “depending on what you think about, and how.”

perception future
Erroneous beliefs can lead us to think the only way to perform certain tasks is to have more time.

Zauberman’s study could be significant in understanding how the above limiting belief of not having enough time is formed by memory and perception of past attempts at achieving goals. If we live our lives taking the square peg, round hole approach and not pursuing our passions or desires, we can become stuck in self-fulfilling cycle of lack of time. We perceive time as flying by, as limited. We project this erroneous belief into our mental calendar and can’t find space. Writing a book becomes a write off.

Problem #2: We Value Certain Tasks By Productivity

“Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed.” — Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

On top of erroneously perceiving how much time it takes, there’s another key mistaken belief in modern culture:

“I can’t afford to waste my time, because it is valuable.”

What this common mistaken belief is really saying is: “If I’m not being productive, my time is wasted.” As Tolle points out in the above quote, this is a fallacy. Time isn’t precious, but each waking moment is. Yet we’ve been taught to value the concept of time, the idea of a blissful future where all our materialistic dreams are fulfilled.

This is an important element of time management and our perception of time — we live in an economically-driven, materialistic society that deems “productivity” as valuable, because it contributes to economy, and thus its agenda. Society does not value being because being is the antithesis of this agenda.

There are a number of forces at play here. Culturally, we assimilate the idea that a) time is valuable and it cannot be wasted and b) there is a hierarchy of productivity (thus value) framed by economically-driven principles. The number one principle for productivity is spending our time in a way that makes money. Other values closely linked include achievement, framed within itself to essentially mean career success, and material gain (get the house, get the car, get the iPhone X). You could argue escapism, and hedonism, cunningly weave their way into this value system as a means of “switching off” from incessant productivity.

I’ll let the words of Bill Hicks illustrate this particular point. The provocative stand-up comedian believed the key to understanding a society was to look at the drugs it permissed. In his typically astute, cynical view:

“Except for pharmaceutical poison, there are essentially only two drugs that Western civilization tolerates: Caffeine from Monday to Friday to energize you enough to make you a productive member of society, and alcohol from Friday to Monday to keep you too stupid to figure out the prison that you are living in.”

Problem #3: Productivity Is Based On Values Driven By Economic Agenda

There are many more layers and this order isn’t an exact science, but in a nutshell, our economically-driven, materialistic society frames what productivity is, and the best way to spend our time is to be productive. I’d argue:

Productivity has become an addiction.

We strive to be more productive, with the aid of modern technology. We strive for motivation, the elixir or productivity. We’re productive at the cost of our mental health and wellness. We’re even transforming mindfulness into a tool to make employees more productive at the workplace. All this leads to most of us feeling a noticeable twinge of guilt any time we aren’t productive. But it’s important to remember it’s all a matter of perspective.

Time spent “not being productive” is framed that way because of societies hierarchy of values. When we abide by the value society gives time, and money-centered productivity, it means we value other pursuits as less than. Doing nothing is a cardinal sin, the epitome of not being productive. Taking time to reflect. Doing for the sake of doing. Being for the sake of being. Writing. Painting. Walking. Playing. Resting. These are noble pursuits that nourish the soul — yet they do not hold much value in the hierarchy of productivity.

Problem #4: Time Management Is Subconsciously Filtered By Values

Mentally the entities in our mind’s eye — the things we need to do — are arranged in accordance to values assimilated by society’s hierarchy of productivity. We can further break the things we need to do into the following:

  • Core needs: eat, sleep, pay bills, shelter. These are essential to survival and are naturally high value.
  • Hierarchy of productivity: entities linked to the hierarchy of productivity are a close second. Making money, striving for success, moving forwards, career progression. These are future-based and attainment-based, thus making the future more valuable than the present (Tolle rightly refers to this notion as insanity).
  • Escapism: we are social animals — socialisation is a core need. But there’s emphasis in modern times to always be seen as having fun, escaping, creating Instagram, Facebook ready “moments.” During alone-time, escapism may include binge-watching Netflix or digesting social media. This form of escapism encourages a lack of self-reflection, self-insight and consequently self-actualisation.
  • Doing stuff or “busyness”: doing nothing is low value, so many of us fill our time rushing from one thing to the next, doing stuff to avoid doing nothing.

Again, these categories are far from exact science, but they hopefully provide an idea of how the motivating factors behind the mental process of assigning the things we need to do into the time we have. Let’s return to the book example to clarify. I start the process of time management by attempting to assign the entity write a book into the time I have in my mind’s eye. This process encompasses a flawed perception of how much time it takes.

During this process, conflicting values will fight it out to see where write a book can fit. The values I assign to write a book may include fulfilment, satisfaction, creative expression, and so on. However, in a value system based on society’s values, these rank poorly. In a Top Trumps standoff, fulfilment, satisfaction, and creativity can’t match making money, doing stuff, and even plays second fiddle to fun or escapism. I’ve lost count of moments in the past where I’ve planned to get up early and write, only to choose to get drunk the evening before and sleep in.

The Solution: Conscious Time Valuation

Time valuation is more important than time management and here’s why:

If we don’t consciously apply value to the things we need to do, those values are set for us.

If we simply attempt time management, the process is dictated by the hierarchy of productivity and external values fitting the agenda of an economically-driven society. Once aware of this process, the antidote is to empower ourselves by setting our own values. This transforms the process in a way that serves us. Back to the book example; if I consciously set this at high value and understand the process of time management, the process of assigning the things I need to do to the time I have changes.

Instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, I trim the edges and make the square a circle. Write a book becomes high-value, beating other categories such as doing stuff, escapism, and even the hierarchy of productivity. The process of assigning the things I need to do into the time I have becomes a conscious, creative, and fluid activity.

square peg round hole
The square peg round hole approach to time management.

Other things I need to do are automatically ranked lower, and therefore will not take precedent when attempting to fill the time I have. Identifying write a book as high value allows for more flexibility; perhaps I acknowledge even 30 minutes of writing per day is valuable, and actively schedule the time, turning the abstract notion into a concrete reality. Maybe I go to bed early so I can wake earlier to write. This is the process of trimming the edges, making the square peg circle:

“Writing a book is high-value. I will assign two hours to write on Wednesday evening and rearrange the things I need to do if necessary.”

I’m not advocating irresponsibility. Meeting core needs and gaining financial income to provide security and shelter are necessities. Socialisation is a necessity to the extent of keeping our relationships, sense of connection and intimacy healthy. Escapism is necessary at times, as long it doesn’t become a habitual avoidance technique. Balance is key.

But if we can incorporate the conscious time valuation, imagine the difference when assigning the things we need to do into the time we have. Writing a book has transformed from a task that takes lots of time and doesn’t fit the time we have, to becoming a concrete addition to the mental calendar, immovable, valuable.

The Higher The Value, The More Likely You’ll Stick To Completing The Task

An additional bonus is that high-value entries become solid entries in the mind’s eye, not featherweight entries easily blown by the wind of outside influence. Let’s use exercise as an example. Take three people: Person A regularly works out multiple times per week. Person B enjoys exercise and understands how important it is for health, yet never gets more time to go to the gym or run. Person C doesn’t value exercise.

