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Mirror, mirror on the wall …

IT worries me when women – young or old – walk into my clinic and tell me how unhappy they are with their bodies.

Very often, it is the younger women and girls who have poor body image and unhealthy dieting practices. Most think they are not thin enough, or that they do not have the perfect figure. Some obsess about certain features of their bodies, such as their breasts, thighs or hips. Such behaviour is a cause for concern, as it is not merely “in their heads”, but can adversely affect their health and psychological well-being.

Body image

Your body image is the mental picture you have of your body, along with your feelings, thoughts and judgements about your body. When you dislike your body or specific parts of it, this is called having a negative body image. It can even extend to your weight, hair, skin colour or facial features. What causes some people to have a negative image about their own bodies? It is usually caused by a feeling of inadequacy in comparison to a benchmark of the perfect body, whether real or imagined.

Much of this is due to the influence of the media and popular culture. When we read magazines or watch movies, we are inundated with images of perpetually slim and young women. These come to represent the ideals of beauty, despite the fact that, as models and actresses, their beauty is unrealistic. Consequently, a woman feels that she needs to be slim and “perfect” in order to appear healthy, competent, and desirable.

Body image can also be negatively affected by past experiences of physical or sexual abuse, or if a person has been teased, bullied or harassed based on body size, gender, skin colour or physical abilities. A young girl may be influenced by her own mother or father who is constantly preoccupied with weight and body image. Young girls who participate in activities like dance, gymnastics, and modelling may also develop negative body image because these activities promote extreme thinness in order to achieve success. Some women or girls are unprepared for, or unable to understand, physical changes in their body at different stages of life, such as puberty or pregnancy. They become frightened of the way their bodies suddenly develop, and are unable to cope with the changes.

Studies show that exposure to images of idealised beauty increases dissatisfaction, depression, and anger, and lowers self-esteem in both women as well as and men. When women are dissatisfied with their own bodies, pictures of ultra-thin, beautiful models in magazines and TV can reinforce those negative feelings. These images can make them feel worse about their size, the colour of their skin, or other physical features.

Serious consequences

While it is natural to find flaws in ourselves, people with negative body image often take it a few steps further, to the extent that they hate looking at their own bodies and will do anything it takes to achieve their “ideal body”.

The media is awash with images of perpetually slim and young women and this has come to represent the ideals of beauty. Negative body image can lead to low self-esteem and disastrous behaviours, such social isolation. A girl or woman who dislikes her own body may be uncomfortable participating in physical activities or socialising with other people.

She may become so preoccupied with her weight and dieting that she loses interest in school or work. In extreme cases, she may develop an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, or resort to harming herself with drugs, alcohol, unsafe tattooing or piercing, or unsafe sexual activity with multiple partners.

Some women resort to smoking and taking diet pills or other drugs to suppress their appetite and lose weight. Others go to the extent of undergoing cosmetic surgery, such as breast implants, collagen injections and liposuction, to look like their favourite movie actress or model, unaware of the risks of unnecessary surgery. Some women can develop depression and other kinds of mental illness when they do not measure up to society’s image of beauty.

Accept your body

The first step to a positive body image is accepting what you have. You were born with the body you have, and your shape and appearance are largely determined by your genetics, which you cannot change. Even though your lifestyle habits affect your body, there is a limit to how much you can change through your lifestyle. The next time you start criticising your own image, think about other ways to feel good about yourself. Put your mind and energy towards activities you are good at, be they educational, spiritual, or social.

Focus on health instead of appearance. Even if you change your lifestyle habits, the change should be targeted at a healthy lifestyle, such as by eating well, getting exercise and relaxing. Crash and fad diets do not work and are not considered a healthy lifestyle change! Don’t focus on how other women look. Models in advertisements and actresses in movies are trying to “sell” an idea – one that is deceptive, unrealistic and unattainable. If more and more women refuse to buy into the idea, the industry will eventually have to change the way women are portrayed.

Raising a child with a healthy body image

Children and teenagers can also develop negative body image through what they see in the media, peer pressure, and even parental pressure. Many parents unknowingly try to control their children’s eating habits, inadvertently creating pressure on their children and creating an unhealthy relationship with food. For instance, don’t use food as a reward or punishment.

It is important for growing children to eat, so instead of getting angry when they say they are hungry, teach them to make healthy snack choices. Help them learn about nutrition and the benefits of eating a variety of foods. Inculcate healthy eating habits from a young age and be a good role model yourself. Here are some ways you can promote a healthy body image in your children:

– Compliment your children often on their strengths, accomplishments and efforts, instead of focusing on weight, size, or appearance.

– Avoid commenting on your own weight concerns. Try not to use words like “fat”, “ugly”, or

“disgusting” to describe yourself or others.

– Initiate family activities that involve getting outside the house and being active.

– Be a role model so your children can see that size or appearance don’t limit your own activities.

– Encourage your daughter to play sports and provide her with the proper equipment to do so. Show up at her games and express pride in her participation, whether or not she is a skilled athlete or otherwise.

– Recognise that weight gain, like the development of breasts and hips, is a normal part of puberty and adolescence. Help your daughter to accept these changes.

– Provide your children with age appropriate information about puberty, menstruation, and sexual health.

– Teach your children about diversity. Let them know that people come in a variety of heights, weights, sizes, skin colours, physical abilities and that those differences are what make them unique. Show respect for the work and accomplishments of women despite their size or other physical characteristics.

– Listen to your daughter if she is experiencing teasing or bullying based on her gender, size, physical abilities or skin colour. Try to give her tools for dealing with the situation or contact a local programme that deals with bullying.

– Make time to talk to your daughter about what is going on in her life. Try to create a home environment where she will feel safe to talk to you about any concerns she has about her body.

Remember, you are not just a set of hips, or breasts, or thighs. You are a whole human being, with unique characteristics and capabilities that make you a special person.

The Star Newspaper, Sunday May 17, 2009

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