Friday, 17 May 2019

DAY FIVE MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK | BODY IMAGE Q&A WITH... MENTAL HEALTH ACTIVIST, MARTIN BAKER


Name: Martin Baker 
Age: 58
Location: Newcastle upon Tyne 


Why did you agree to take part in this Q&A?

Because you asked me! Also, it's a subject I've never been asked about before. 


At what age do you think you first began to take notice of your body image?

I guess when I was in junior school, maybe eight or nine. 


What made you take notice?

I was skinny and "geeky" as a kid. I was also pretty rubbish at school sports, which at that age was mainly football and P. E. (In secondary school it included rugby, gym, and athletics and cross country running in the summer - I was rubbish at all those too!) I guess I wanted to be "sporty" and athletic, to fit in with my friends. There's a photo of me when I was maybe eight or nine, in the garden outside our house. I'm wearing the Liverpool football (soccer) kit, and football boots I can still remember having to clean and polish. I look really awkward, looking back at it now. 


Would you say that your thoughts on your body image began as positive or negative?

Pretty much negative.

Why do you think that was?

It's not so much that I felt anything about me was wrong (although I have always been very conscious of my teeth, which for some reason are very wide apart. Even now I hate seeing that in photos. I think I have an OK smile, as long as I keep my mouth shut!) It's more that I was always tall and skinny for my age and not what I imagined a boy or man was supposed to look like. When I was young I was also very conscious of my "sticky out ears." Maybe that's why I started growing my hair long! Actually not really, I didn't grow my hair until much later, and the main reason was I couldn't be bothered to get it cut! 


How have your thoughts on your body image changed over time?

I put it out of my mind for many years. I kind of got used to the idea of how my body was. That said, I can remember feeling really surprised that anyone might find me physically attractive (I'm talking about years ago, when I was at university). I think that can make a big difference, knowing someone finds you attractive and genuinely accepts you as you are, body as well as mind, heart, personality etc. I know we "shouldn't" need anyone else's validation to feel good about ourselves, but it needn't be a bad thing if it helps us appreciate that we are worthy of care and love. Maybe 25 years ago, when I was living in London after university, I got really bad eczema on my lower arms and on my hands. That came and went for several years and made me very self-conscious because it was difficult to hide, especially on my hands. Fortunately, it went away in time. It comes back occasionally but it doesn't trouble me the way it used to. It's ironic that my early body image issues were with being skinny. It never used to matter what or how much I ate, my weight stayed much the same. Not so now! I've learned a lot about how my body works in the past eight years or so, from the work I've done trying to bring my weight under control and maintain it at a more healthy level. I brought it down from 200 lbs to around 175 lbs in about a year. I maintained it there for another year or so, but somehow took my eye off things and by the middle of 2016 I was almost back where I started. After several attempts I got it down to my interim target of 180 lbs last year but I've struggled to hold it there or reduce any further. It's something I'm still actively working with. 


In what way do you think your thoughts on your body image impact your mental health?

All this has taught me a lot about how complex the relationship can be between our emotional and physical well-being. It's not that I thought losing weight was simply a matter of "eat less, move more" but I hadn't appreciated the impact on our bodies of such things as trauma, abuse, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and the fact that many medications tend to increase weight. I've learned a lot from various friends, especially my best friend (and weight loss buddy!) Fran, who lives with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia. I know what I need to do regarding what to eat and what not to eat (my biggest challenge is NOT having two rounds of cheese sandwiches at one in the morning just before I go to bed!) but it's hard to reprogram established patterns. I don't think I comfort eat as such (and when I am under stress I tend to eat less rather then more) but it can be hard to maintain the sense that I'm worth making the effort for. That can be a vicious cycle because if I start to let my weight get away from me I feel bad for allowing it to happen, which of course makes it harder to get back on top of things. 


What do you think about the media’s portrayal of body image?

There's an increasing awareness I think of diversity in the media, including social media, which is a good thing. But there's also a long way to go. The same can be said regarding stigma surrounding mental health: progress is being made but there still a long way to go. And of course, body image and mental health go very much hand in hand. On social media, as in society generally, there can be a lot of shaming, bullying and other nastiness directed at anyone deemed to be different, whether that's focused on weight, shape, looks, race, colour, fashion, gender, sexuality, illness, disability - or pretty much anything else. I witnessed one case recently where a woman was called out on social media because a photo she shared included what appeared to be self-harm scars. Shaming of all kinds is horribly dangerous and frankly as a society we ought to have outgrown it long ago. I don't know what the answer is, except for all of us to be vigilant, and to lead by example. 


If you could say one thing (about body image) to people, what would it be?
There is a great bit in the song "Most Girls" (the version I know is sung by Clementine Accoustic Duo): "You know some days you feel so good in your own skin | But it's okay if you wanna change the body that you came in." The song is written for and about women but I think it applies to anyone. Ultimately it's your body and we all have a right to feel at home there.