For argument’s sake, let’s say they are both contracted the same amount of hours per week, at the same company, and have the same level of social invites, same core needs, and same day-to-day responsibilities. In this scenario:

  • Person A has consciously placed high-value on exercise, so exercise becomes a solid entry in the calendar of their mind’s eye. When undertaking the process of assigning the things they need to do to the time they have, exercise ranks highly. When looking at the time they have, Person A sets solid entry for exercise, three times per week, and always manages to “make time” for it.
  • Person B, though clear on the value of exercise, hasn’t consciously assigned it higher value than external values. They may be unaware they are influenced by the perceived value of busyness, escapism, the hierarchy of productivity. They take the square peg, round hole approach and always struggle to get more time for exercise. When exercise is successfully scheduled, it is low value, and easily replaced by other events.
  • Person C doesn’t assign value to exercise. It’s not even an entry on the things I need to do. But what happens if Person C develops diabetes or suffers a heart attack? Exercise enters the things I need to do. Depending on the person’s desire to improve their health, they may then end up in the same situation as Person A or Person C. They either consciously place high-value on staying well, or struggle to get more time as exercise plays second fiddle to external values.

These examples aren’t clear cut. There are many areas in our life we subconsciously assign value and manage our time accordingly. The main point to take home is this:

Consciously assigning value can transform the way you assign the things you need to do to the time you have.

This transformation leads then to a more fulfilling, relaxed, rounded and balanced use of the most precious thing you have — not time, but the present moment.

Ego, Features, Fitness, Spirituality

Buddhism And Body Image — Applying The Middle Way Philosophy

The Middle Way was taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Born into a rich family in the ancient city of Kapilavastu, Gautama lived a comfortable, privileged life within the grounds of his family’s palace. Gautama first set foot beyond the confines of wealth and luxury at the age of 29. He was horrified by what he saw — death, disease, misery, suffering. Humbled by this new reality, he was struck by the realisation of the thread of suffering running through humanity. From that moment, Gautama began his quest to find a way beyond suffering, to Nirvâna.

In a moment known as “The Great Renunciation,” Gautama calmly abandoned his life of leisure, giving up his status, wealth and possessions. His initial attempt at awakening was through asceticism, an extreme form of self-discipline. Six years of little food, little sleep, little interaction and hours and hours of meditation each day took their toll; Gautama collapsed in ill health. After this worrying wake-up call, he realised an important truth — an extreme, unbalanced approach would never lead to enlightenment.

Buddhism And Body Image

Despite being accused of cowardice by his pro-ascetic peers, Gautama knew a balanced approach was essential to reach Nirvâna. At the age of 35 he sat beneath The Bodhi Tree, determined to meditate until he reached enlightenment. After 49 days, he became The Buddha (The Awakened One). He then saw things as they really are, leading to his formation of the The Four Noble Truths, a philosophy on suffering. This principal formed the foundation of Buddhism.

The Eight Fold Path is a central teaching in this philosophy. This “path” avoids sensual self-indulgence and self-mortification. Its ethos: balance. This article will apply this philosophy to the complex and sometimes conflicting topic of body image. Below are five separations. Each distinguishes extremities in areas of suffering related to body image, carving a middle way. This is my attempt to structure the unspoken, abstract and often subconscious way spiritual practice has drastically improved my relationship with my body. I’m hopeful it’ll help you, too.

Separation #1: Worth From Appearance

“This Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.” — Excerpt from The Heart Sutra – Translated by Thich Nhat Hanh

Effective techniques to alleviate negative body image require unlearning. What do I mean by this? Improving body image requires us to undo the internalisation of strong cultural messages, messages assimilated since birth. The previous article explores the importance of unlearning the warped and unrealistic cultural definition of beauty. In similar vein, the first separation requires us to unlearn the cultural delusion that how we look has any influence, whatsoever, on our worth. This separation distills worth from appearance, avoiding the extreme of placing value on personal appearance — a remedy guaranteed to cause insecurity and anxiety.

Inherently, most of us agree our worth isn’t skin deep. You may be thinking, “that’s obvious Ricky, tell me something new.” But living and breathing this truth is a far cry from agreeing with it. That’s because intellectual acknowledgment — “I know I should feel this way” — is different from experiential understanding — “I feel this way.”

To clarify, think of a time when you’ve really, truly appreciated someone or something. Remember how it felt. You may have experienced a warming energy moving freely through your body, accompanied by an upbeat sense of ease, an unexpected outpouring of joy. These feelings are spontaneous. They don’t arise because of judgemental thoughts, as the consequence of evaluating a situation and deciding it is a moment for appreciation. These feelings arise in the absence of all thinking. Rarely, if ever, do they follow the thought: “I should appreciate this.”

Now, think of a time when you told yourself: “I should appreciate this moment.” How did you respond emotionally? For me, these types of thought are always followed by a suffocating sensation of guilt, accompanied by a self-sabotaging spiral of thoughts: “Why don’t I feel appreciation for this moment? I must be a bad person.” Self-worth follows this same blueprint.

body image worth
Our worth exceeds our physicality.

The antidote is moving beyond the intellect, to a place we can spontaneously feel self-worth. There’s no magic pill or quick fix; it takes regular meditation and mindfulness practice to cultivate appreciation, compassion, love and acceptance — for yourself, for others, for situations. Experiential understanding in this sense breaks down into increased self-compassion and self-acceptance.

The good news is you don’t have to focus on attaining self-worth. Developing experiential understanding causes self-worth to radiate from within, arising in the absence of thought — just like the appreciation example. And when this feeling radiates from within, the value placed on external factors (including appearance) starts to evaporate, all by itself.

Take action today — here’s a guided meditation on self-acceptance.

Separation #2: Satisfaction From Vanity

“We must distinguish between pride and self-confidence.” — Dalai Lama, Daily Advice from the Heart.

How do we apply the Dalai Lama’s above advice to body image? The key lies with Separation #2: satisfaction from vanity, the sweet spot between body shame and narcissism. Feeling content with the way we look isn’t indulgence. Vanity is. It’s a manifestation of the ego, a fragile form of attachment. Vanity causes suffering because indulgence in the body misplaces self-worth and attaches to the illusion of a fixed concept (more on that shortly). I’m not going to claim I don’t give a damn about my appearance; I cut my hair every three weeks and have an ASOS Premier Delivery subscription.

The Middle Way isn’t a lack of care. It’s taking care of physical appearance, without undue emphasis. This is particularly relevant to exercise and body composition. As mentioned in Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body Image, my body image struggles were sparked by feeling “too skinny” or “weak” or “not manly enough.” I started weight training because I thought building muscle would enhance my self-worth and value. I quickly learned a lesson. Instead, self-judgement increased as self-esteem decreased because I was paying even more attention to my physical form. I had gone from one extreme to the other.

I still weight train, and I finally feel I’ve found balance, most of the time. The key lies with perspective, not pull-ups. I no longer objectify my body as a piece of flesh I’m desperately attempting to sculpt by constantly pushing it to its limits. I value it as a vital extension of me, not something I own. I try to use exercise to increase the mind-body connection (at roughly 70% success rate). I listen to it and respect it by making a further separation.

Separation #3: Functionality From Objectification

“Apart from the obvious health benefits, we received evidence that physical activity can improve body image by diverting attention from what the body looks like to what it can do.” — A Body Confident Future

In a world obsessed with objectifying physical form, switching focus to functionality is an effective way to tackle self-objectification. Exercise plays a valuable part in this process. A philosophy I’ve developed for weight training is:

Switch mindset, from judgement to intrigue. Move from evaluation to fascination.

From the moment I ordered my first protein shake and stepped into the sweaty, windowless confines of my local gym, I was desperate to move away from self-perceived inadequacy. Consequently I began mindset of judgement and evaluation. What did that lead to? It led to constant self-judgement and self-evaluation, even once I’d got going. I’d feel frustrated and downbeat staring at my reflection. I’d obsess over the parts (parts = objectification?) of my body not developing as quickly as I’d hoped.

