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Body and image shaming and the Olympics

The 16-day long festival that was the Olympic Games was in most ways a grand celebration, and one in which Great Britain played a wonderful part. However, there's a side separate to the trials and tribulations, the glory and despair of the athletic events, that has become apparent in the wake of the games: body and image shaming. With the Olympic parades celebrating our athletes' achievements, we have a chance to retrospectively examine this phenomenon.

Despite the four-year cycle in which athletes dedicate themselves to training with dreams of winning gold in mind, they are still subject to intense scrutiny about their physiques. Anyone who doesn't adhere to what may be considered the athletic 'norm' may be ridiculed, particularly via social media. A recent case, as an example, is that of Robel Kiros Habte, the Ethiopian swimmer who was subjected to body-shaming calls, social commentators referring to him as 'overweight'. Specially invited by FINA, the international governing body for swimming (amongst others), to participate as an athlete from an underrepresented nation, he was simply living his dream. For it to be tarnished by negative commentary on social media that he will no doubt see, is a great shame and sadly continues to be a part of being a high profile person.

Robert Habte's case is not isolated. High profile British athletes, Beth Tweddle and Rebecca Adlington, both decorated past Olympians (Rebecca Adlington has been involved as an analyst for the Rio Olympics), have been subject to negative comments via social media for their appearance.

Long-term psychological effects

Body and image shaming can have long-term emotional and psychological effects on a person, shattering confidence and potentially leading to mental health problems such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression. Body shaming can also lead to severe body dysmorphia, where someone is consumed by their appearance. This can not only hurt those who are targeted but also vulnerable young people whose ideas about body image become skewed by an unrealistic 'perfect body' ideal.

Young people may struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin and find it difficult to feel accepted, experiencing all kinds of mental health challenges, including body dysmorphia. Growing up as part of a society that is determined to abuse people online will only contribute further to this. A recent The Children's Society survey suggested that amongst young girls aged 10-15 years, 14% were unhappy with their lives, and 34% were unhappy with their appearances. This is a sharp rise from previous figures, with a strong suggestion that pressure on body image and appearance is linked to this rise in unhappiness.

The next generation

It can also have a knock-on effect of dissuading young people from aspiring to the positions of athletes such as Beth Tweddle and Rebecca Adlington. To see their dedication and hard work paying off, to see them achieve the glory of winning Olympic medals, and then see social media concentrating on what they think they should look like and not on their achievements can cause young people to not feel it is worth the effort.

Given the boost we are seeing to national morale through the current successes in the Olympic Games, it would be a great shame for young people to feel put off from trying to replicate these achievements. 

Dr Murali Sekar, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford, stated: "Your body image, shape or weight is not that important to achieve greater things in life. What matters is how comfortable and confident you are with them."

It is important to recognise the damage that can be caused by body and image shaming. In order to combat 'trolling' online, a unit has been set up within Scotland Yard to combat all online hate crime and abuse, a measure which may help to curb the increasing trend. The effects of online abuse can be wide ranging and destructive to not only the individuals involved but also impressionable and vulnerable young people.

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