“Respect your body for keeping you alive and housing your soul. Listen to it.” Image: Lego Home Alone / CNN
The first Mental Health Champion for schools until she spoke out against the government in 2016, Natasha Devon MBE is a writer, speaker, podcaster and LBC radio-show presenter. Educating young people, teachers and parents, she has long been an intrepid campaigner around mental health and body image – which are interrelated and tie in with self-esteem.
Here – and in our Speak Out video – Natasha talks about girls and exercise, boys and body dissatisfaction, porn and body image, and how you can approach these issues with your child and help them change their social media wallpaper and feel good about their body…
In Holland and in Denmark – where Outspoken co-founder Yoan Reed is from – people are used to seeing each other naked in places like changing rooms, and they feel more at home in their bodies
“Warrior not worrier”: Natasha Devon. Image: Maison de Choup
It’s so true. Britain has a messed-up relationship with nudity: it’s OK if it’s for titillation in a newspaper. For a long time we had breasts on page 3 of one of our bestselling papers, The Sun – but if somebody breastfed in public, using boobs for what they were literally designed to do, it was a scandal. We’re OK if there is a sexual element to nudity, but in any other context we get quite kind of buttoned up and Victorian about it.
You oversaw the 2019 Channel 4 show Naked Beach, which was all about improving people’s low body confidence. What are some takeaways from the Naked Beach Training lesson plans that you devised for kids aged 13 to 16?
Naked Beach was treading that line between being educational about body image but also entertaining enough to be on primetime TV. The show was based on research by my co-host, social psychologist Dr Keon West, which found that spending time around a diverse range of naked bodies improves your body image.
“Just bodies”: the Channel 4 show co-hosted by Natasha Devon
To test that theory in a social-experiment format, we sent some people who were putting their lives on hold until they looked how they thought they were supposed to look to live for a week with eight naked body-positivity campaigners on a Greek island.
They had to do naked homework and stand in front of a mirror for 20 minutes naked. At first it was excruciating to watch their awkwardness with themselves and other people, but for every single one their body-image satisfaction improved. Eventually they concluded: “It’s just a body; we’re all naked underneath our clothes; it’s fine.”
For the Naked Beach body image lessons for teens, we used clips from the show to kickstart discussions. The kids’ challenge was to ask themselves: “How do the posts by the people I follow on social media make me feel?” and to re-populate their social-media wallpaper.
How does social media affect young people’s sense of body image?
Mirror image. Image: Vivian Shih / Vice
What I see happening is that generation Z – the cohort of teenagers born into a world of instant internet access, smartphones and social media – has no concept of life without social media, so it’s hard for them to objectively assess the impact it’s having on them. They’re quite relaxed about it, but parents and teachers often demonise social media in a way that isn’t helpful.
The evidence backs me up: the problem with social media is what you’re engaging with, who you follow and what it means to you. Think about whether you use social media to seek information, to talk to people or for validation.
You’ve got three tips for young people on how to “love the skin you’re in”…
1) Realise that health and weight are not interchangeable Too often we conflate them. One of the biggest myths we’re sold from a very early age is that health looks a certain way. But if you do your best to lead a healthy lifestyle, you’ll look exactly how you’re supposed to look.
2) Don’t compare yourself to others Our bodies are unique – they’re the only thing we ever truly own. Respect your body for keeping you alive and housing your soul. Listen to it.
From the 2018 In Her Own Words series. Image: Sports Illustrated
Fashions change. I talk to teenagers about how many of the things we think about what it means to be attractive are just social constructs. They’re not innate – they change depending on where you are in the world and throughout history.
The way I look was not considered aspirational when I was a teenager. I grew up with very Caucasian ideals of beauty and I was teased for having big lips, so I used to talk with my hand in front of my mouth in class because I was so self-conscious. Now I get people stopping me in the street saying: “Where did you get your lips done?” And I say: “In my mother’s womb – very exclusive clinic.”
If you chase whatever’s desirable in one given moment in time, you’ll be chasing it forever because those goalposts always move. Just do you and eventually you’ll come into fashion.
