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When writer Kara Dolman returned to the pool after six years, she realised just how little the images we see of women’s bodies online resemble those in real life – and it changed how she felt in her own.

When was the last time you were around real women’s bodies? I don’t mean friends in jeans and a nice top on a meetup or colleagues in office days workwear – but women equally exposed and comfortable in their own skin.

For me, hydrea iv it was six years ago.

Before I had children, I used to swim at my local lido and this has been the first summer I’ve returned to the pool. While I work out at home in the evenings, until recently, the logistics involved in going for a post-drop-off, pre-work swim were pretty insurmountable. 

But since May I’ve (mostly) managed a weekly swim, and as well as it being good for my physical health, I’ve found it’s improved my body image too.

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At the pool, I’m around women of all shapes, sizes, ages, abilities and ethnicities – with different attitudes to grooming too – and this diversity is in sharp contrast to the images of women I’m exposed to in other areas of life, especially online.

The Health and Social Care (HSC) committee recently called for a law requiring all online commercial content to carry a logo explaining how the image has been filtered or altered, noting changes to body proportions and skin tone. This followed the publication of HSC’s new report, which found strong evidence of “the potential harm from online content that promotes an idealised, often doctored and unrealistic, body image and the link to developing low self-esteem and related mental health conditions”.

This adds to an already huge amount of evidence linking consumption of social media to anxiety, depression, self esteem, body image and eating disorders. Worryingly, a 2017 study in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications found doctored images are only recognised as such between 60 to 65% of the time.

Airbrushed images have made us forget what real bodies look like

I thought, being in my late 30s and having worked in the media for 15 years, I was savvy enough to know the celebrities, models and influencers in the imagery I consume online don’t *actually* look like that. However, my return to swimming has highlighted the homogeneity of images I accept on a daily basis and been a reintroduction to the reality of IRL female bodies.

I’ve been impressed by the athleticism of an amputee swimmer; made to laugh by an older woman who says her skin is wrinklier than the paint on the bottom of the pool; while a younger one joked her in situ pubic hair is an accessory for her high-cut costume. Cellulite, stretchmarks, sunscreen-induced spots and a range of skin tones are just the norm.

While the editing of images is nothing new and airbrushing has been used for decades, experts are concerned the pervasiveness of social media is exacerbating its implications.

After years of struggling with poor body image, swimming has shown Kara what actual women’s bodies look like.

It’s not just the media that alters images – it’s us too

“Professionals in our field have been concerned about the impact of altered media images for as long as they have been around,”says Dr Bryony Bamford, founder and director of The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image. 

“However, it’s likely social media may heighten this negative impact thanks to its nature – we can all access social media accounts with ease at any time of day, and there is evidence to suggest we tend to turn to social media more when we are in a negative state, making us even more vulnerable to its potential harmful impact.”

It’s certainly not just commercial content that is altered. On average, 95 million photos and videos are posted to Instagram daily, yet a report by the University of London found 90% of young women use filters or edit their photos. Meanwhile, Snapchat reports over 200 million people use its filter product, Lenses, everyday.

Having shunned wearing shorts most of her adult life, Kara has recently started wearing them again – and so has her daughter

While I try to be aware of my privilege as an able-bodied, slim-ish white woman, like many who grew up in the 90s and 00s, I have a difficult relationship with my body. After all, this was when size zero followed the super-waif and Spice Girls being weighed on TV was acceptable entertainment.

Yet over the last four months I’ve noticed a difference. When I first started swimming again I felt uncomfortable undressing in the communal changing room, now being naked in front of a group of strangers doesn’t phase me. I’ve long felt self-conscious about having muscular legs and avoided shorts, but this summer started enjoying wearing them and even bought some for work.

My elder daughter, six, who has always shunned shorts in favour of dresses, asked that I buy her some too – and keeps telling me how much easier they make it for her to ride her bike.

The HSC says the government needs “to better equip future generations and their families with the skills required to tackle body image issues. These include critical thinking, particularly when it comes to appraising images and self-worth”. Other experts believe we need to create a culture with less screen time and to constantly remind ourselves social media is not reality.

I’ve found spending more time around ‘real’ women rather than those on the squares could be the best remedy of all.

Recently my husband snapped a candid picture of me on a beach in shorts, smiling as I carried our younger daughter. While previously sharing an image with my legs out would have filled me with anxiety, this one made my IG main grid, #nofilter.

Images: Getty/author’s own

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