What do you think about when you’re in a swimsuit?
Unfortunately for lots of us the answer is: how my thighs/tummy/bum look. Alice Santana doesn’t think that way. Why? Because the advertising consultant lived in Spain between the ages of 12 and 34 before moving back to the UK, and she thinks this has had a profound impact on her body confidence. “For over half the year (most years, that is), everyone is at the beach – aunts, uncles, neighbours, friends – which means you grow up used to seeing bodies of all shapes, sizes and ages,” she says. “Nobody is looking or judging. There’s no sense of shame or embarrassment associated with bodies that you get in the UK.” The idea of reclining in nothing save a few patches of polyester is enough to send most of the British population reeling. And that has nothing to do with the weather. In a recent survey* that asked women if they felt beautiful, 71% of Spanish women said yes, Portugal topped that with 80%, and Brazil, 82%. The number for UK women? 44%. More recent research found that only 9% of British women would describe their body confidence as high.† So what lessons can we learn from women just like us around the world? GET NAKED
Before Louise Dunn,‡ 36, went to live in Portugal, she worried about her body. “In the UK, my self-esteem wasn’t awful, but I’d worry about wearing a bikini and would have sex with the lights out,” she recalls. “But in Portugal I’d spend every weekend at the beach or pool, so being in a bikini felt normal. I’d see a little cellulite on a friend’s thigh and think, ‘It’s not just me.’”
In research published in the Journal Of Happiness Studies, Keon West, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, set out to explore the relationship between donning your birthday suit and body confidence. He found that more participation in naturist activities led to greater life satisfaction via a positive body image and higher self-esteem. Essentially, the fact that wearing next to nothing in front of everyone from your nan to your dentist is the norm in some countries – and never happens in ours – could contribute to this self-esteem disparity. The study also found the reverse was true: a lack of exposure to “non-idealised bodies” can contribute to feelings of low selfesteem. You don’t have to go full nudist resort to do so either. Simply spend more time naked. “Repeatedly observing your own naked body is a form of mirror exposure therapy,” Professor West explains. “Over time, it can reduce people’s negative and anxious responses to the way they look.” By looking at your whole body, you’re not zoning in on your so-called “problem areas” or dismissing what you look like with ingrained ways of thinking. Study participants have been encouraged to describe their body parts in positive, neutral or objective ways. (Think “My stomach is round” rather than “My stomach is fat”.) Removing the self-criticism you level at yourself on autopilot can help build a less negative view of what you actually look like. THE GLOSSY POSSE
Comparing your body to someone else’s isn’t in-and-of-itself harmful, but it can be when your touchpoints are Instagram and celebrity snaps. That’s according to Heather Widdows, professor of global ethics at Birmingham University.** She blames this state of play on a global shift from a text-based to an image-based society, via Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. “This shift is one of the main drivers behind the epidemic of body anxiety,” says Professor Widdows. It’s not just about what the bodies we’re exposed to look like – the sheer volume of them matters, too. “How you look used to matter less because your communities were smaller,” she adds. “But when your peer group becomes everyone – as it does on Instagram – you’re comparing yourself with people globally who fit a certain homogeneous look.” Of course, women in Spain, Portugal and Brazil have social media accounts, too. But, unlike many UK women, in these countries, women also have years of exposure to a range of female bodies – unclothed, swimwear-clad, doing things – that may dilute the compare-and-despair effect of Love Island. And speaking of reality TV, it plays its part, too. Originally from
“There’s a sense of shame and embarrassment associated with bodies in the UK”
Lisbon, Melissa Trindade, 29, has spent the past decade in England. “Reality TV here doesn’t reflect reality,” she says. “The ‘normal’ contestants look so perfect, I can see how people end up believing that is normal and questioning why they don’t measure up. In Portugal, everyone on TV is quite girl-next-door-looking.” Trindade says a physical ideal exists in Portugal, but that this look isn’t constantly reinforced by celebrities as you don’t have to be polished to be on television, and those on TV aren’t idolised in the same way they are here.
BE KIND (TO YOURSELF)
If there’s one place that seems to celebrate the female body, it’s Brazil. Images of thong bikinis and carnival dancers are a national stereotype – you can see why their body confidence is off the scale. But there’s one thing: Brazil is the world’s largest consumer of cosmetic surgery, with nearly 1.5 million surgical procedures carried out in 2018.†† So how does that fit with how beautiful they say they feel?
Professor Widdows explains how motivations for having plastic surgery can vary dramatically from culture to culture. “In Brazil, the narrative is that you have work done on your body because you value it,” she says. In contrast, she believes the UK population is socialised to think their bodies require constant work because they’re deemed not good enough.
“In Brazil, it’s perfectly acceptable to have cosmetic surgery if it’s going to make you feel better,” says Carolina Howells, 31, a Brazilian who lives in the UK. “We try to enjoy life; parties, going to the beach. That’s how we approach our bodies, too – if we can be happier, why not?”
You might find this approach troubling – after all, why do Brazilian women feel the need to “improve” themselves? Who is it all for? But rather than starting a Botox bank account, Professor Widdows says we need to stop questioning those who have surgery and those who choose not to, and instead focus on adopting some of the Brazilians’ body-celebrating attitude. “British women are bad at being positive about their bodies, and good at self-criticism. It might make us all feel more positive if we learnt how to take compliments and didn’t immediately do ourselves down,” advises Widdows. She calls the insidious comments we make about our bodies and others’ “everyday lookism”, so next time you’re out with friends and talk turns to picking on the dress, body or hair of the woman on the next table, check yourself. And do the same when you notice negative self-talk, too.
Santana’s advice? “Do things you enjoy this summer,” she says. “Be grateful for what you have and seek out the good.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Research confirms that it’s not just what, but how people who live in these cultures eat that can influence their self-worth. A study published in Clinical Psychologist found that students who practised mindfulness had a healthier relationship with food, their bodies and themselves. For 35-year-old yoga instructor Kirsty Webb, the extended, convivial mealtimes that became routine when she moved to Madrid from Shropshire in 2007 helped her develop a healthier mindset following a years-long eating disorder. “I felt more self-assured generally living there, and a big part of that is how they eat,” she explains. “Everything’s more laid-back – you take two hours for lunch. There’s no scoffing a sandwich at your desk, and they don’t have the fast-food and diet cultures we have here. Slowing down takes the stress out of eating.” If long lunches might see you P45-ed, there are other ways of taking a slower approach. “Savour every mouthful and engage your senses – what does it smell and taste like?” says Webb. If you really can’t step away from your desk, at least ignore your inbox for 10 minutes. ◆