3) Mindfully notice how social media posts in your feed make you feel It’s good if you’re challenged and not everybody in your silo agrees with you all the time – but if somebody’s posts make you feel anxious, insecure, triggered or angry, block them. The mute button is one of the best inventions, because people don’t know they’ve been muted.
Repopulate your social media wallpaper. Image: Verywell Mind
Then think: “What’s missing?” Find role models, people who inspire you and make you feel positive and good about yourself. A key aspect of that has to be diversity: follow and be exposed to a wide range of bodies. There’s tons of different ways to be human. You do you!
According to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), more than half of 11- to 13-year-olds say they’ve seen porn, some from as young as age 17, and mostly accidentally. Evidence shows that porn affects the way young people understand healthy relationships, sex and consent. What about body image?
With porn what young people are exposed to in terms of body type is usually narrow and unrealistic. For girls it’s that Barbie-esque look: hairless, pneumatic and very slender. For boys there’s a lot of insecurity around genital size.
Let’s think about this realistically: you’re a teenager with the internet at your disposal. Of course you’re going to look at porn – we would have all done if we’d had those resources. But there are different types of porn. For a while I recommended the Make Love, Not Porn site by Cindy Gallop. It’s kind of feminist porn – the bodies and orgasms are real, and there’s consent. I thought: “If you’re curious about sex, that will teach you more.” Then I had schools saying: “We can’t direct children to your website if you recommend porn” – which I totally understand.
But in a way it’s a shame because I’m such a pragmatic person. Something like 95% of kids are watching porn by age 16. Parents think their kids are in the 5% – and you go: “By definition, they can’t be.” As much as it’s unpalatable, we need to be realistic, find a third way and not just stick our fingers in our ears and go: “I don’t want to think about that.”
(Clockwise from top left) from the Like A Girl campaign, a This Girl Can ad by Sport England, Strong Is The New Pretty
The 2020 Girls’ Attitudes survey from Girlguiding showed that girls are very aware of the fact that their value is based on their appearance and boys’ value is based on their actions. The pressure, scrutiny and judgment that girls are under is detrimental to their wellbeing – if a girl doesn’t like the way she looks, it can hold her back and keep her from wanting to be photographed, wearing clothes she likes, speaking up in class or exercising…
Everything happens when kids are 13 or 14. By the end of that academic year they’re definitely teenagers. Some children develop slightly faster and look like mini-adults. A lot are having their first experimentations around sex. Someone usually comes out as LGBT+.
Measuring up. Image: Loretta Ray/Ms
At that age a lot of mental health issues arise, particularly self-harm and eating disorders. You get almost epidemics in schools. It’s also when girls become polarised in their attitudes to exercise. The sporty ones define themselves as “I’m the captain of the team” and the rest go: “I don’t want to do sports anymore.” But everybody needs to exercise. It doesn’t have to be team sports or going to the gym – there are lots of ways to raise your heart rate, so kids should find one they enjoy.
A cornerstone of being healthy is liking and respecting your body. People often think there’s a tension between body-image positivity and being physically healthy – but you have to like yourself as you are before making any sustainable, maintainable changes. If changes come from self-hatred or insecurity, you end up in this horrible yo-yo situation.
For kids this age it’s a lot to do with self-consciousness and not wanting their body to be on display. That can unfortunately set up a motif which continues throughout life.
It’s really important, for boys too – though girls are kind of on the frontline of this – not only for their educational outcomes, but also for their health and happiness long term.
Around age 13 or 14 is such a good intervention point: you don’t want to give anybody insecurities, but equally you want to grab them just at the moment they’re arising.
“The messaging around male fitness plays into a shame trigger around strength”. Image: Armani
I first heard you speak at a Men Get Eating Disorders Too conference. There’s been a sharp increase in boys’ dissatisfaction with their body and the body-image pressures they’re under to be fit, bulk up, have a six-pack. But boys and men have never been encouraged to talk openly about their feelings…
I’ve seen more and more boys struggling. With concentrated efforts to target men with beauty, fashion and fitness campaigns that are similar to the ones traditionally aimed at women, we’ve seen levels of body-image satisfaction come in line across all genders. That was never the equality anybody was talking about.
