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It’s a positive body image revolution

3 February 2020 at 8:18 am
Maggie Coggan
For young people, social media platforms such as Instagram can be a portal to negative and dangerous perceptions around body image. It’s a problem that Monash researcher and clinical psychologist Dr Gemma Sharp is fighting to find a solution to. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 3 February 2020 at 8:18 am


It’s a positive body image revolution
3 February 2020 at 8:18 am

For young people, social media platforms such as Instagram can be a portal to negative and dangerous perceptions around body image. It’s a problem that Monash researcher and clinical psychologist Dr Gemma Sharp is fighting to find a solution to. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

As a psychologist working with people at risk of or suffering from severe body image issues, Sharp was constantly faced with the problem that any positive body affirmation achieved in a therapy session would fly out the window when the individual hopped back on social media. 

While there’s a growing number of body-positive accounts on Instagram, the thousands of “thinspo”, fitness, and diet accounts promoting unattainable and harmful ideas of what a body should look like are hard to avoid.  

Teaming up with The Butterfly Foundation and the AMP Foundation, Sharp is now in the process of developing a world-first body image focused chatbot that will provide at risk young people with information and tips on how to use social media in a positive way.         

She says that too often, research doesn’t reach the people who need it the most, and so she is on a mission to use her research to create positive social change. 

In this week’s Changemaker, Sharp talks about how she mixes advocacy with research, the challenges of her job, and how to achieve a work-life balance.    

Where did the idea for the chatbot come from? 

It actually came from my own clinical work. Clients and patients in my sessions would tell me when they went on social media they would feel much worse about their body image and it was setting them back in terms of their recovery. We’d have these great discussions in our sessions about how to be more positive about their body image, but I knew as soon as they left the session they would be back on social media and our discussion would be forgotten.  

I wanted that therapeutic voice to be with them while they’re actually on social media, and that was where the chatbot came from, using my clinical experience and knowing that social media could be used as a really powerful tool for good.

Why did you get the Butterfly Foundation involved in this project? 

I’ve been in admiration of their work for a long time because they are our national support organisation for body image and eating disorders, and they do such an important job. I knew that to set up a chatbot that was Australia wide, I needed a strong partner that could help people beyond the chatbot because it wouldn’t be able to help everyone with every issue. The Butterfly Foundation was obviously my first choice because of their fantastic helpline service and I knew that I could marry up the chatbot with the helpline service. I also knew that Butterfly is a really progressive organisation in terms of their online and social media presence and how they try and help people with body image concerns. 

What kind of impact are you hoping to have with the bot? 

Ultimately, what we hope is that it’s a preventative tool for people with lower-level body image issues, nipping it in the bud before they need in-person help. This happens quite a bit with teenagers, where we often see phasic body image concerns. For people who really do need help, it can also provide a stepping stone. They might be a little bit anxious about seeing a health professional in person, and the chatbot could be that middle step for them seeking more in-person support. 

Another aspect that I really would like to get out of this is that for people who are in treatment, the chatbot can be helpful between sessions to practise skills learnt in therapy sessions. It’s also meant to be for carers and loved ones, giving them advice on how to help the person with body image concerns. 

How do you aim for social impact as a researcher? 

The important thing about research is not so much doing the research but making sure it gets to the people who need it. I think all researchers really need a social media presence and should be aiming to do as much outreach and advocacy as possible. I love that kind of work anyway and I have fun doing it. I think ultimately we’re doing research to help people not to be published in a journal, although that’s part of it, it’s really hard to get it to the people who need it.

Do you find that using social media means you’re able to tap into a different audience as well?

We can connect with other researchers on social media, which is fantastic, but we can also tap into organisations like The Butterfly Foundation, as well as government, policymakers and of course, all the people who will be using the chatbot. We want to reach everyone. 

What are some of the challenges you face in your work?

This is a really challenging field. Eating disorders unfortunately have the highest mortality of all mental health issues, so I suppose I’m always sitting with a level of concern about everyone who has come to me that there is a very real risk that they might die. So I think it’s about sitting with that level of risk and still trying to do the best you absolutely can for them.

How do you manage that stress? 

I’m very lucky to be surrounded by supportive people both in my work environment at Monash Uni and my personal environment. And I’m very fortunate to be able to engage in really great self-care activities like swimming and chilling out and going to the movies. So I think it’s about balance. Not that we all achieve that very well, but it’s about carving out some time of your own to do whatever activity you find relaxing.

How would you say working in this space changed your view on the world and how you see it?

Working in this space has been a real learning curve for me. I was really conditioned to believe in beauty ideals, aiming for weight loss, and that there are foods we should and shouldn’t have. I had to unlearn all of that. 

I haven’t experienced an eating disorder nor has anyone in my family, but living in a western society and being exposed to the beauty and weight loss industry, I realised how much they were pushing people to believe that they were never good enough, and trying to sell us products to try to be good enough. 

I think it was a matter of pushing back on all of that and going, actually, no, we are all good enough as we are. We don’t need to keep pushing ourselves to become something else.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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