Fat. Thin. Tall. Short. Pimply. Pretty. Scrawny. Ugly. Attractive. Chubby. Fair. Dark.
As children, you have learnt the meanings of these words but as you enter adolescence, these words start to have a different meaning. A more personal meaning. Words that you think when you look into the mirror, words that your friends use and words that you now notice in ads, movies, social networking sites. These become words that you attach to the way you look or the way others look.
These words tend to have an impact on our perception of our body, or our “body image”.
So, What is body image?
Body Image is what you think and feel about your physical self or your body. It includes how you picture yourself in your mind or in the mirror. Your body image can be positive or negative.
Positive body image is when you accept and appreciate the way you look. You have a clearer, realistic perception of your body and feel confident and comfortable in it.
Negative body image is when you feel ashamed or anxious about the way you look. You tend to criticize yourself and usually have a distorted perception of your body. You feel conscious and uneasy about it.
The way you view yourself takes center stage during adolescence. Through this article we, as psychologists, want to help you understand the role a healthy body image plays in your life. We will be talking about various aspects but one of the most important things was also to help you (and us) see how adolescents today feel about this topic. So, we asked teenagers- What does “body image” mean to you?
The answers ranged from insightful to brave to humorous; what we did realize though is that all teenagers did face some insecurity about the way they look, felt pressured by their social environment and they strongly felt a need for shift in perspective. We decided we have to share their answers with you. So, take a look at the title picture for this article and read their responses 🙂 (you can go through the pictures by clicking the arrow to the right)
Why is body image important during adolescence?
Pre-adolescence and adolescence is characterized by the onset of puberty. Puberty brings with it many physical bodily changes for girls and boys- in height, weight, skin, hair growth, glands and reproductive organs. This is a confusing and challenging time for all teenagers as they try to understand these changes.
Erik Erikson, psychologist, calls this the stage of “identity versus role confusion”. Adolescents start to form views about themselves and socio-cultural ideals. As a teenager, you are trying to form your unique identity and at the same time find your place and fit in with society. Research shows that a teenager’s physical appearance, body image and self-esteem are vital to the integration of his/her overall identity and self-worth. So, the way you feel about your body is connected to the way you feel about yourself. It is connected to your self-esteem and has long-term effects. If you have a positive body-image, you are likely to be well-adjusted and form healthy relationships. Whereas, if you have a negative body-image, you are more prone to feelings of inferiority and depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse.
Why do so many teenagers suffer from body image issues?
Concerns about the way one looks now start from a very young age itself and are rampant throughout one’s life but there are certain individual and environmental factors that make teenagers more vulnerable to these issues:
Trying to Accept Bodily Changes:
Firstly, there are certain traditional beliefs that colour your views and interfere with the acceptance of your body- such as “being flat-chested is unfeminine” or “lack of facial hair is not manly enough.” Secondly, almost all of us have ideal physical concepts that we want to reach (tall, thin, muscular, etc.) and not reaching it makes you feel dissatisfied. You know how unprepared you feel for all the bodily changes that suddenly come your way. It becomes difficult to be satisfied with all the sudden changes.
The Power of Image:
According to a study in Pediatrics, about two-thirds of girls in the 5th to 12th grades said that magazine images influence their vision of an ideal body, and about half of the girls said the images made them want to lose weight.
The media and our society serve up rigid and uniform standards of beauty. “Fair & Lovely” “Get a slimmer waist in just 10 days” “Join this gym to be the complete man” “The Axe Effect”
“Television commercials, billboards and advertisements on social media websites make these ideals seem real and attainable” says Ms. Mehra, suburban schoolteacher (Mumbai)
You now want that new low-fat cereal, that shampoo that makes your hair shiny and the perfect anti-acne cream.
“There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is that it doesn’t stop there”, she adds.
These images generally send out a strong stereotype “What looks beautiful is good” and you try to achieve that. You now think you need to look a certain way to feel good about yourself. Moreover, statistics show that the standards of this so-called beauty or masculinity have become even harder to attain with time leading to chronic feelings of insecurity and under confidence.
Development of Negative Attitudes towards Yourself:
You feel unprepared, concerned about being accepted by friends and try to fit an unrealistic body image- all of this can make you feel even more vulnerable. As you observe yourself, you realize how different it is from what you had anticipated and you start to criticize yourself for not being “good enough”.
“It takes one comment or one thought to make it stick. For me, someone laughed and said I have big ears. Since then, I grow my hair long to cover them.” – KR (17 years old)
These feelings tend to get reinforced over time and form harsh, negative opinions: “I look fat” now wrongly translates into “I feel fat and hence, I am ugly/worthless”. This makes you feel terrible and forms a cycle of self-criticism.