I’d started to change my body to change my self-esteem, yet I was operating within the paradigm of unrealistic beauty standards. I was placing my worth on how close I was getting to the perfected images I’d seen in the media. This expectation, this hope, was fuelled by a deceptive fitness industry that sells a lie of what is possible, without the aid of steroids. I’d internalised a distorted expectation of the functionality of my body. I wasn’t tuned into me, I was tuned out, hopelessly trying to attain someone else’s look.

The above philosophy has radically changed my outlook. I take a playful approach to the way the body changes and adapts. I try and step back, simply notice changes without actively labelling them “good” or “bad” or myself a success of failure dependent on my reflection. I take a curious approach to when I feel weaker or stronger on a particular day, or how certain foods give me more energy than others. At a basic level, I’ve developed an appreciation for the miracle of the human body, and its ability to change.

Self-criticism does of course still catch up with me. I get days where I feel anxious about my appearance — maybe I’m shrinking, putting on too much fat, incapable of exercising properly, not eating enough, eating too much — but these are reduced, fleeting, they don’t stick and I’m able to step back quicker, rationalise.

Separation #4: Impermanence From Fixed Concepts

“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta

Attachment is fixation. Attachment to fixed concepts causes suffering. Fixed concepts are an illusion — the reality is nothing is fixed, everything is constantly changing. Impermanence (anicca) is central to Buddhism, and one of the three marks of existence along with suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anattā). Ignorance to these three marks causes suffering, as all elements within our universe are transient, in constant flux. The Four Noble Truths, as mentioned previously, are:

  1. All existence is dukkha. Unsatisfactoriness, suffering… Ultimate happiness cannot be found in anything we experience. Gaining six pack abs or dropping a dress size won’t bring happiness.
  2. The cause of dukkha is craving. We grasp at some things, push others away, putting us at odds with the way life is. We grasp perfect beauty standards, we push away images of perceived ugliness.
  3. The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving. We can’t change what happens to us, but can change our response. Our bodies are our own, each a unique shape and size and composition. Severing the craving for a different body and accepting our body as our own can reduce suffering.
  4. There is a path that leads from dukkha. This is the Noble Eightfold Path.

One of the biggest attachments we develop is to the body. Eastern practice offers remedies to this; the Kāyagatāsati Sutta, for example, is practice of developing mindfulness through contemplations on the body. If we can accept the impermanent nature of the physical body, its inevitable fate, the decay over the course of time, we can cultivate a more peaceful relationship with it. Balance with this separation is respecting the transient nature of the body, avoiding attachment (indulgence). Conversely, we simultaneously want to cultivate a sense of ease with this knowledge. Impermanence and eventual death doesn’t justify bodily neglect (mortification).

Separation #5: Health From Aesthetics

Western culture is heavily invested in the idea the self, intelligence and consciousness is all contained in the mind. Other traditions don’t see it this way. Chinese medicine, for example, correlates emotions to specific organs, and treats symptoms accordingly. Viewing emotions are a form of abstract experience is a fallacy — look no further than cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress, referred to as “public enemy number one” for its damaging physical effects. Then there’s growing evidence that gut microbes may influence our mood. A 2011 study by McMaster University discovered implanting bacteria from anxiety suffering humans into mice increased their level of anxiety-like behaviour.

Not only does this study bring new meaning to “gut feeling,” it highlights the symbiotic relationship between mind, body and soul. The way the body is treated has a significant impact on the mind. One of the biggest tools I’ve used to manage depression and anxiety is to make sure I’m treating my body well. At a stage of crisis, the first point of call to assess exercise, nutrition, sleep hygiene, stress, alcohol and drug consumption. My direct experience tells me to achieve an optimum mental state, a solid foundation to handle day-to-day fluctuations, all of these areas have to be in order.

health body image
A focus on overall health, not aesthetics, is proven to improve body image.

Mental health can’t flourish whilst the body is abused by junk food or neglected by lethargy. Sadly, our culture is so set on bodily abuse is taking active steps to better health is sometimes seen as a rebellious (or even presumptuous) act. Just try abstaining from alcohol and see how challenging it is. Forget exercising and eating well to shape up to Instagram models or Hollywood stars; this level of care is crucial not to look good, but to feel great. Ignore the messages saying you don’t deserve it — you do.

That’s why the fifth and final separation is an important one. Learning to tune-in to your bodily sensations and energy can act as a visual guide to your health. This is very subjective and personal to you. Weigh up the pros and cons and be your own guide. If you feel a certain way after eating a certain food, or feel energetic after less than eight hours sleep, follow your guide. If your skin indicates a lack of hydration, or too much fatty food, follow the guide. Respect the body, refer to it, let it guide you to good health.

A final word

Drastically improving body image is possible. But no article, no single tool, no words of wisdom or fads or movements or meditations will magically flip a switch. It takes hard work. It takes daily application of the tools, some of which I’ve shared, many of which are out there, waiting for you to uncover. The moment you consciously decide a negative body image isn’t serving you, is the moment you spark change.

Good luck. You can do this.

Features, Fitness, Psychology, Social Media

Improving Body Image: How Perception Of The Body Is A Reflection Of The Mind

negative body image
Body image issues arise in the mind, not the body.

Let’s begin with a simple truth: the mainstream media, particularly the advertising industry, defines beauty standards. These definitions are deliberately unattainable and perfect, because they fit an agenda. Making us feel bad about how we look works in the favour of profit-making corporations. With multiple billions at stake, it’s unlikely we’ll witness diverse, attainable and imperfect definitions of beauty in the mainstream media, at least in our lifetime.

If power structures won’t change, there’s no choice; the onus is on us to reshape and redefine beauty, by our realistic standards, improving negative body image in the process. But how do we redefine and change our mindsets? How do we reverse and unlearn conditioning that has been drilled into us, our entire lives?

Ideas presented here include: reframing ideas of beauty; becoming aware of (and accepting) ways we instinctively judge others and compare; body shaming vigilance; understanding body image psychology; accepting impermanence; and understanding the illusion of fixed concepts, such as appearance.

This article contains anonymous quotes from friends, male (M) and female (F), who have shared their experiences on body image.

Redefining Beauty And Celebrating Individuality

The cultural concept of beauty is forcefully promoted billboards, TV screens, webpages, beauty products and everywhere since forever, like a cynical, slow-dripping serum of deceit, disguising itself as truth. But it isn’t truth, and the more we actively and consciously reject these images, the more we redefine beauty. A key principle behind this approach is redefining from aesthetic perfection to individuality.

How? We retrain our minds to look at others, and ourselves, the way we look at nature. Because as much as we may see ourselves as separate entities, cut off from the world around us, we are nature, too. Instinctively we embrace the untamed uniqueness of a landscape, sunset, forest, mountain, whatever it may be, and we see beauty. Imagine if we did the same with people? Discussing self-judgement, spiritual guru Ram Dass writes:

“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is.

“The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

Ram Dass references the totality of a person, but his words are easily applied to body image. Just as every tree in the forest is beautiful in its own way, so is every person. Training our eyes to discover beauty — away from a narrow template of physical traits and towards appreciation of uniqueness — is a powerful shift. Once we see non-discriminatory beauty in others, the next step is seeing it in ourselves. But first, we must move away from the mindset of judgement and comparison.

