Body image and a healthy sense of self

We live in a world that values appearance. Whether we like to admit it or not we form our first impressions based on very superficial features. Some of us are able to look past what is on the cover of the book and look inside for it’s true value. Others remain preoccupied with the cover and buy into the advertised message.

So when does this preoccupation with body image and appearance start?  From a developmental perspective, until children are preschool age, a child’s self esteem is almost entirely based on how they are treated by their caregivers, or family and friends, with whom they come in contact.  Even exposure to media at this age does not have the negative impact it has later on as children’s growing cognitive abilities expand to see themselves as separate individuals from others. In the magical early years of childhood, children may even believe, when they play dress-up, that they are truly transformed into the costume they adorn.

Then children start kindergarten, and elementary school, and the feedback of others and socio-cultural biases reflected in the media start to impact self -esteem in positive or negative ways. Seeds of body dissatisfaction, disordered eating and full blown eating disorders get planted during these years. Although only a small percentage of people end up suffering from Anorexia or Bulimia or serious eating disorders, a large proportion of young girls and women, in this culture, suffer to some extent from dissatisfaction with their bodies, distorted body image and have disordered eating. Not surprisingly, but to a lesser degree, men are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their bodies. A study in the British Journal of Health Psychology, on parental influence on dieting awareness in young children concluded, “The negative self comparisons to unrealistic images portrayed by media are not just a female issue anymore. A substantial proportion of young children have internalized societal beliefs concerning the ideal body shape and are well aware of dieting as a means for achieving this ideal. In particular, the desire for thinness emerges in girls at around age 6.

Although it seems alarming that most children are exposed to dieting parents and almost all children are exposed to popular media, there are a good number of children who seem to escape this pressure and grow to have a balanced and healthy sense of self that is not wrapped around their appearance alone. There are some protective qualities that can be encouraged in children, at a young age, to allow for development of a healthy self image.

As a society, we believe that increasing knowledge around any issue, helps prevent large scale problems like AIDS, drug abuse, drinking and driving etc. In reality these simple measures to educate have a very small impact on changing behaviors. It does not help build coping skills. It tells us what not to do without providing tools to cope with the pressures of real life. In building a healthy sense of self, “just say no”, does not seem to be a helpful approach.

On the other hand, helping children become better consumers of media is a very effective way of building resistance to societal pressures. Children can be taught critical thinking skills in simple every day situations like on their trip to the supermarket. The beautiful displays and packages communicate the glories of products, where as the product may or may not match up to the claims. Having children experience the “spin” first hand is a meaningful way of using their own instincts rather than “buy” into what is being “sold” to them. These messages can be brought to their attention with commercials, movies and even news sources. In all these small ways, children can learn that the vastly unachievable images projected by media are unrealistic and even harmful.

Another very important way for parents to be supportive of the healthy development of their children’s self esteem is to ensure that they are never teased for the way they look. People with eating disorders often report that the seed of body dissatisfaction was planted when they were teased or heard a devastating remark from someone significant in their lives, generally at a young age. Students of gymnastics and ballet are specially at a higher risk for weight and body size related remarks.

Unfortunately as a society, in placing such a high value on thinness we don’t honor the natural diversity in shapes, sizes and skin (and hair) color, on the other hand have one of the highest proportion of obese children and adults in the world. Perhaps some amount of education on healthy life style is needed at all ages.

A few things that parents can actively do to vaccinate their children against unhealthy body image:

  • Model a healthy and balanced emphasis to internal and external qualities by praising children for their work, effort and internal qualities with how they look. We have all heard comments that reflect the double standards of our socialization; girls hear “you look so pretty” and boys hear “you throw like a champ”.
  • Try to avoid social comparisons and judgements about others. It helps weaken peer pressure.
  • As much as possible, watch movies and TV shows with your children so you can use the teaching moments that invariably come up. It helps children know your values more explicitly.
  • Discuss their role models with them. Often parents are surprised that they are their children’s role models and not the popular movie or sports figures.
  • Avoid using terms “I was BAD” when you eat french fries or a decadent dessert. The terms “healthy” or “unhealthy” usually convey a sense of responsibility to self than “good or bad”.
  • Helping children expand their vocabulary of feeling words. Food often serves as an expression of emotion in the absence of open communication.

These are some warning signs that seeds, of destruction of a healthy body image, have set in:

  • Picky eating (obsessive concern about weight, calories, or a certain part of the body).
  • Possession of diet pills, laxatives, diuretics.
  • Excessive exercise or dieting.
  • Evidence of bingeing and/or vomiting.

Parents often feel the need to praise and compliment their children to foster a positive self esteem. In reality a healthy sense of self is only ultimately achieved by real accomplishments and not empty praise. Children, and adults, need opportunities to discover who they are and become aware of their strengths in a loving and supportive environment.

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