Ever heard 15 yr. olds lament about how ugly they feel? Or how they wish their hair had been better, or their body been leaner and taller? This is an example of a negative body image, also known as body dissatisfaction.
One’s perception, beliefs and feelings about one’s body, is largely known as body image. It includes how the individual believes the outside world views their body and how they believe their body fits with what the world considers normal. It’s important to note that body image is independent of the actual appearance of a person and may change over time.
Body image can be positive (for e.g., “I have lovely hair”) or negative (“I am the ugliest in my class”). A healthy body image is one where the individual accepts oneself with the flaws, for e.g., “I am unusually tall, but that gives me an edge over others in sports.” An unhealthy body image is one which leads to unpleasant thoughts about oneself, reduces self-confidence and may lead to unhealthy consequences, for e.g., a perception that one is overweight when actually one has a healthy BMI, may lead to the development of an eating disorder.
Adolescence is a period marked by strong changes in the physical appearance. This is also a time when individuals tend to value the opinions of others around them more than ever before and often allow this opinion to influence their own. Although, people of all ages have a certain body image, adolescents are more susceptible to developing a negative body image than any other age group. Adolescent females are more sensitive about their body image as compared to boys. However, the concept of body image is very relevant in both genders.
Body image is strongly influenced by one’s self-esteem and self-evaluation. These are further influenced by a host of external factors. Some of these are:
- Media: The representation of the supposed “ideal” body, hair, weight, skin colour, etc., in the media has often been the cause of dissatisfaction with one’s appearance. Even the popular toys in childhood, like dolls, are often brought under scanner for promoting negative self-image in young girls.
- Family: Much of what a growing individual learns about appearance and self-image can be traced back to the ideas which the family hold on to. Although, parents don’t intentionally try to undermine their children, for some reason most parents want their children to be the best from all angles among the children of their friends. This is where, the foundation of comparing oneself to others, whether somebody real from one’s peer group, or somebody from a fashion magazine, is laid. In the long run, this often proves harmful.
- Peer Group: Adolescence is the age where peer influence is at it’s peak. The desire to be accepted by one’s peer group may lead to unhealthy behaviour and sometimes unwanted emotions. If a girl’s peer group emphasises being thin and doll like, then she, who may be slightly healthy will feel immense pressure to comply.
Some common signs that your child may have a negative body image are:
- Avoidance of family dinner time
- Extreme anxiety about appearance
- Unusual eating habits
- Inappropriate dieting
- Always wanting to eat alone
- Unusual moodiness
- Sudden extreme weight loss
- Over exercising
- Reluctance to talk
- Frequent comparison of one’s body with somebody else’s
- Frequently scrutinising self in the mirror.
A prolonged negative body image can lead to several unpleasant consequences. Apart from a reduced level of self-confidence, self-esteem, self-respect, etc., it can also lead to the development of more severe conditions like eating disorders, substance abuse, body dysmorphic disorder, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders among others (more about these in detail in later blogs).