Stop Judging Others, Stop Judging Ourselves

Judgement is comparison with a gavel (that’s a judge’s mallet, by the way — yeah, I Googled it). Evaluating others with a discriminatory eye is the opposite of appreciate the beauty of uniqueness. There’s a reason non-judgement is at the core of spiritual philosophy; the way we perceive the world is reflected in the way we perceive ourselves. Evaluating and judging others frames the human body as an object to be observed. As explained in Instagram’s Influence on Negative Body Image, objectification leads to self-objectification. It’s a vicious cycle.

Judgement reflects right back at us.

This isn’t specific to conscious, mean-hearted judgement, either. It applies to the habitual, instantaneous thoughts arising when encountering the rich variety of bodies throughout each day. Think you’re immune? I promise you, we all have this inner-judge to some extent. Living in this world, it’s impossible to avoid it completely. Unless you’ve spent your life under a rock, or living in the Big Brother house, you’ll likely have internalised a number of these biases, probably without consciously registering this process.

The next step is a difficult one — it’s time to put your ego aside and dig deep into yourself to discover these unfriendly thought-processes. I’ll go first…

I’m A Judgemental Body-Shamer

I like to think I’m a non-judgemental, caring-kinda-guy. But when actively tuning in to my inner-dialogue, I notice how quickly I react to bodies around me — too fat, not muscular enough, too hairy, too hairless. Noticing this unsavoury thinking loop is disconcerting, because let’s be honest, it comes across as mean and not very pleasant, and I don’t like to think of myself as a mean person.

However, to overcome the dark crevices of a conditioned brain, we must actively accept them by applying a mindful approach — let thoughts arise without indulgence (“Maybe these thoughts are the truth, after all, that person doesn’t fit the definition of beauty I have in mind”) resistance (“I don’t want these thoughts!”) or judgement (“I’m a horrible person”).

Such thoughts spring into our minds, outside of our control. Where do they come from? Jungian psychology suggests the “shadow,” an unconscious dark side of the psyche. I’d argue the shadow is the source of unsavoury, judgemental thoughts. Word of caution on practicing this step: having these thoughts does not make you a bad person. They are your thoughts, they aren’t you. We may not control the thoughts entering our minds, be we can control our reaction.

“We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are,” the brilliant psychologist, Carl Rogers, writes in On Becoming A Person. “Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” In my experience, this is absolutely true. Accepting dark thoughts with compassion and non-judgement allows them to be processed adequately.

Imagine your subconscious as water in a saucepan, below the conscious mind. Difficult thoughts and emotions occasionally bubble to the surface. Repressing or rejecting this process is the equivalent of placing a lid on top the saucepan. What happens? The water boils quicker, the bubbles increase. In acceptance we surrender and allow the water to evaporate. The temperature lowers, the bubbles calm.

The Importance Of Creating Communities

“It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.” — Fabienne, Pulp Fiction

Call me a deluded optimist, but I have a vision of self-aware utopia where we support each other’s wellness, and frame our own definitions of worth, beauty and success. Imagine how incredible it would be if we formed communities that actively promote equality, kindness and universal acceptance. Community, in this sense, doesn’t have to be a city, or even a district. We all have spheres of influence.

A challenging aspect of taking steps towards this utopia is calling out body shaming or objectification, when we can. Screaming obscenities won’t help, but attempting to educate the oblivious or ignorant will. This includes rejecting established structures and damaging stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes and hetero-centric stereotypes.

There are actions we can take, today, to forming such communities. In terms of body image issues, it’s imperative we are open and honest in discussing its significance. It’s imperative we take the challenging step of sharing vulnerability. Scary it may be, but in doing so, we can connect with others and create spaces where we can each thrive.

“In the last year or two I’ve accepted my body more and feel more comfortable about it — mainly owing to the people I spend time with, my friends and partner, and also just knowing myself better as I get older.” — M

In a world where more and more of us are connected in cyberspace but crave real connection, I urge you to have an open, honest and challenging conversation with those close to you about your feelings on this subject. You’ll be surprised how universal these issues are, as I was when asking friends to share their experiences.

The Way We Feel About Our Bodies Is A Reflection Of The Mind

“Our perceptions of outer appearances are profoundly affected by the inner conditioning of our minds.”  — Master Hsing Yun, Lotus in a Stream: Essays in Basic Buddhism.

Psychologist Elizabeth Halsted advocates increasing self-esteem as a catalyst in improving body image. Frequently, negative body images form due to low self-esteem. As Halstead writes on Psychology Today, someone experiencing low self-esteem has self-critical perception of their personality. Consequently, someone may believe people don’t like them, or they have nothing to contribute in social situations. This lead to over-reliance physical appearance “to create a positive effect on others.”

redefining beauty
The onus is on us to redefine beauty.

Halstead identifies the importance of acceptance, instead of self-criticism. In particular, there are three thinking processes commonly associated with body image issues: perfectionism, comparison, and judgement. When I experience a bout of depression and self-critical thoughts swirl around my head in a mind-storm of self-loathing, my appearance gets caught in the crossfire and I begin to pay more attention to it. Increasing concern over my appearance is often the first warning sign for an oncoming bout of low-mood.

“When I decided to stop fighting how my body naturally looks, I managed to let go of a lot of stress.” — F

There’s no question body image is a mental health issue, yet often the first attempt at a solution is changing the way or bodies look, in an outward-in attempt at fixing perception. Which leads on to…

Exercise, Impermanence And Body Composition

“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta

Many people who have a negative body image will attempt to change their body composition, whether through diet, exercise, or even surgery — it’s the reason I initially started to lift weights. Attempting to overcome negative body image purely by changing the body, without an attempt to confront issues of self-esteem, comparison and judgement, is often the precursor to eating disorders, steroid use and body dysmorphia. This comes from the mistaken belief:

“I am unhappy with my body, so I will change it. I want to fit beauty standards I see in the media. Once I reach this standard, I will be worthy. My self-esteem will increase, my body image will be positive, I will be happy.”

Moulding our bodies to fit idealised perfection is near impossible, because all bodies are different. If not genetically predisposed, it’s incredibly difficult to shape our bodies a certain way, whether dramatically slimming down or bulking up. Changing body composition for this reason has the opposite affect by strengthening self-objectification.

Even if “aesthetic perfection” is reached, you’ll be no better off. Why? Because the external is the ego’s playground, and the ego is never satisfied. Don’t believe me? Check out this quote:

“When I look in the mirror, I throw up. I was already so critical of myself, even when I was in top physical shape. I’d look in the mirror after I won one Mr. Olympia after another and think, ‘How did this pile of (bleep) win?’ I never saw perfection. There was always something lacking.”

Those words are from Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is idolised by the bodybuilding community to this day, a beacon of physical “perfection” in his prime, validated by seven Mr. Olympia titles. But he’s never been happy with his body, and at 70-years-old, hates his reflection so much it makes him physically sick.

Ego, Craving And “I’ll Be Happy When… I’m Ripped”

If we identify the body as a source of worth and social status or crave desirability by becoming more “attractive,” the act of sculpting the perfect physique becomes another “I’ll be happy when.” Not that I’m going to psychoanalyse the Terminator, but… if I were going to speculate on his thinking process during his peak years, it’d go like this:

“I have reached physical perfection in the eyes of others, the promised land. But I am still unhappy. I don’t feel worthy of praise. There’s more I can change before I’m fully happy, I will keep striving.”

