When you type her name into Google, more than 7300 results pop up. You may have not heard about her yet, but she’s definitely a face you should remember as she may as well be the one, who once and for all breaks all those unrealistic beauty standards.
Leyah Shanks is a positive body image and mental health activist. She is also the founder of The Body Confidence Revolution, a freelance blogger for Huffington Post UK, she appeared on Channel 4’s ‘Naked and Invisible’ and, on top of that, she’s a full-time university student.
The words “plus-size” and “body confidence” have lately been discussed all around the internet in various different contexts, what do you think caused this sudden interest?
I think it’s partly to do with the huge growth of social media, the online world is massive now, we’ve never known anything like it and the capacity it has to affect the way people think is pretty scary but if it’s harnessed in the right way it could be really powerful, I think it’s just people are becoming, people aren’t afraid to use their voice anymore because they have this outlet that’s accessible to everyone, people aren’t afraid to put their opinion out there. I think it’s really because we have this opportunity now which we didn’t have 10 years ago.
On the topic of social media, you are actually promoting your campaign The Body Positivity Revolution through it. What do you want to achieve by that campaign?
Ideally I would like to get to a place where I can go into schools, colleges, unis, that kind of thing and help to develop a mandatory education programme because there isn’t anything like sex education, in the UK there isn’t a mandatory part of that that talks about self esteem or the way people perceive themselves and anything to do with the media, it’s really important. If I’d had something like that when I was a kid then I really wouldn’t have felt bad for most of my life. I’d hope to get to a stage when I could do that, my main goal is to end up founding a new magazine though, I want to edit it and basically create something for women that isn’t toxic to read. Things are starting to change, there are a lot of people that want to speak about how bad the world is in general and I just want to be a part of that and help to change the stereotypes of beauty and to preach a more diverse and accepted message to what’s out there right now.
I’ve seen that you’ve featured in Channel 4’s Naked & Invisible (nearly) naked, how was that for you and what was the purpose of your appearance there?
It was really fun, so many people have asked me, did you think you could not do it, did you find it scary, and I said, no, I never thought about it like that, I just thought, this is what I have to do, there was never a doubt in my mind but it was so fun. We were such a lovely crew, we had guys, girls all ages in the crew, everyone was really supportive. Also, we didn’t get any bad feedback from the public as well because we were in such a public space that, we were there all day, we were there for like eight or ten hours and I was standing there all day naked basically. A lot of people walked past us in that time and the only kind of negative feedback we got was from these guys wolf whistling and that happened twice throughout the whole day. I was expecting a lot worse than that, I was expecting people to come up like, what are you doing, have some respect for yourself and stuff, but there was none of that! It was really positive. We filmed the pilot of the series, mine was the first one that got shot and it kind of determined whether the series would go ahead. The director approached me and said he wanted it to have an overall theme of positivity run through it, so there were other people, there was a transgender person I think, there was an amputee girl; he really wanted it to be a positive thing. For me, personally, I wanted to show my young self well… I used to want to be invisible all the time, when you’re being bullied you just want to disappear, whereas now I don’t want to disappear so that was kind of why I wanted to do it.
You’ve talked a lot about body positivity activism, but what is it that you want to do as mental health activist?
I’m really passionate about getting the link between self-esteem and mental health out there because it’s not talked about and I know personally, first hand and I know other people who have been through periods of low self-esteem and they have developed depression or another form of mental illness as a direct result and that’s why I think education is so important because you need to be educated about what’s real and what’s not otherwise your head’s going to be totally fried. I work with Talk Life as an ambassador for them, they are a youth mental health charity, and they’ve recently released an app that’s like an online community, it’s like a social platform media. Basically members go on to it and they have a timeline where they can post stuff and they can support others. It’s just a really safe space. I want to get involved in more things like that; helping young people to talk about mental health is so important because if you don’t it just gets worse. Also the stigma that surrounds this topic is something that really makes me angry because if you see someone who has cancer you automatically feel empathy, you don’t feel scared of that person but if someone was to come up to you and say they have depression or anxiety or schizophrenia, you would treat them completely differently and it is an illness. I would really like to address that, because it’s completely wrong.
Why do you think that lately more and more young people are getting diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety?
I don’t know, it’s not really something that you can be like “that’s why”. There are so many different things to take into account when it comes to mental health like personal circumstances, where they are in the world, there so many things that can trigger it, sometimes there isn’t a trigger, sometimes it’s just in your DNA. To be honest, though, I definitely think that the state of the mainstream media industry is not helping at all. A lot of girls have emailed me and told me, I developed anorexia, which is a mental disorder as well because of all that. Sometimes anorexia isn’t triggered by stuff like that, sometimes it is purely by control but a lot of the times girls will tell me that it is actually to do with body image and developing it. I think it’s maybe not the fact that people get diagnosed more it’s more that people aren’t afraid to talk about it as much now because, you know, you go online and there are so many different movements and people that are really vocal about it. So maybe it’s not the case that we’re not as afraid to come out and talk about it anymore as we were a few years ago.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your thirteen-year-old self?
A lot of things… It’s so hard… I’d basically just say, don’t take what’s put in front of you as gospel. Don’t just accept everything, don’t just take something and think, that’s the way it is, I’m not going to question that. Question everything. Keep your mind open. For me as a kid, things like Vogue really affected me and that’s kind of what stemmed my issues so much, so just keep in mind that the media is just trying to sell you something and they don’t care about how they get the money, they’re just going to do what they want to get their cash. They don’t take people’s mental wellbeing into account, they don’t take children’s wellbeing into account so just always be aware of bad things like that and remember that being unique is not a bad thing.
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