Body image is not quite literally what we see in the mirror. It is really the interpretation of what we see, influenced by our own perception of how we view and feel about ourselves.
All of us with decent eyesight are able to see that perhaps we are a bit over weight, we may like the look of our legs, we may appreciate that our arms appear toned, love our hair but concede perhaps, that the waistline could do with some work. Most of us tend to make judgment calls about what we see in that mirror. How these judgment calls affect us emotionally and what we then proceed to do as a result of these emotions is the real relevance of body image.
Take for instance a teenage girl who looks at herself and sees a plump young woman. How she responds to seeing that plump young woman will depend largely on what she really feels about her body. This feeling often comes from subconscious information she has gathered and retained about her body and herself as a whole since childhood.
A teenager who, as a child, was loved and nurtured, who was praised for what she did rather than what she looked like is more likely to see her image, register that she is a little plump and perhaps should do something about it, such as exercise or cut out the sweetened soda. On the other hand, a young woman who has a mother who is critical about her complexion or weight, a father who comments on her looks, peers/siblings who tease her about her size would relate to the image of herself differently. She has already imbibed some distaste for her body. The pain she experienced at the comments or the judgment from family and close friends will remain with her, as a negative body image. My heart goes out to the teenagers brought to me by their (well-meaning) mothers who proceed to tell me their daughter is too fat and needs to lose weight while she sits there with downcast eyes!
How does body image translate in real life?
Having seen that image and interpreted it, what we then proceed to do about it is important.
People with poor body image:
- May do noting about it, but continue to dislike, even hate their bodies.
- They may continue to gain weight, overeat, eat indiscriminately or develop addictions.
- They may turn to extreme measures, fad diets, starvation or extreme exercise to lose weight.
- They may develop eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia or binge eating.
- They may succumb to the surgeon’s knife and other procedures in an attempt make themselves ‘look’ better.
Improving body image is possible. Preventing poor body image to begin with, is also possible. Here are some pointers for parents, caregivers, fitness instructors, doctors and for oneself.
Parental pressure plays a crucial role – A child’s self-esteem rests with how he/she is viewed by his/her loved ones and is important to his/her wellbeing. Being critical about a child’s appearance only lays the foundation for future angst and poor self-esteem. The emphasis should be on health and wellness rather than size or appearance.
The focus should also be on what the child does rather than what she/he looks like. Praising a child for being himself/herself, his/her accomplishments and hobbies rather than praising his/her looks keeps the perspective on what is truly important for emotional wellbeing. Loving him/her (and expressing it) irrespective of his/her height, weight or complexion is crucial for her emotional health.
Lead by example – Parents who practice healthy behavior such as regular exercise and healthy balanced eating are more likely to communicate that to their children. If the parent him or herself has issues with body image, is overly self-critical or self-abusive, the child is likely to imbibe similar behaviou. This then becomes their narrative as they grow older.
Avoid stereotypes – Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Thin is not always better or more beautiful. Thin is not always healthier. Focus on fitness rather than fatness or thinness. Most cultures have their own stereotypes of beauty and tend to idolize it. Not everyone fits into that mold and neither should they need to. Fairness creams are a typical example of how people are made to believe that ‘being fair’ is somehow aspirational.
Avoid comparisons of any kind – Comparing your own body to that of your best friend or that glamorous film star is simply setting yourself up. Your friend is genetically different, so her body is different. The film star has an entourage of beauticians, dieticians, trainers and hairdressers not to mention, the photo-shopped, airbrushed magazine images.
Parents comparing their children to siblings or friends will only injure their self-esteem setting the stage for poor body image and a host of other psychological problems and maladaptive behaviors.
Emphasize health and fitness rather than physical appearance – Focus on health and fitness rather than just appearance when you (or your child) start to exercise. This improves persistence with an exercise program. Weight loss takes time. An obsession with the mirror or weighing scale will prove counterproductive in the long term as weight does not always come off the way we want or expect it to. Persistence and focus on what we do, (that is, with the exercise and healthy, balanced eating) rather than the scale or how we appear on the other hand empowers us. We have control over what we do; we don’t always have control over how that translates in weight or appearance. Not everyone loses weight at the same rate for instance. Your genetic propensity plays a role in physical appearance. When the focus shifts to being disciplined to our exercise routine instead, the endorphins released with regular exercise make you feel good about yourself, increasing self-esteem and improving body image.
Instructor’s body image – Instructors and trainers should identify and deal with their own body image issues before trying to influence clients. Some instructors are overly critical about their own bodies. This can transfer to or be imposed on the clients. A thin instructor is not always healthier.
Emphasize “form” of exercise – While exercising, rather than focusing on just burning calories, emphasize performing the exercise correctly, improving coordination and balance. This relieves the pressure from appearance to actual performance. It also develops a healthier relationship with exercise and ones own body. It also helps you find a greater respect for your body and the phenomenal things it can achieve.
Beware of communication in training/teaching/treating areas – Instructors and trainers need to beware of what they communicate with a client. Judging the client’s body is not the trainer’s prerogative. The role of a trainer is simply to guide and encourage, not to ridicule or criticize. Similarly a doctor judging a patients body is not a smart move. Even if well intended, it is never a good idea to be critical of weight and size. Instead keep the focus on what is possible in terms of behavioral change for better health and wellbeing.
Balanced eating – Focus on healthy eating and don’t obsess over micronutrients and calories. This obsession could very well lead to an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia that is nothing but an endorsement of poor body image.
Take necessary steps to overcome emotional baggage. Understand that sometimes, ‘looking better’, does not always translate into ‘feeling better’ if the ingrained thoughts about one’s self is deeply negative. Changing self-worth takes more than the surgeon’s knife, weight loss or even exercise. It takes the understanding that feeling good has to start from within and will take work. It will also take the effort required to deal with all the negative thoughts, resentment, anger or envy that we harbor. It may require prolonged therapy for some, especially if they develop maladaptive behaviors like eating disorders, self-cutting, addictions and so on. It also requires compassionate support and discipline.
Finally, body image is a perception. Poor body image is preventable. It can be changed into a positive body image with the right tools. Great body image is important for self-esteem/self-worth and good self-esteem is greatly important for emotional wellbeing.