How can you build a more positive body-image?
It is no secret that all of us have days when we feel awkward and uncomfortable in our bodies. But sometimes, we can get stuck in patterns that reinforce and strengthen this uncomfortable feeling; it then becomes important to understand and work with the negative attitudes towards your body. Here are some ways which introduce you to a healthier and more positive way of looking at yourself and your body:
Understand your relationship with your body:
Your mind and your body are reflections of each other. A healthy mind tends to reflect a healthy body and vice versa. So, it is important to understand how you feel about your body- happy, satisfied, guilty, angry etc.
Recognize the negative messages:
“Need to lose more weight” “Nose is too long” “Not pretty enough”- negative messages that you sometimes give yourself or that are present in your environment. This can make you feel inadequate and insecure. Identifying these messages can help you realize when you are being too critical of yourself. Be assertive and stand up for yourself if you feel bullied or insulted by someone’s comments. Moreover, remember that your body size, shape, or weight does not determine your worth.
“Like most teenagers, I feel conscious about the way I look. But then I remember superheroes. Even they wear a mask, because they realize that their superpowers are way more important than their looks” – RM (16 years old)
Appreciate your body for what it can do, not just how it looks:
Appreciate it for simple things- things that we generally take for granted- walking, swimming, laughing. The warmth that you feel after a good laugh or the sweet ache after a jog with a friend. Being mindful of your body in these daily experiences actually strengthens your relationship with your body.
Prioritize your health over looks:
Most of us have heard this and shrugged it off. What’s the big difference, right? Quite a big difference actually. Being healthy does not involve spending hours at the gym or very strict fad diets (starving or binge eating can actually lead to other ailments). Remember that just because there are certain trends that are rampant, it does not mean that they are necessarily good or healthy, for example- the size 0 trend.
Being healthy represents healthy living- a wholesome diet, regular exercise- leading to a happier, fit you. Aim to change unhealthy habits, slowly start with small changes to your daily habits, allowing your body to catch up to your goals.
Give importance to the other aspects of you:
There is so much more to you! The things that you cannot see in the mirror- you might be kind-strong-creative-intelligent. Adolescence is a time to explore opportunities and hone your identity. Focus on the rest of you- make a list of things that you like about yourself- ask yourself what you like doing? What are your strengths? Take pride in things that are not related to appearance. See yourself as you want others to see you–as a whole person.
Remember that your friends go through this as well:
Adolescence is an awkward age. Even though you don’t realize it, most of your friends go through the same pressure. This spoken word poem “Skinny” by a teenager shows how this expectation to look a certain way affects everyone.
“Noone really has everything figured out. Some of us just pretend better. It helps if you have some friends you can talk to about your insecurities openly” says R.D (14 years old).
It is also important to demonstrate respect towards your peers. Start with trying to accept and value people no matter how they look.
Find new role models:
There is nothing wrong about admiring certain celebrities- but notice other aspects about them as well- their skills such as acting or singing, their interests and even charitable work. Look for role models that you can relate to. For example, if you like writing, look at authors that inspire you.
Remember all that you see is not real:
You try to look a certain way because you think being slightly thinner or fairer might make you feel better about yourself. It actually does the opposite and you feel worse, trying to reach an idealistic goal.
We very often forget this, that what we see in the media is just an image.
Cameron Russell, international model in her powerful talk on image (“Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I am a model”) says that “Images are constructions, and they are constructions built by a group of professionals, by hairstylists and makeup artists and photographers and stylists.”
Photoshop, airbrushing are common tools in the industry and many people are soon realizing that these are unrealistic notions of a society. For example, the Dove campaign that strives to break these very notions of beauty.
However, sometimes it can be difficult to change the negative perception that you have of your body. If you feel that you are excessively critical about the way you look and it is affecting your well-being, seek help from a mental health professional. They would be able to help you work through your difficulties to build a healthier self-image.
Beauty is not simply skin deep; and accepting yourself for who you are, will make you feel more confident, self-assured and open to change. As Salma Hayek, rightly said:
“People often say that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, and I say that the most liberating thing about beauty is realizing that you are the beholder. This empowers us to find beauty in places where other have not dared to look including inside ourselves.”
So, go ahead. Accept the beautiful in you 🙂
Feel free to share your opinions and perspective on what body image means to you. Also, let us know about any ways which have helped you to develop a healthy body image. You can send in any feedback or questions that you might have, we will be glad to help you out.
Post contributed by: Anusha Manjani
Anusha is a Clinical Psychologist and she worked with children and adolescents at Inner Space, from 2013 to 2015.