Just over one in eight adults in the UK have experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image, a new survey shows.
The online survey of 4,505 UK adults aged 18 and over was commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation to mark the launch of Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year has the theme of body image.
The survey, published as part of a report - Body Image: How we think and feel about our bodies - found that just over one third of UK adults have felt anxious (34%) or depressed (35%) because of concerns about their body image.
Almost one in five UK adults (19%) have felt “disgusted” because of their body image and one in five (20%) said they had felt “shame” because of their body image in the last year.
The survey found that body image issues affected adult UK women more than men, with one in ten women (10%) saying they have self-harmed or “deliberately hurt themselves” because of their body image, compared to 4% of men.
But the survey found that body image issues can also affect large numbers of men, with a quarter of men (25%) saying they have felt depressed because of concerns about their body image.
It was also clear that body image issues affect people throughout their lives. One in five people (20%) aged 55 and above have said they have felt anxious because of their body image.
The charity is demanding reform in relation to social media and advertising that is linked to worry about body image. The charity is also providing advice about how people can take individual action to protect themselves.
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Mark Rowland said: “Our survey indicates that millions of adults in the UK are struggling with concerns about their body image. For some people this is potentially very severe, with large numbers saying they have self-harmed or had suicidal thoughts and feelings.
“Women, and particularly young women, are showing the highest rates of distress. Significant numbers have felt feelings of disgust and shame or changed their behaviour to avoid situations that make them reflect negatively about their bodies.
“But body image issues can affect anyone and at any stage in life. Our research suggests that a worrying proportion of men have felt anxious or depressed about their bodies.”
Just over one in five (22%) of all UK adults and almost half (46%) of 18-24-year-olds said images on social media had caused them to worry about their body image.
Nearly six in ten UK adults (59%) think the UK Government needs to do more to protect the public from the presentation or use of unhealthy body images in advertising and social media.
In response, the Foundation is calling on the UK Government and relevant industries to take action, including regulation of social media and more powers for the Advertising Standards Authority.
Mr Rowland said: “Our survey underscores how commercial, social media and advertising pressures on body image are contributing to mental health problems for millions of people. This social harm has been allowed to develop largely unchecked. While there have been some positive initiatives, social media companies have frequently been unwilling to take the necessary steps to protect their users from harmful content.
“That is why today we are calling on the UK Government to tackle the promotion of unhealthy or idealised body image images as a specific part of its policy in this area.
“New codes of practice should include an expectation that social media companies must take practical steps to ensure that the content they promote does not exacerbate body image concerns.
“This could be enforced by the new independent regulator, which is already part of the Government proposals contained in the Online Harms White Paper.”
The survey was carried out by YouGov. Total sample size was 4,505 adults. Fieldwork was between 25th - 26th March 2019. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
A Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) spokesperson said:
“We’ve set out plans to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, with a new duty on online platforms to keep their users safe, overseen by an independent regulator.
“While advertising restrictions in the UK are amongst the toughest in the world, we have recently launched a review into how online advertising is regulated in the UK to assess the impact it has on society.”