This is an important point: if you don’t address low self-esteem, changing the way your body looks won’t make one iota of difference to your body image. It’s the ego’s nature to constantly seek and crave. It will always perceive itself lacking. Conversely, the ego takes hold and identifies with physical appearance, undesired changes will cause significant stress, as Arnie discovered. This ranges from the mundane (bad hair days, pimples) to the unavoidable yet significant (ageing, illness).

Improving Body Image With Buddhism And The Middle Way

I’d initially planned one article on body image, related to Instagram. But the topic has taken on a life of its own. The more I explore, research and talk to others, the more I’m convinced this a key issue facing this generation — male and female. So, I’m not done yet. I want to guide you along a path I find never fails to offer insight and solace. I’ll apply the time-tested Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way to body image, in a bid to find a balanced approach to our relationship with our bodies. Until then, I hope this article contains meaningful, applicable solutions for you to try.

< Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body ImageA Buddhist Approach To Improving Body Image >

Features, Fitness, Social Media

Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body Image

Instagram influence body image
Is Instagram damaging to body image?

It’s official — Instagram is the worst social media site for mental health. All social media sites have a potentially detrimental effect on the way we feel, but Instagram, with its heavy focus on imagery, has a particularly negative impact on one specific area: body image. Instagram isn’t the instigator of body image issues, of course, but instead a heavily-filtered reflection of a culture that objectifies, sexualises and commodifies the human body, while promoting unattainable and unrealistic standards of what beauty is.

Beauty is subjective, yet rarely seen in the beholder’s reflection. Global research by Dove discovered just 4 percent of women find themselves beautiful, while simultaneously, 80 percent acknowledge all women have something beautiful about them. This negative self-perceptions begins a young age, with girls as young as six-years-old having expressed body-related anxiety. If unchecked, such bodily insecurities can turn into Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), causing “persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance,” leading to “severe emotional distress and difficulties in daily functioning.”

Social media sites, particularly Instagram, have been challenged to do more to combat this growing societal concern. But how can we take control and learn to love our bodies, when the forces of society thrive on us feeling insecure in our own skin?

This article contains anonymous quotes from friends, male (M) and female (F), who have shared their experiences on body image.

Advertising And Beauty Standards

“All we’ve ever wanted,
Is to look good naked,
Hope that someone can take it,
God save me rejection,
From my reflection,
I want perfection” — Robbie Williams, Bodies

Say hello to the beauty industry, a persuasive and pervasive money-making machine convincing the masses we need to improve our appearance. More and more of us don’t like the way we look. As a result, this industry — the cousin of fashion — is growing rapidly. At twice the rate of the developed world’s GDP, to be precise. Skin care alone is worth $24 billion per year, make-up $18 billion, haircare $38 billion. A report by the British Youth Council, A Body Confident Future, highlighted the “massive” role such industries have in setting idealised images of beauty. This comes at cost — a third of young people say media influence has made them feel the need to lose weight.

It’s not hard to see why. From a young age, we are all immersed in an environment rigidly defining beauty on their behalf, from adverts to fashion magazines to billboards to Hollywood. Look around you, and you’ll see a variation of all shapes and sizes, with no two bodies the same. Look at the media, and the same perfectly honed (and electronically retouched) body shapes appear, over and over again. Women are expected to defy logic by attaining the “curves in the right places and not much everywhere else” look. Men are expected to do their best impression of Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk, with bulging biceps, washboard abs, a full chest and muscular legs.

Profit — The Reason Your Body Isn’t Good Enough

Sadly, we live in a world where conglomerates like Goldman Sachs question whether curing illness is a sustainable business model. Western culture’s portrayal of conventional beauty is moulded by the same profit-making agenda. Body positivity and revenue don’t fit. If encouraged to age gracefully and embrace wrinkles, would people spend millions on expensive skin care? If encouraged embrace our natural hair, would people use straighteners, or buy hair-thickening shampoo?

Anxiety around appearance isn’t vanity or a case of millions wanting to look nice. Consumer culture consistently tells us we need things to be successful and happy. Advertising no longer sells products, it sells lifestyles. The beauty industry sells us the idea that a beautiful appearance, dictated by their idea of beauty, is the key to success and self-worth. We want to look good because we’ve been told looking good is living a successful life. But the people shaping this falsehood earn money from our endeavours to look “better.”

The Deception And Exclusion Of Mainstream Body Positivity

The Body Positive movement is the mainstream media’s response to body image issues. Body positivity is vital, of course,  but the profit-agenda is still at play. “Brands may pay lip service to the idea of diversity but continue to emphasise the message that some conventional ideals of beauty are important,” according to A Body Confident Future. The movement is defined by ever-so-slightly-altered standards. Or as plus-size fashion blogger Stephanie Yeboah put it, “body positivity seems to only serve those who fit the ‘acceptably fat’ description: white, beautiful by Westernised standards, and small/hourglass shaped.” Anyone outside of these standards — the vast majority — is cast aside.

“I went to a strip club in Nigeria and it was really interesting because I’d never seen women who actually look like me. A lot of the time I just see white bodies, but they were all black women with different shades of brown skin. They had very different body types — some were like mine, some weren’t like mine. I thought, ‘wow, this is amazing!’ It gave me confidence.” (F)

For example, women of colour are still marginalised in all aspects of beauty. This ranges from a lack of make-up options for women with darker skin, to Grazia magazine editing Lupita Nyong’o’s hair to “fit a Eurocentric idea of what beautiful hair looks like.” The Western idea that fair skin is beautiful ripples across the globe, too, resulting in worldwide “rampant darker skin stigma,” or colourism. Colourism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” It’s instigated by institutional racism but isn’t exclusively race-related.

Follow the money and you’ll find the continual rise of a skin bleaching industry expected to acquire $31.2 billion by 2024.

Let’s Talk About Sex(ualisation)

Internet changed the pornography star [Credit: PornHub].
It’s impossible to discuss body image in the media without also discussing sex. Using sex to sell degrades the human body, turning it into an object existing for the viewing pleasure of others. This is a facet of a hyper-sexualised culture, perpetuating objectification in all forms of media. Nowhere is this more evident than the porn industry. The internet has made porn more accessible than ever; in 2017, PornHub received 81 million hits. Daily. Across the year, 28.5 billion hits resulted in 68 years worth of porn being uploaded.

Although porn use in general shouldn’t be a cause of shame, the majority of online videos depict inauthentic, friction-heavy and genital-focused intercourse. By portraying unrealistic gender stereotypes, it influences how men and women feel they should look and behave in an intimate setting. It’s an industry with an underlying, venomous and sometimes violent attitude toward preserving the status quo of gender inequality. Women are shown as submissive bystanders, existing to serve male desire. Although porn feels distant from mainstream media, they share the same destructive aspects, the latter in a diluted form.

The Beauty Myth

Author Naomi Wolf deconstructs objectification and beauty in The Beauty Myth, a titular theory “prescribing behaviour and not appearance.” In her framework, beauty needs to first be approved by men in order to be validated. According to Wolf, this dynamic limits women’s freedom because their behaviour, as well as appearance, is scrutinised — including the way they walk, talk, dress, and interact.

The Iron Maiden is a term Wolf applies to societal expectations and assumptions about the female body. Wolf argues unattainable images of beauty are used to punish women. Any female not conforming is made to feel “monstrous,” despite being physically functional:

“A man’s thigh is for walking, but a woman’s is for walking and looking ‘beautiful.’ If women can walk but believe our limbs look wrong, we feel that our bodies cannot do what they are meant to do; we feel as genuinely deformed and disabled as the unwilling Victorian hypochondriac felt ill.”

