Is body image a barrier to nature?

Mental Health Awareness Week’s theme this year is nature so lets delve deeper into what this means to each of us and how it can benefit our mental health.

Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said:   “Our role each year for Mental Health Awareness Week is to start a national conversation on the issues which affect our mental health and the changes needed to protect and support it. As interest in mental health grows, we need to understand how the great social issues of our times are linked. The evidence is clear that access to nature is crucial for our mental health and millions of people re-discovered that during lockdowns this year. However, this was not the same for all of us. We want to explore why nature is so vital for our mental health and the barriers that currently exist to enjoying those benefits.”

As this week’s theme is nature, I’m exploring the idea that body image concerns can be a barrier for those of us wanting to access nature. Body image’ is a term that can be used to describe how we think and
feel about our bodies. Our thoughts and feelings about our bodies can impact us throughout our lives, affecting, more generally, the way we feel about ourselves and our mental health and wellbeing. Having body image concerns is not a mental health problem in and of itself; however, it can be a risk factor for mental health problems.

I enjoy nature every day from waking up to the sound of bird song to my daily dog walk no matter what the weather is doing. I enjoy these daily experiences in nature alone most of the time and don’t worry what I look like whilst doing them. However I also enjoy immersing myself in nature with other like minded people this requires being comfortable in my own skin to be confident to head out for swimming or paddle boarding events. These type of events mean that I can’t keep covered up in my comfort zone of baggy t-shirts or hoodies and walking trousers or trackies, to be safe taking part it means donning a cossie or wetsuit to take the plunge. I like many others wasn’t very confident doing this for the first time especially in a group of other people.

The Metal Health Foundation’s research report on ‘body image: how we think and feel about our bodies’ found that: “while 21% of
adults (23% of men and 19% of women) felt satisfied because of
their body image in the last year, 20% (15% of men and 25% of women) felt shame, 34% (25% of men and 43% of women) felt down or low, and 19% (12% of men and 26% of women) felt disgusted in the last year because of their body image.”

I can personally relate to this as lockdown has meant my activity levels have dropped and I am much more conscious of my body image. I joined The Outdoorsy Type group based in Suffolk last year and found myself booking onto their events not knowing what to expect. I first went along to one of their walks, this was a great way to get the initial worries about introductions out of the way. I was welcomed with open arms and met some lovely like minded people and went home excited to find out what their next event would be. I went along to another walk and soon booked onto one of their swim events. This came with a lot more pressure for me, anxiety about wearing a swimming costume in front of a big group and the general public. When I made it to Felixstowe for the swim late and flustered by me packing and repacking my bag with different swim suit options I found the group ready to go and soon realised no one was looking directly at me or the least bit worried about what I looked like whilst getting ready or when in the sea swimming. I went on to attend one of their paddle boarding sessions, again this brought me more worries about what to wear, being a larger girl I thought most people going along would be in swimming costumes or wetsuits but I didn’t feel comfortable in either for my first time paddle boarding. I headed out in leggings and a tshirt that I didn’t mind getting wet and within the first ten minutes on the board with the group and an instructor I’d forgotten my worries of how I looked getting onto the water. I often worry about my tummy, my thunder thighs and being generally bigger than other people going along to these events but have found that these events are open to everyone whatever age, shape or size and those people who go along really don’t care how I look as I take part they’re just a lovely bunch many of them with the same initial worries as me.

I’m now part of The Outdoorsy Type team and would hate for anyone to have the worries that I did before coming along to an event, being uncomfortable about body image. I’d like to encourage everyone to get involved with new activities that give us access to nature and make sure this is the focus of events.

I find it a little humorous that as a This Girl Can Suffolk Ambassador I’m not the slimmest girl, the image I had in my head of others in the role were fit, slender women who were active every day and badass at all sports. I thought I might be a bit of a fraud applying to be an ambassador as someone who walks daily but doesn’t participate in any sport religiously. I soon found the team of ambassadors to be a group of welcoming ladies who couldn’t care less about my size or shape and who just wanted to inspire other women to get active. I hope my presence as a This Girl Can Ambassador shows more girls and women in my local area that you can access nature whatever you look like and should take the first step to get out there even if you do have insecurities or worries about the initial steps in getting started.

With the numerous benefits of accessing nature for our mental health I hope that more of us grow the confidence to join groups or get out there solo regardless of body image worries. You’ll soon find once you’ve done the hardest part of going along for the first time you will love every minute outdoors and the worries of body image will dissipate as you take the plunge in cold water, get chatting to others on hikes or go unnoticed by nature as the wildlife won’t care about how you look as you take it all in.

Mental Health Awareness This Girl Can

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Well done! I know how nervous you must have been and how much courage it took to take part in the swimming and paddle-boarding events. Thank you for writing about your experiences and I hope others will be inspired by you and your blog.


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