On average women have a pretty straightforward body-image shame trigger. When you say to girls: “Multibillion-pound industries devote time and money to making us feel like our bodies are our enemy, and we absorb that from a really early age”, they all go: “Yeah, I recognise that immediately.”
When you say that to boys, they go: “What about health? What’s wrong with wanting to be stronger? I have fitness goals, and that makes me feel good about myself.” All of that is valid, but how do you scoop out the toxic bit?
The body-image struggles that boys and men have tend to be around muscle building and outward manifestations of strength. The messaging around male fitness plays into a shame trigger around strength, so it’s more difficult to untangle.
The feedback I get from teenage boys is that in body-image lessons that claim to be co-ed, boys are tacked on as an afterthought.
From our Sex Ed on the Cards game
Young men are much more emotionally articulate than men my age – I’m 41 – and above. Teenage boys have relatively few stigmas – I’ll ask them something and they just tell me.
The problem isn’t them not talking – it’s that they are less likely to use the vocabulary or speak up in environments with female peers, so they often fly under the radar.
We’re just not seeing it.
Depicting difference and body positivity – a scene from the picture book It Isn’t Rude To Be Nude by Rosie Haine
Name a few things parents can focus on when talking about body image with their younger and older kids…
Normally we praise each other for what we have materially, how we look and or what we’ve achieved. Those things aren’t the core of a person; they’re not why you actually like them. We value people for innate qualities – being fun, kind or a good listener.
The brain learns through repetition. Whatever we see or hear most often helps to cement our belief systems, which in turn informs the way we see ourselves and the world.
So starting really early you can repetitiously say things like: “I enjoyed spending time with you today”, “That was really kind” or “I’ve always admired that you are brave.”
Very often teenagers don’t accept compliments from their parents because they say: “You have to think that about me.” So my number one tip for parents of teenagers is: pay your child a compliment when you’re in a conversation and they’re in earshot – and they don’t know that you know they can hear you. The compliment will be authentic and sink in more.
Sizing up beauty: “Variety is essential” – Chubby Disney Ladies creator Crystal Procknow. Image: @NeoclassiqalArt
How can you be body positive with your child if you have a complicated relationship with your own body?
Self-reflection. Image: Richard Curtner
Children, very young children in particular, are like sponges: they absorb their environment. So if they hear you criticise or be negative about your body, they will emulate that however much you tell them they’re beautiful. The most important thing parents can do is to address their relationship with their own body, and role-model the behaviour they’d like to see.
Doing physical activity as a family is bonding and healthy. Exercising is not something you do to lose weight; it’s something you do for your body regardless of what it looks like. So introducing the idea of “We’re doing this as a family because we all want to get healthier” takes away some of the stigma if there are different weights in your family.
Accept yourself. Image: Emma Darvick / Parents
Why is it important for parents to talk openly with their kids about body image?
Body image is the root of so much. That Girls’ Attitudes survey showed that about half of 12- to 14-year-old girls avoid things at school because they don’t like how they look. How we feel about our body affects our physical health, future employment and our relationships – it can interfere with how worthy of love you think you are.
When I tell people that I speak about body image in schools, what I get a lot is: “There are so many bigger issues – the planet is literally dying, and children need to learn their times tables and how to spell…” All of that is true. But it’s definitely worth investing the time.
The idea that body image is a fluffy subject is completely wrong – because if you don’t get that right, it has this knock-on effect on so many other things.
Natasha Devon MBE is a writer, speaker, podcaster, campaigner, LBC radio-show presenter and the author of the young adult novel Toxic, as well as Yes You Can: Ace School Without Losing Your Mind and A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z. Follow her on Instagram at @_natashadevon and on Twitter at @_NatashaDevon
Watch our short National Lottery funded Outspoken / Speak Out video with the dynamic Natasha Devon about body image and mental health here