Hope Virgo Talks About Body Image – Hope Virgo is a passionate advocate for body positivity, having personally battled the eating disorder, anorexia. Her campaigns #dumpthescales and #curbthecount have successfully sparked conversations in Parliament on body image in young people and the damaging impact of BMI, a body fat measurement that many believe to be inaccurate and misleading.
In this exclusive interview, courtesy of the Female Motivational Speakers Agency, hear Hope’s advice for workplace mental health and how to support those struggling with their body image.
What first inspired your #dumpthescales and #curbthecount campaigns, and what has been the results?
“So, I started campaigning about four years ago, and the more I shared my experience and what I’ve been through, the more I was meeting people who have been through such similar things on their journeys.
“When we think of eating disorders, we often think of a White teenage girl who is extremely underweight. And it means that actually, the people who are struggling who don’t fit neatly into that category can’t get support on the NHS, because it only facilitates those who are underweight.
“But also, it often stops people reaching out for support… this happened to me back in 2016. I tried to get treatment and wasn’t able to because I wasn’t underweight. I remember leaving that appointment and just being so upset by the whole thing. I felt like I faced this massive injustice.
“But on top of that, the eating disorder part of my brain, which is extremely competitive, immediately kicked in and started telling me that no one believed me, that everyone thought I was attention seeking, that I had to prove myself to others because I wasn’t good enough unless I lost a little bit more weight.
“And after talking about this, I realised that it’s something that so many people are currently facing on a day-to-day basis. People are unable to get treatment and support, so I launched #dumpthescales.
“I thought it was going to be a bit of a disaster, but over the next kind of couple of weeks, I managed to get a lot of signatures on it! I’ve had the petition debated in Parliament several times.
“The campaign has now moved on to the next phase. So, now we’re looking wider than just focusing on trying to get rid of BMI when it comes to diagnosing someone with an eating disorder. We’re looking at the workforce, we’re looking at making sure the right education is put forward.”
How can business leaders “bust the stigma” surrounding mental health in their workplace?
“It’s all about talking about it and making sure that we talk openly. It’s about empathy, we must create a safe space so that people can come to work and say, ‘do you know what? I’m having a rubbish day; I don’t feel great today’.
“One of the biggest fears I often hear in workplaces is that, particularly more junior people are anxious. They’re worried that if they come into work, are having a difficult day and they say something, that all of their projects will be taken off them and they won’t be able to go for a promotion, anything like that.
“It’s about creating a system that helps people get the support they need, while at the same time, offering that reassurance where necessary.
“And then I think the other thing that really helps with busting stigma is also educating our staff. It’s about educating them on how to spot the signs in people around them, educating them on how to have a conversation around [wellbeing], and helping them realise that actually, people can function at a very high level with a mental health issue.”
What are your top wellbeing tips for those suffering from mental health issues and the people around them?
“So, the first thing is to try and identify at least one or two people that you can talk to. A good way to start is to send an email to someone laying it all out: this is what’s going on, this is how you’re feeling, this is the support you need, if necessary. And I think for me, doing that in a matter-of-fact way always tends to work quite well.
“The second thing is, if you’re on that road to recovery, thinking about the signs a person can look out for, if something triggers your mental health issues. I know for me; I have a number of signs that people need to look out for with regards to my mental health!
“The other thing I would do is make sure I’ve got my boundaries set – and I always say that to everyone. It’s like, set those boundaries, work out what works for you, and within those boundary settings, make sure that throughout the week you have made time for wellbeing.
“It could be going for a walk at lunchtime or getting outside and having a cup of tea sitting on a bench. It could be seeing friends or having a quick call with someone.
“If you’re supporting someone, it is about simply listening to them. I know that sounds so basic and so easy to do, but it is about listening to people. If you’re worried about someone, have that direct conversation – I am a firm believer in direct conversations.
“If they say they’re fine, come back to them a couple of weeks later. And again, open that dialogue. They are probably so used to pretending like things are okay, so if you feel able to, share a little bit about what you are going through.
“Make sure that you’re not fixating on the illness, it’s so important that we remember there is a whole person behind that illness, whatever the illness might be. And I think so often, particularly in a work environment, we get so fixated on the illness, we forget that the person is able to do their job!
“Ultimately, keeping that line of communication will help people feel more supported.”
What message do you have for people struggling with their self-image?
“You don’t have to struggle with it forever.
“I think so much of my life, I have really struggled with what I look like. I’ve struggled with looking in the mirror, I’ve struggled with comparing myself to my friends. So much of my life, I felt like there was something categorically wrong and that I had to change. And the way to change, was to lose weight, obsess about food and to obsess about calories. Then at some point, I would feel good enough.
“I can 100% say that I was never, ever happier the skinnier I was. And it was about so much more than that. I think it is about understanding where you get your self-worth from and taking the time every single day, when you get those horrible thoughts in your head or when you look in the mirror, to flood yourself with those affirmations.
“Surround yourself with people who build you up, who cheer you on and champion you. And if you can’t find those people, try and find the space to actually do it for yourself.”