New Delhi: Our body image is how we perceive and feel about our physical appearance. We all have aspects of ourselves that we wish we could change. It could be due to our body's shape, features, size, and weight. If we don't overthink the aspects of our appearance that we don't like and accept them as they are, we are more likely to have a positive self-image of ourselves. A positive self-image leads to healthy lifestyle choices as well as positive thoughts and behaviours.
Certain teenagers are body shamed at school or by their families, which can change their relationship with their bodies. Teens are frequently influenced by their peers and family members, and they tend to adopt their views on what constitutes an acceptable body image. A person's physical and emotional health can suffer as a result of a negative or distorted body image. It can lead to a variety of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and eating disorders. A poor self-image can lead to frequent mood swings, social isolation, and dysfunctional relationships. Fear of rejection and non-acceptance due to a person's physical appearance can leave deep emotional scars and drive an individual to self-harm and even suicide.
Here are a few things parents can do to help their teens who might be struggling with a negative body image:
Encourage Open Honest Communication
Teenagers, at times, feel that their parents don't understand them. They feel that either their parents are always lecturing them. Then there is always a feeling of a generation gap. Teenagers are quick to go into a shell and limit their conversations with parents if they feel unheard, disrespected or misunderstood by their parents. It is important that parents take a neutral stand and give teenagers the space to vent and to share their point of view. Encourage your teens to have an unfiltered conversation with you. Don't interrupt them when they speak and take genuine interest on what they have to say.
Don't focus on looking a certain way
It is important that parents walk the talk and not set expectations from their teenagers to look a certain way. Some teenagers love to shop for branded clothes or certain types of clothes and it becomes a challenge for parents to stop their children from doing so. How do you tell a teen that a certain type of top or dress will not look good on them? How do you prewarn them that if they wore a dress, top or jeans it may open them up for ridicule from their friends or classmates? Talk about the importance of dressing for comfort over dressing for looks.
Stop projecting your own insecurities on your child
If you are a parent who has grown up in an environment where looks have been given a lot of importance then you may unknowingly be transferring your views to your offspring. Beauty is aligned with fair skin. Lean and thin people are more attractive than overweight individuals. It is important that the family is seen as a "fit" and an "attractive" family. It's imperative to receive compliments on one's looks to feel complete. They all may be things which you may give importance to but it's not healthy or important for your teenagers to share the same views as you on the matter.
Talk about the Importance of Health and Exercise
Teenagers these days have so many tools of distraction like their smart phones, social media, OTT (Netflix) and gaming to keep them occupied and distracted from exercising. It is important to encourage teens to maintain an exercise routine. Encourage them to pick up a new sport, to continue with a sport they are familiar with(like cricket, squash or tennis).
Look for signs of BDD-BDD
Body dysmorphic disorder is where a person becomes overly anxious over a physical aspect of themselves. Often, people hyper focus on one area or a perceived defect in their physical appearance, a scar or even a mark on their skin. They then tend to obsess over this defect. At times these thoughts and feelings are so intense that they find it difficult to think of anything else. This can then impact their academics and work performance. Body dysmorphic disorde ris not gender specific. It tends to manifest in teenagers and young adults.
Be aware of your words
Be careful of the words you use and the language you are using with your teens. Some parents shame their children by calling them "fat". Stay away from hurtful statement like: "If you don't lose weight then no one will marry you", "Look at your friend, he/she is so fit, why can't you be more like him/her?" or "That dress would look better if you were slim". Statements like these can-do further damage to someone who might already have a negative self-image of themselves or have a negative relationship with their body.
Encourage Healthy Food Over Rigorous Dieting
The goal should be very clear. Ask your teens if their goal is to diet to improve their health or to fit into a certain dress! Healthy choice of food should always be encouraged over experimental dieting. Some teens skip meals and reduce the quantity of their meals drastically in-order to lose weight and stay slim. This should not be encouraged. Our mind and body gets' nourishment from our meals. Incorrect food habits can result in deficiency of important vitamins and minerals which are crucial for development and maintenance of physical and mental health.
Encourage Self Love
Self acceptance promotes self-love. Teenagers need to be accepted as they are by their parents. They should be encouraged to feel comfortable in their own skin. Use words of encouragement and remind them that your love for them is unconditional. A teen who has a negative self-image needs supportive parents. They don't need judgemental and critical parents. The world may be judging them already for their looks. You as parents need to create a house environment that is safe, warm and accepting of them. Tell your teens to look in the mirror and tell themselves that they love and accept themselves for who they are with all of their flaws.
If a teenager's negative self-image is impeding their growth and negatively impacting their day-to-day life, please consult a mental health professional as soon as possible. Psychotherapy and counselling can be extremely beneficial in assisting your adolescent in dealing with such issues. If they are not treated, it can change their personalities and make them feel less confident and bitter about themselves.
(Dr Vihan Sanyal, Psychotherapist and Founder of Mind Factory)