Though written in 1991, the myth is still relevant. A 2014 report by the UK’s Government Equalities Office, The Watched Body, highlights how women in leadership roles are expected to adhere to perceived feminine traits in order to be respected. A 1997 study referred to this as the objection theory, where women are frequently “looked at as objects by society, with a sexual focus being placed on their bodies rather than on their abilities.”

Men, Muscle Mass And Eating Disorders

Body images issues aren’t exclusive to women, though. Men used to be conditioned for nonchalance, a squirt of Old Spice and a hurried sink wash. But a shift in masculine stereotypes has seen the male population become more concerned their bodies’ appearance. Last year it was reported eating disorders had risen 70 percent in men, in only a six year period. In another study, 45 percent of men said they’ve experienced a period of “bigorexia,” an obsession with muscle building. Although gender bias with body image issues can make it more difficult for men to speak openly about their insecurities, the insecurities are certainly there.

“Pressure for body perfection is on the rise for men of all ages, which is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder,” Dr William Rhys Jones, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty, told the Guardian. “Images of unhealthy male body ideals in the media place unnecessary pressure on vulnerable people who strive for acceptance through the way they look.” These unhealthy images for men focus on an increasingly muscular, low fat physique.

“Body image has been an issue for me since secondary school, especially playing rugby and other sports in an all-boys school. I often felt inferior or weaker, and the pressure was quite high to workout and get big, which I didn’t achieve to the same extent as most.” — M

Hollywood is often a reliable reflection of its time, including changing definitions of beauty. Look no further than the superhero genre, the most lucrative and popular in modern cinema. The likes of Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Chris Evans (Captain America), Henry Cavill (Superman), Ben Affleck (Batman), Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Chris Pratt (Star-Lord) saturate the media with images of their bulked up physiques. Away from superheroes, contrast Daniel Craig’s physique as James Bond with Roger Moore or Sean Connery, or Dwayne Johnson or Zac Efron with David Hasselhoff in Baywatch.

There’s also a growing trend of using these examples — attained by 24/7 devotion and support from the world’s leading nutritionists and personal trainers — as ways to inspire the Average Joe to pick up some iron. News outlets shared inside scoops on the A-list’s workout routines and diet, while social media is awash with behind-the-scenes clips. Apparently it’s easy, if only you know how.

The Rise Of Bigorexia

It’s not only acting royalty who promote unrealistic mass. Reality television — tabloid in TV form — presents objectification and beauty standards without restraint. Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in addiction at the University of York, apportioned blame in the rise of male body image issues on show’s such as Love Island, combined with social media. “In some ways young men have been catching up with young women over the last few years, they are more sensitive and vigilant about how they should look and this is becoming more acute,” he told The Telegraph. “I think it is to do with appearance and masculinity, and the messages we absorb through social media.”

“I really dislike wearing shorts in public because I genuinely feel like my legs from the knee down are weird. The internet creates a world where we compare, compare, compare, and so when I go out in summer and men are all wearing shorts, I can’t help but compare my legs to other’s. Most of the time it leads to some kind of negative feeling.” — M

Back in the day a little Burt Reynolds chest fuzz or Sean Connery’s realistically slim physique were seen as attractive. Now, muscle is mistaken for “manliness.” Consequently, a growing number of men experience muscle dysmorphia, the mistaken belief they aren’t muscular enough. It affects 10 percent of gym-going men in the UK (and, important to note, some women too). It’s natural to automatically assume vanity is the root cause, but muscle dysmorphia is defined instead as shame over one’s appearance. According to a 2016 study, men experiencing muscle dysmorphia mistakenly believe mass is an outward showing of inner strength, an indicator of success, sexual prowess, and so on. The result? In 2017, steroid use quadrupled amongst 16-24-year-olds in the UK. It’s the only drug with increased usage.

My Struggle With Body Image And Muscularity

body image
Chubby-cheeked, ready to “man up” and… self-objectification?

I’ve always fixated on my body. When I was really young, I was chubby-cheeked and curly haired. Looking at photographs, I look cute (even if I say so myself), but at the time I stressed about being fat. Before going on holiday with family friends who were naturally slimmer, I’d stand in front of the mirror in my trunks and pinch the fat around my body, willing it to go away and wishing I looked different. In my teens I was concerned for different reasons — I was a late bloomer. I was embarrassed as my peers developed hair in strange places, an outward sign of adulthood, while I was left behind.

To make matters more confusing, my body composition changed dramatically when I was 15. Not via exercise or a healthy diet, but glandular fever. Bedridden for weeks, my throat filled with a thousand paper cuts, I couldn’t eat and lost around three stone (40+ lbs). Now I felt stickly thin. I felt I lacked muscular definition and strength. I wanted to feel manly. I was insecure, and my insecurity was validated when people would comment on my weight loss. Apparently, it seems socially acceptable to call a guy skinny, despite this being a common insecurity in men.

Weightlifting was the remedy. With trepidation and high anxiety, I signed up to my local gym when I was 18. On my first session, I looked around at brawny, tattooed Bristolians bicep curling my body weight. I attempted to bench press just the bar to “ease into it.” It was too heavy. No one warned me the bar was forged from Valyrian steel. Anyway, I persisted and eventually gained muscle. I’ve continued to train regularly, and my weight has shifted up and down. Even now, I frequently compare myself to men who are much bigger or stronger or more ripped than I am, like chasing my shadow with Men’s Health under one arm, a protein shake under the other and a sense of despair as to why I couldn’t pack on 30lb of lean mass in 30 days or look like Tyler Durden in six weeks.

Instagram’s Influence On Body Image

“I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop,

Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor,

Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks” — Kendrick Lamar, HUMBLE

What about Instagram’s influence on body image? Due to its user-driven dynamic, there’s an expectation Instagram is authentic. Ideally, social media should be the antithesis of the illusions portrayed in the mainstream. Just normal people uploading normal images of their normal lives. Well, not quite. The feverish quest for profit finds its way into anything if there’s opportunity to advertise. Instagram is no different. ‘Grammers with a substantial following earn a tidy sum promoting products via the medium. Fitness “influencers,” for example, regularly make six figures for campaigns shared on their profiles. Those with six-packs and six-figure followings frequently earn $5,000 or more for a single sponsored post.

“When I’m in a good mood, I have no urge to look at Instagram. But when I’m having a day where I feel down, I’ll spend time stuck in the scroll-loop. Inevitably, I end up comparing myself to the women I see online, and I feel even worse.” — F

Though plenty use Instagram to challenge conventional standards, beauty standards have infiltrated social media. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian (who has 110 million followers) regularly receive millions of likes, but they present heavily-doctored snippets of meticulously pruned unrealities. Often, they’ll post airbrushed photographs. Sometimes, they get caught. These airbrushed images mix with photos of friends and family, with no distinction other than a blue tick. Further still, they aren’t images taken on the catwalk or during a photoshoot — they’re “authentic,” behind-the-scenes selfies with everyday, humanising captions. This camouflage erodes the boundaries between the glitz and glamour and us muggles.

I suspect Instagram’s influence on negative body image is enhanced because the nature of the platform catches people off-guard. If you pick up a copy of Vogue, you’re prepared for what you’re about to see. Using Instagram’s perceived authenticity to spread the same unattainable standards of beauty is arguably more sinister, more deceitful.

