Jonny Benjamin on Body Image
Jonny Benjamin MBE is an award-winning mental health campaigner, public speaker, writer and vlogger. We caught up with him to pick his brain on all things body image.
1. Why do you think body image can have such a big impact on our mental wellbeing?
The way we think and feel about our bodies, especially if that’s negative, can have a huge impact on our mental health. It’s becoming an increasing issue in this modern, image-obsessed world we’re now living in. Negative attitudes towards our bodies can lead to significant mental health problems such as eating disorders. I’m really pleased that this is being addressed during this Mental Health Awareness Week.
2. What’s your relationship like with your own body and how does it link to your mental health?
I have a complex relationship with my body, as I’m sure many of us probably do. I have never been truly happy with it. Part of my issue is that my weight has fluctuated so much. This is a result of varying medications to treat a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder (schizophrenia and bipolar) which I received when I was 20, as well as suffering from IBS. My dismay for my own body, especially during times when I feel I’ve been overweight, has undoubtedly impacted poorly on my mental health.
3. What role do you think social media plays in the way we view our bodies as a society?
I think social media plays a massive role in the way we perceive and judge our bodies, particularly Instagram. I used to follow a lot of males who would constantly be stripping off and revealing their bronzed abs. This didn’t do much at all for my own self-esteem! Now I tend to follow more accounts which focus on being “body positive” such as Bryony Gordon and Megan Jayne Crabbe. A body positive movement seems to be really growing on social media platforms like Instagram which is great. I wish there were more men involved, but I’m sure this will happen eventually.
4. You’ve actually used social media to open up the conversation about body image. What’s was the impact of that and what reactions did you receive?
I’ve tried to be “body positive” myself by making YouTube videos about embracing my body. Mostly I’ve received great feedback but there have been a few trolls who mocked my weight online. I try to not let these comments affect me too deeply.
5. Do you think that individual differences like gender or sexuality can impact our relationships with our bodies?
Being a young, gay man, I find there tends to even more pressure to have a “perfect body.” Gay dating websites and apps, as well as media, have always seemed to focus so much on body image. I gave up reading certain magazines because I was tired of seeing only one type of male represented within them - those with perfectly chiselled six packs. I really hope the body positive movement I mentioned earlier moves across to gay culture and beyond, because I really think it is time for a change.
6. Has anything in particular helped you develop a healthier, more compassionate relationship to your body?
Mindfulness, particularly meditations focussed on self-compassion, has helped me improve my relationship with my body. I’m also having Compassion Focussed Therapy and we’ve focused on issues with my body within a number of therapy sessions. Repeating positive self-affirmations such as “I love my body” is something I’m trying to do more of in order to improve my perception of the way I look. Saying such affirmations in front of the mirror is a challenge, but it’s something that I find is getting easier with practice. I would advise anyone struggling with body image to give this a try. Hopefully, they will begin to notice a difference in their self-esteem.
7. Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone who is struggling with negative body image?
I think it’s really important to note that you are certainly not alone if you’re struggling with negative body image. From the work I have been doing in mental health over the last few years, I would actually say that perceiving your own body negatively is much more common than people may think. It’s also important to remember that thoughts and feelings towards your body are not fixed. Just as we can change our bodies, we can also change our minds. I had CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) some years ago at a time when I hated the way I looked. I really believed that I had to alter the way I looked in order to change the way I felt about myself. But throughout the course of my CBT sessions, I realised that this wasn’t the case. My loathing of the way I looked totally shifted. I never thought it would be possible. Hopefully, that may give someone else hope if they are struggling with their image. It does get brighter.