Kids, mental health and Naked Beach – Natasha Devon on body image
Updated: Oct 14
The first Mental Health Champion for schools until she spoke out against the government in 2016, Natasha Devon MBE is a writer, speaker, podcaster and LBC radio-show presenter. Educating young people, teachers and parents, she has long been an intrepid campaigner around mental health and body image – which are interrelated and tie in with self-esteem.
Here – and in our Speak Out video – Natasha talks about girls and exercise, boys and body dissatisfaction, porn and body image, and how you can approach these issues with your child and help them change their social media wallpaper and feel good about their body…
In Holland and in Denmark – where Outspoken co-founder Yoan Reed is from – people are used to seeing each other naked in places like changing rooms, and they feel more at home in their bodies
It’s so true. Britain has a messed-up relationship with nudity: it’s OK if it’s for titillation in a newspaper. For a long time we had breasts on page 3 of one of our bestselling papers, The Sun – but if somebody breastfed in public, using boobs for what they were literally designed to do, it was a scandal. We’re OK if there is a sexual element to nudity, but in any other context we get quite kind of buttoned up and Victorian about it.
You oversaw the 2019 Channel 4 show Naked Beach, which was all about improving people’s low body confidence. What are some takeaways from the Naked Beach Training lesson plans that you devised for kids aged 13 to 16?
Naked Beach was treading that line between being educational about body image but also entertaining enough to be on primetime TV. The show was based on research by my co-host, social psychologist Dr Keon West, which found that spending time around a diverse range of naked bodies improves your body image.
“Just bodies”: the Channel 4 show co-hosted by Natasha Devon
To test that theory in a social-experiment format, we sent some people who were putting their lives on hold until they looked how they thought they were supposed to look to live for a week with eight naked body-positivity campaigners on a Greek island.
They had to do naked homework and stand in front of a mirror for 20 minutes naked. At first it was excruciating to watch their awkwardness with themselves and other people, but for every single one their body-image satisfaction improved. Eventually they concluded: “It’s just a body; we’re all naked underneath our clothes; it’s fine.”
For the Naked Beach body image lessons for teens, we used clips from the show to kickstart discussions. The kids’ challenge was to ask themselves: “How do the posts by the people I follow on social media make me feel?” and to re-populate their social-media wallpaper.
How does social media affect young people’s sense of body image?
What I see happening is that generation Z – the cohort of teenagers born into a world of instant internet access, smartphones and social media – has no concept of life without social media, so it’s hard for them to objectively assess the impact it’s having on them. They’re quite relaxed about it, but parents and teachers often demonise social media in a way that isn’t helpful.
The evidence backs me up: the problem with social media is what you’re engaging with, who you follow and what it means to you. Think about whether you use social media to seek information, to talk to people or for validation.
You’ve got three tips for young people on how to “love the skin you’re in”…
1) Realise that health and weight are not interchangeable Too often we conflate them. One of the biggest myths we’re sold from a very early age is that health looks a certain way. But if you do your best to lead a healthy lifestyle, you’ll look exactly how you’re supposed to look.
2) Don’t compare yourself to others Our bodies are unique – they’re the only thing we ever truly own. Respect your body for keeping you alive and housing your soul. Listen to it.
Fashions change. I talk to teenagers about how many of the things we think about what it means to be attractive are just social constructs. They’re not innate – they change depending on where you are in the world and throughout history.
The way I look was not considered aspirational when I was a teenager. I grew up with very Caucasian ideals of beauty and I was teased for having big lips, so I used to talk with my hand in front of my mouth in class because I was so self-conscious. Now I get people stopping me in the street saying: “Where did you get your lips done?” And I say: “In my mother’s womb – very exclusive clinic.”
If you chase whatever’s desirable in one given moment in time, you’ll be chasing it forever because those goalposts always move. Just do you and eventually you’ll come into fashion.