Instagram and Self-Objectification

This desire to conform to beauty standards is tantalising and has a drip-down effect into everything we do. Unwittingly, as we assimilate the media’s powerful messages, we internalise and reproduce those same ideas. Uploading images to social media conforming with beauty standards is a form of self-objectification. This occurs when objectification is internalised and the person views their body as an object to be evaluated. This is far from a superficial issue, either. There’s a whole host of evidence highlighting the damaging impact self-objectification has on one’s well being, including body shame, appearance anxiety, eating disorders and depression. In men, it has been identified as a precursor to steroid use.

This isn’t a modern phenomenon, but social media accentuates the process. Most of us will be guilty of doctoring our appearance on Instagram, whether in the form of filters, choosing an image from a selection of many, or using set angles and lighting that is flattering on the body. I’m guilty on all of these counts. Additionally, each and every like becomes a signal of approval, and for some, Instagram becomes an avenue to temporarily boost feelings of negative body image. In presenting ourselves as objects, virtual feedback provides validation and a fragile sense of worth.

“I’m aware Instagram can be damaging, so I’m careful with who I follow. Even though I’ve never searched for fitness or health, the discover section is ridiculous, it’s just filled with women with perfect bodies. I wasn’t even choosing to look for it, but it appeared and made me feel crap.” — F

Fitspiration is a trend often falling into this category. Its aim is to provide motivation for exercise and encourage a healthy lifestyle, but most posts emphasise aesthetics over health. Studies show browsing #fitspo posts on Instagram, for as little as 30 minutes, increases self-objectification. Further, another study discovered women who shared their own “Fitspo” photographs scored higher in charts monitoring a drive for thinness and compulsive exercise. Eighteen percent of the same group were at risk of developing an eating disorder.

Comparison And Negative Body Image

Body image issues rise in the space between how our bodies really are, and the projection of what our bodies should be. On top of mainstream media, social media — in particular Instagram — leads to information overload and incessant streams of people with seemingly perfect bodies. It creates a vicious cycle of comparison and negative self-perception.

“People not only compare their own bodies, but attribute perceived social value with the likes and followers that come with having a ‘sick’ body. The inverse of that is, someone who thinks they don’t have a ‘sick’ body then thinks they aren’t as valuable as a person. This obviously isn’t true, but we’re all susceptible to feeling shit about ourselves because of it.” — M

It’s possible to change our bodies through diet and exercise, to try and reach levels of perfection. But such is the nature of comparison, no physical change will ever bring lasting contentment. Losing weight or gaining muscle becomes an “I’ll be happy when.” The body is always changing, from the moment we’re born, to the moment we die. We are flesh and bone, a constant flux of regenerating cells. We get pimples, shadows under our eyes, hair in random places. Beauty standards defy human nature because they are designed to be unattainable.

Has Instagram influenced your body image? Let me know your experience in the comments section below.

Next up:

Features, Social Media

Social Media And Mental Health: Data Isn’t The Only Reason To Consider #DeleteFacebook

social media wellbeing
You need to consider the impact of social media on your mental health.

The Guardian has again worked its whistleblowing magic, exposing the role of Cambridge Analytica in illegally obtaining masses of personal data from 50 million Facebook profiles. This data was then used by Trump’s digital political campaign to target the U.S electorate. It’s not good news for Mark Zuckerberg — as Facebook’s stock falls, the momentum of an online petition to #DeleteFacebook rises, endorsed by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, Elon Musk and other prominent names.

For the conspiratorial amongst us, it’s clear online data has been targeted by the elite for some time, as exposed by the likes of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Instead of focusing on why this industrial breach of privacy should be cause to #DeleteFacebook, this article will assess whether you should boycott social media for the sake of your mental health.

It’s easy to mindlessly swipe and scroll without considering the consequences on your wellbeing. Does it make you feel anxious, depressed, jealous, agitated? Does it have a detrimental impact on your self-esteem or body image? Do you find yourself checking your phone habitually, as if there’s a psychic connection, and you and your phone are unified, half-human, half-Android?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re certainly not alone. There’s a growing field of evidence highlighting the negative influence social media has over our lives and our mental health, from making us feel a bit jaded to full-on, self-destructive addiction. There are benefits, but as a bad-news-first kinda guy, let’s take a look at the drawbacks before offering some resolution to digital doom and gloom.

Our Survey Says… Depression, Anxiety, Isolation!

Heaps of scientific studies conclude social media often makes us feel rubbish. There’s a direct correlation between the number of social media platforms people use, and symptoms of depression and anxiety. A study by the University of Missouri noted when participants browsed Facebook, they experienced feelings of envy due to negative comparisons to those in their newsfeed — leading to feelings of depression. How many of us have stalked our ex’s new partner, making a mental checklist of how many ways they’re cooler and have better stubble and nicer clothes? Just me? Moving on…

Last year, The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) published a report on the role of social media in young people’s lives. Instagram and Snapchat had the most detrimental effect for those aged 14 to 24. “Both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people,” noted Shirley Cramer, the Chief Executive at RSPH. Not only do we compare our lives with others, we compare our bodies to unattainable, and heavily photoshopped images.

With a concoction of negative body image, FOMO, comparison and feelings of envy, anxiety and depression, it’s not surprising studies have linked the time spent online with perceived social isolation. This isolation is “perceived” as it isn’t objectionably true; even people with fulfilling relationships and social lives can end up feeling very much alone after prolonged periods online.

Distraction And Multitasking

Managing distraction and instant gratification is integral aspects to spiritual practice. Meditation and mindfulness emphasise the importance of paying focused attention on the present, noting the moment you become distracted. Not only do our thoughts take us away from the present, but the craving and impulse to check our phones distracts us, too. Think you can have a cheeky browse on Pinterest while conversing with your BFF? Think again — there’s no such thing as multitasking.

The neocortex is the part of our brain responsible for thinking and focus, but it can only focus on one thing at a time. When we believe we’re multitasking, we’re instead rapidly turning our focus from one task to another. This isn’t a skillful practice; MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller notes we pay a “cognitive cost” when attempting to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.

Numerous studies identify this cost as anything from a significant drop in IQ to, disturbingly, reduced density in the anterior cingulate cortex — the area of the brain responsible for empathy and cognitive and emotional control. The vast majority of us are distracted by our smartphones, like 97% of college students who admitted to losing focus in class. Such multitasking isn’t only damaging in a working or learning environment, either. Scrolling Dwayne Johnson’s Twitter while watching Netflix or opening a new tab to ask Google questions you wouldn’t raise with your therapist are two examples that have the same negative impact on the brain.

Your Smartphone Is Draining Your Brain’s Energy

Our phones aren’t only influencing our brains while we are transfixed on them. A study by The University of Texas tested participant’s concentration after dividing them into three groups. One group had their phones turned off and facing down on their desk. Another group placed their phones in a pocket or a bag. The third group placed their phones in another room. Unsurprisingly, the third group performed significantly better.

Scientists linked reduced concentration with colloquially termed “brain drain.” This is the result of the subconscious constantly expelling energy when trying to not check your phone — like how you think of a pink elephant when someone says “don’t think of a pink elephant.” We all form phone-checking habits to some degree, causing our subconscious to murmur away whenever our phone is in close proximity. Presumably, for every sip of coffee I take, my subconscious is using all its energy to suppress the thought: “log onto Facebook and tell everyone how delicious this flat white is, hipster scum.”

brain drain
Not looking at your phone causes “brain drain.”

