As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Helen Newman our Engagement Lead in Dental Services talks openly about her struggle with a positive body image, her relationship with exercise and how this has affected her mental health.

A positive body image is something I’ve struggled with my whole life. I was never athletic as a child and what my parents lovingly referred to as ‘puppy fat’ never really left me in my late teens and early 20s. When I was 21 I met my now husband and when we first got together we ate out a lot, the last thing I was thinking about was my weight, I’d just resided myself to the fact that I was always a ‘big girl’ or ‘big boned’.

That was until I got stuck in the bath (I will point out that it was an extremely narrow bath!) I knew at that point I needed to do something about my ever-increasing weight and I joined a slimming club the next day. Fourteen months later I was 3 stone lighter and felt great in myself. Other than it turns out this was just the beginning of my body image worries. I became obsessed with the number on the scales, I was never happy with whatever weight I was and was always looking to be the next round number down, if I was dead on a stone I wanted to be 1lb under, if I was .7lbs I wanted to be a nice round .5lbs etc, etc. I also started giving myself ridiculous exercise challenges. If I was in the gym I would stay there and keep exercising until I was (in my head) the thinnest person there. My record session was about 3 hours.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back I attribute it to the fact I had some disruption in my personal life; I’d been made redundant from my job, my boyfriend (now husband) was leaving for a 4 month trip around the world on his motorbike and my weight felt like the only thing I was in control of at that time.

I pulled myself out of it with the help of my friends and family and now try and maintain a healthy balance. I started running about 4 years ago which has completely changed my attitude to what it means to be healthy; realising that there’s a huge difference between being ‘skinny’ and being healthy.

I’m a strong advocate of the links between exercise and good mental health. I may not always feel like it, but if I’ve had a bad day, going for a run or having a good gym session really sorts my head out. The fact that it also keeps me fit is just a happy by-product of that. The older I get (I’m getting worryingly close to 40 now) the more I try and go easy on myself. I’m less worried now if I put on a pound or two here and there and I never turn down a slice of cake any more.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s which was the era of the ‘superwaif’ supermodels, which is undoubtedly where my aspiration to be as skinny as possible came from. These days there are much more shapes and sizes in the media for girls to aspire to look. I still don’t think we’re quite there yet with a lot of social media jealousy but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

This week also marks the start of our corporate charity partnership with the Samaritans – a charity that is dedicated to reducing the feelings of isolation and disconnection that can lead to suicide and mental ill health. As part of this relationship, our NHSBSA colleagues will be fundraising to help support the amazing services that are provided by the Samaritans.

If you are struggling with feelings around poor body image or just need someone to talk to – you can call Samaritans any time, day or night on 116 123.

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