3) Mindfully notice how social media posts in your feed make you feel It’s good if you’re challenged and not everybody in your silo agrees with you all the time – but if somebody’s posts make you feel anxious, insecure, triggered or angry, block them. The mute button is one of the best inventions, because people don’t know they’ve been muted.
Then think: “What’s missing?” Find role models, people who inspire you and make you feel positive and good about yourself. A key aspect of that has to be diversity: follow and be exposed to a wide range of bodies. There’s tons of different ways to be human. You do you!
According to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), more than half of 11- to 13-year-olds say they’ve seen porn, some from as young as age 17, and mostly accidentally. Evidence shows that porn affects the way young people understand healthy relationships, sex and consent. What about body image?
With porn what young people are exposed to in terms of body type is usually narrow and unrealistic. For girls it’s that Barbie-esque look: hairless, pneumatic and very slender. For boys there’s a lot of insecurity around genital size.
Let’s think about this realistically: you’re a teenager with the internet at your disposal. Of course you’re going to look at porn – we would have all done if we’d had those resources. But there are different types of porn. For a while I recommended the Make Love, Not Porn site by Cindy Gallop. It’s kind of feminist porn – the bodies and orgasms are real, and there’s consent. I thought: “If you’re curious about sex, that will teach you more.” Then I had schools saying: “We can’t direct children to your website if you recommend porn” – which I totally understand.
But in a way it’s a shame because I’m such a pragmatic person. Something like 95% of kids are watching porn by age 16. Parents think their kids are in the 5% – and you go: “By definition, they can’t be.” As much as it’s unpalatable, we need to be realistic, find a third way and not just stick our fingers in our ears and go: “I don’t want to think about that.”
(Clockwise from top left) from the Like A Girl campaign, a This Girl Can ad by Sport England, Strong Is The New Pretty
The 2020 Girls’ Attitudes survey from Girlguiding showed that girls are very aware of the fact that their value is based on their appearance and boys’ value is based on their actions. The pressure, scrutiny and judgment that girls are under is detrimental to their wellbeing – if a girl doesn’t like the way she looks, it can hold her back and keep her from wanting to be photographed, wearing clothes she likes, speaking up in class or exercising…
Everything happens when kids are 13 or 14. By the end of that academic year they’re definitely teenagers. Some children develop slightly faster and look like mini-adults. A lot are having their first experimentations around sex. Someone usually comes out as LGBT+.
At that age a lot of mental health issues arise, particularly self-harm and eating disorders. You get almost epidemics in schools. It’s also when girls become polarised in their attitudes to exercise. The sporty ones define themselves as “I’m the captain of the team” and the rest go: “I don’t want to do sports anymore.” But everybody needs to exercise. It doesn’t have to be team sports or going to the gym – there are lots of ways to raise your heart rate, so kids should find one they enjoy.
A cornerstone of being healthy is liking and respecting your body. People often think there’s a tension between body-image positivity and being physically healthy – but you have to like yourself as you are before making any sustainable, maintainable changes. If changes come from self-hatred or insecurity, you end up in this horrible yo-yo situation.
For kids this age it’s a lot to do with self-consciousness and not wanting their body to be on display. That can unfortunately set up a motif which continues throughout life.
It’s really important, for boys too – though girls are kind of on the frontline of this – not only for their educational outcomes, but also for their health and happiness long term.
Around age 13 or 14 is such a good intervention point: you don’t want to give anybody insecurities, but equally you want to grab them just at the moment they’re arising.
I first heard you speak at a Men Get Eating Disorders Too conference. There’s been a sharp increase in boys’ dissatisfaction with their body and the body-image pressures they’re under to be fit, bulk up, have a six-pack. But boys and men have never been encouraged to talk openly about their feelings…
I’ve seen more and more boys struggling. With concentrated efforts to target men with beauty, fashion and fitness campaigns that are similar to the ones traditionally aimed at women, we’ve seen levels of body-image satisfaction come in line across all genders. That was never the equality anybody was talking about.