To make matters even more complicated, when we eventually pick up our phones, our brains release the reward hormone dopamine. The same occurs with each ping, notification or match. Then begins a vicious cycle of instant gratification: we have an impulse to check our phone, we check it, we get a dopamine hit, we repeat. Worryingly, the more we seek instant gratification, the more impulsive we become in all areas of life. When we reach a stage where we struggle to control our impulses and need to constantly satisfy them, we move into the realm of addiction.

Addiction And Instant Gratification

“Got the phone. You’re never alone with a phone. Look at that, no calls. Everyone I know doesn’t want to talk to me.”  — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show (a regular voice of wisdom).

When was the last time you were waiting for a bus and didn’t check your phone? Or the last time you didn’t immediately glance at your device when left alone for a few minutes in a social situation?  Most of us have formed the habit of constantly checking to see if we’ve been notified or messaged. These habits aren’t entirely our fault — Silicon Valley has cunningly exploited psychological insights to make social media as addictive and tantalising as possible. Apps prey on our core needs, such as connection, and use them against us. Ever wonder why Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use Apple products? Clue: it wasn’t because he preferred Android.

Most of us have fallen victim to these addictive qualities to some degree. There have been numerous times where I jolt to lucidity and notice I’m mindlessly scrolling through the Instagram feed of my ex three-relationships-past in a fog of melancholy and regret and self-pity, without conscious recollection of how I got there, like the middle of a dream. Sometimes I actively indulge in this brain-numbing activity as a means of procrastination. I doubt I’m alone.

This never-quenchable desire to jack into the Matrix of social media fulfils all the criteria of other forms of addiction — the consistent craving, the mistaken belief one more hit is what we need, a slump in mood when we realise we aren’t satisfied. This level of addiction is real; when excessive internet users stop browsing, they experience withdrawal symptoms. As with all addictions, the behavior is a symptom, not a cause. It’s a form of escape from undesired emotions — be it feelings of lack, restlessness, fear, anxiety, depression, or simply boredom. I’ve also noticed such browsing habits as a form of self-harm. I know looking at my ex’s Instagram makes me feel sad, but I sometimes actively look, indulging in the unpleasant emotion that comes with it.

Escapism, in the manner mentioned above, is the opposite of appreciation. It’s impossible to appreciate when you’re negatively comparing yourself or cyber-teleporting to social media land. Whether we realise it or not, if we constantly find ourselves checking our screen whenever our present moment isn’t satisfying us, on some level, we’re seeking salvation. We’re acting on the impulsive of “my current situation is boring me, it isn’t fun or enjoyable, I need to escape and find something to make me happy.” That happiness, concealed in a like or a comment or social validation, is delivered as a fleeting, superficial hit of dopamine. It’s not the answer.

It Ain’t All Bad… Thankfully

Uhhhh, are you feeling disillusioned? Worry not. Catastrophising the negatives of modern tech wouldn’t be telling the full story, and I told you, I’m a bad-news-first kinda guy. Maybe you don’t need to #DeleteFacebook after all — social media also has some big benefits. Like everything in life, a lot depends on the way we use the tools, and not the tools themselves. For example, the study on feelings of envy and depression when using Facebook also discovered that, when used with the intention to actively connect with others, social media can have a positive effect. Hurray!

Although I’ve listed numerous studies suggesting a multitude of ways social media is no good for our wellbeing, it can have a positive influence on those suffering from severe mental health issues. Those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts have used social media to form communities with those experiencing the same symptoms. In the midst of a depressive episode, it feels as if you’re the only person on Earth feeling that way. The emotional support, reduction in stigma and safe space to share difficult emotions with those who relate is invaluable.

Facebook Helped Me Talk About Depression

I can vouch for this sense of community. When I started university, I’d suffered from depression and anxiety for some years. Though I’d started to understand it, I was still afraid of openly discussing it, other than mentioning it to a few close friends when suitably intoxicated. It was — as it is for many people, particularly men — something I’d kept secret. I felt weak. I felt ashamed. I felt I was somehow a failure. I felt I was pathetic. Everyone else seemed happy, why didn’t I? However, Facebook helped me become comfortable opening up about how I was feeling. Consequently I realised the sense of shame and isolation was the depression talking. It wasn’t truth.

A few years ago, on World Mental Health Day, I posted this Facebook status:

Facebook can help us understand the way others feel.

I was terrified. Could I post something for all my university peers, friends and family to see, after wasting years of mental energy hiding behind a facade? I still had regular panic attacks around this time, and I was concerned others would tune in to my anxiety, making it worse. Or noticing whenever I was having a bad day, giving me nowhere to hide.

Shaking, I published my “confession.” I was overwhelmed by the words of encouragement and support in response. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear in relief and a weight lifted. It showed me the power of social media for the good, and the power of sharing my experience with depression. Without posting that status, Mind That Ego wouldn’t exist.

I’m not alone, either. Studies have shown that adolescents using social media experience an increase in both cognitive empathy (I understand your situation) and affective empathy (also known as emotional empathy, i.e., my feelings reflect the way you are feeling). This is pretty significant, isn’t it?! For all the talk of the illusion of connection online, if we control the way we use social media, it can enhance the way we relate to each other.

You Are Not Alone

For all its superficiality, there is the opportunity to use social media for genuine connection. As well as mental health communities, those suffering chronic illness find support on social media. Platforms like Facebook are “invaluable for people with health conditions to know that they are not alone, that there are other people who have gone through this and got better,” according to Professor John Powell from Oxford University. The same applies to marginalised groups, too.

Providing the space for such groups to share and feel comfortable doing so has another surprising benefit. While researching this article, I stumbled across another profound reminder social media can indeed be a force for good. A UCLA-led study used Twitter as a tool to research the health needs of transgender and gender non-conforming communities, an area of research traditionally difficult as stigma can prevent transgender people from disclosing their gender identity. By collecting data using transgender-related hashtags, Twitter can be transformed into a tool to support marginalised groups, whose voices struggle to be heard.

To #DeleteFacebook Or Not To #DeleteFacebook

So, what’s the final answer? Ultimately, it comes down your personal relationship with it. Social media isn’t the dreaded boogeyman or life-enhancer; it falls somewhere in between. But what is clear is the need to sit back and reflect on the impact it has on our lives. In what areas does it serve us? Where is it causing us unnecessary harm? What can we change?

I believe that with a little habit changing and closer inspection, we can all find the sweet spot where technology and social media becomes an ally, not an enemy. To conclude, here are a few steps to kick start your positive relationship with social media:

  • Assess your social media habits, honestly. Is your browsing behaviour making you feel a bit shit?
  • Change bad habits. If you scroll Instagram and feel your self-esteem seep away with every image of a chiselled, #Photoshop model on a beach, you have two options — delete the app, or change the way you use it. For the latter, try to actively follow body-positive or socially inspiring accounts that make you feel good. Here’s a list to get you started. This applies to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook (COUGH FOLLOW MIND THAT EGO COUGH).
  • Do you have good habits? Great! Increase the time on your device cultivating these habits, whether using relaxation apps or watching educational videos on YouTube (note: cat videos are rarely educational, sorry).
  • Be accountable. Yes, Silicon Valley exploits us, but we can empower ourselves. Don’t passively wish for the days where your only distraction was snake on your Nokia 3210. Take responsibility and use social media for positive activities, such as connecting with friends, arranging events, joining communities.
  • Schedule social media time, don’t let it schedule you. If you don’t feel ready to #DeleteFacebook, instead manage the time you spend online. Be active, not passive — schedule times to log on and connect, and try and avoid passively browsing as a means of distraction.