I have been fat/obese for most of my teen and adult life. I have dealt with low self-esteem, depleted self-worth and a looming depression perpetuated by a negative self-image. I wish I had a mentor who I could reach out to. I wish someone noticed my low morale and extended a hand of empathy to help me realize my worth. I wish I acknowledged it and spoke about it. I wish. However, on the brighter side, I was lucky to emerge from it stronger and wiser. But sadly not all are lucky. Many need help. Sometimes urgent.
Body image is the way people perceive their physical being, their bodies. For various reasons, they may have a distorted view of how they “should” look versus how they actually look. Men, women and children from all walks of life could become victims of a negative body image. In fact there in increasing incidence of negative body image issues among children and youngsters.
With the ever increasing access and exposure to digital and print media, in-the-face advertising and larger than life movies and soaps, our notions of physical beauty have become absurd, competitive, unreal and distorted. Digital and print media are constantly upgrading definition of a perfect body, and downgrading our acceptance of ourselves. To add to it there is no dearth of body-shamers who do not hesitate to pass negative, ego-shattering and sometimes derogatory comments on someone else’s body and looks.
We resort to photoshopping, airbrushing, mobile apps for beautification and numerous other tools to come across as someone we are not. Physical beauty has become the core of our existence, pushing other personality attributes to a back footing. We have lost regard for highly valued attributes such as empathy, compassion, and knowledge and are constantly evaluating ourselves on the absurd benchmark for beauty set by an industry that thrives on our sensibilities (or the lack of it).
Young girls, as young as five-year-old, have an idea of a certain way they are supposed to look. Their notion of body weight and size are a reflection of the social and media interaction. By the time children reach their teens, they are already convinced that they are flawed and not up to the mark set in the society, leading to low self-esteem.
Movies are larger than life and have the power to influence people in ways we can never imagine. Unfortunately, our movie makers are biased against fat people and end up showing them in poor taste. Overweight and fat characters are almost always presented as sources of comic relief in movies, while the lead characters typically have perfectly sculpted bodies.
The marriage market and dating sites are flooded with matrimonial advertisements and “partner specification” wherein people are searching for only “beautiful/handsome partners for dating and marriage. It often seems like a “custom software specification from a client!” One look at the matrimonial ads is enough to turn your face in disgust. The matrimonial ads reflect prejudices and bring us face to face with a world of discrimination which cuts across categories. Terms like “Very Handsome”, “Very Fair”, “Fair”, “Very Beautiful” are common and reflect our neanderthal mindset, regressive attitude, and hypocrite nature.
Paradox of obesity and beauty
Surprisingly, the same society that sets horribly unreal standards of beauty, also propagates unhealthy eating habits and an inactive lifestyle. Children are torn between the conflicting values and are lost in between. Obesity rates in children are at an all-time high globally with an estimated 41 million children under 5 years old being either obese or overweight.
Fat is the new slang
Children from a very early age know being fat is bad. Fat kids being bullied in school is pretty common and can have a devastating impact on the victim. “Fatso”, “Fatty”, “fat-ass”, “Fathead”, “Fugly”, “Dod-bod” are the urban slang for the obese. As parents, teachers, and counsellors, we must be equipped to deal with body image issues and have open talks with children, conveying to them the importance of being healthy, which is not the same as being thin, but not because if affects your look n a certain way but because it is unhealthy and has long-term health implications.
As parents, teachers, and counsellors, we must be equipped to deal with body image issues and have open talks with children and youngsters, conveying to them the importance of being healthy, which is not the same as being thin, not because if affects your look n a certain way but because it is unhealthy and has long-term health implications.
It is not surprising to see many men, women, and children with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, the symptoms of which are often linked to the bullying they face at school, and the wrong message the get from parents, peer, and society.
Young boys and girls often rely on unqualified people to assist them in quickly fixing their flawed bodies. The market for illegal a non-prescribed medication, food supplements, and steroids for losing weight, gaining muscles, getting ripped, and having washboard abs, is at its all-time high. Trainers and instructors at gyms assume the role of nutritionists and doctors and prescribe, sometimes even deal in illegal medicines and health supplements. Such medication can have long-lasting adverse and sometimes irreversible effect on health and general well-being.
As parents, it is important to watch out for signs of negative body image in our children and deal with it empathetically. Reaching out at the right time can make a world of difference.
Though it is normal for children to become body conscious at some point in time, it is critical that they have the right perspective to evaluate themselves. Too much concern and focus on their bodies could lead to anxiety and stress.
- Feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness
- Limited friends and social interaction because of the way they look
- Shyness to participate in activities like sports, swimming etc because of the way they feel about their bodies
- Constant comparison with someone who looks good
- Obsession about losing weight, bulking up or changing the way a specific body part looks
- Associates food with feelings of guilt and shame
- Frequently looking in the mirror or avoiding mirrors altogether.
- Consistently poor performance at school.
- Signs of depression and seclusion
What can parents do to boost the body image of a child?
- Redefine healthy: Do not discuss/talk being healthy in terms of fat or thin. Being healthy is a lifestyle. It is the outcome of conscious decisions about food, physical activity, and positive mind. My daughter is used to see me go for a run or jog, but she knows I run to be fit and healthy, not to lose weight or because I am fat. I have systematically sensitized her to many other benefits of running, cycling and swimming and as a result, she does not associate these activities with losing weight or being fat.
- Be a positive body role model: Children are keen observers and quick learners. Sometimes we convey significant things to them about body image without even talking about it. If we feel comfortable in our skin the child too picks up the cue and learns the same. Appreciate your body for being strong and disease free and for being able to do many things that others cannot. Take pride in other aspects of your personality and showcase them to your child appropriately. Never judge or comment on low someone looks.
- Reframe messaging: Sometimes our children are listening and absorbing all that we speak, even if it is not meant for them, without us really being aware of it. For example, we may bump into a friend as say ‘You look great – you’ve lost so much weight!”. While it is a comment in all innocence and good faith, the child gets the message that looking good is an outcome of losing weight. Over time such comments add up to and influence the way children feel about their bodies.
- Discourage teasing: Do not indulge in or encourage teasing with respect to a certain physical characteristic of the child. This can be far damaging than we may like to assume. For example, A child who is short in height is often called as “Chote”, while someone who is dark complexioned is called as “Kalu”. Also, teach your child some positive responses to teasing and bullying and to take a stand against it.
- Character Vs looks: Let the child know that inner strength and character are more important than physical appearance. Share stories that reinforce that attributes like perseverance, hard work, dedication, and compassion are far more rewarding that looks. Look for opportunities for your child to meet successful people like writers, scientists, bankers etc and/or listen to their motivational speeches. Focus on the child’s strengths, intelligence and potential instead of their looks.
Don’t let your child develop a negative body image. Be an aware, engaged and sensitive parent to help your child build a strong positive body image and a character of steel.