This article was first published in The Rotary News in November 2016.
Body image is not quite literally what we see in the mirror. It is really the interpretation and our own analysis of what we see. All of us with decent eyesight are able to see that perhaps we are a bit overweight, we may like the look of our legs, we may appreciate our arms, love our hair but concede, 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 image will depend largely on what she really feels about her body. This feeling often comes from subconscious information she has gathered about her body and herself as a whole since childhood.
A teenager who, as a child, was loved and nurtured, and 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 woman who had a mother who was critical about her complexion or weight, a father who commented on her looks, peers/siblings who teased 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 comments or the judgment of family and close friends will remain with her, as a negative body image.
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 continue to dislike, even hate their bodies
- may continue to gain weight, overeat, eat indiscriminately or develop addictions
- may turn to extreme measures to lose weight or alter their complexion
- may develop eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia or binge eating
- may succumb to the surgeon’s knife and other procedures in an attempt to 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, instructors and yourself.
Parental pressure plays a crucial role. A child’s self-esteem rests with how she is viewed by her loved ones and is important to 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 wellnessrather 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 herself, her accomplishments and hobbies, rather than praising her looks, keeps the perspective on what is truly important for emotional wellbeing.
Lead by example. Parents who practise healthy behaviour such as regular exercise and healthy balanced eating are more likely to communicate that to their children. If the parent himself or herself has issues with body image, is overly self-critical or self-abusive, the child is likely to absorb it. This becomes relevant to how they then grow up to view and feel about themselves.
Avoid stereotypes. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Thin is not always better or more beautiful. Focus on fitness rather than thinness. Most cultures have their own stereotypes of beauty and tend to idolise it. Not everyone fits into that mould and don’t need to either. Fairness creams are a typical example of how people are made to believe that being fair is a great thing.
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.
Focus on health and fitness rather than just appearance when you (or your child) start to exercise. This has been found to improve persistence with an exercise programme. Weight loss takes time. An obsession with the mirror or the weighing scale will prove counterproductive. Persistence with exercise and healthy, balanced eating on the other hand will sustain weight loss and fitness. 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 in order to be able to guide clients properly. 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 better than a slightly overweight one.
Emphasise “form” of exercise. While exercising, rather than focusing on burning calories, emphasise on performing the exercise correctly, improved coordination and balance. This relieves the pressure from appearance to actual performance. It also develops a healthier relationship with exercise and one’s own body.
Beware of communication in training 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 criticise.
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. This is nothing but an endorsement of poor body image.
Overcome emotional baggage. Understand that sometimes, looking better, does not always translate into feeling better if the entrenched thoughts about one’s self is deeply negative. Changing that feeling 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 may require prolonged therapy for some, especially if they develop eating disorders, addictions and so on.
Finally, body image is a perception. Poor body image is preventable. It can be changed into a positive body image with the right tools. Good body image is important for good self esteem which is greatly important for emotional well-being.