A South Australian evaluation conducted by Flinders University shows that positive body image can have a lasting effect on girls as young as five. The study involved a group of girls, aged five to nine, being shown a children’s picture book, Shapesville (John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2007).
The book specifically aims to increase aesthetic satisfaction in young girls, promote healthy eating patterns, and help them recognise their positive qualities that are nonappearance related. In a follow- up, the Flinders study showed that positive effects were still significantly greater than those before the girls saw the book.
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG
Sarah Spence from Australia’s Butterfly Foundation for eating disorders claims that whatever is modelled to us when we are young is extremely influential in forming our ideas about body image. “Children are extremely sensitive and often take on values, behaviours, and views about their body according to what they see within their own families,” Spence says.
Multiple academic studies show that parents have a marked impact on their children’s body satisfaction and eating behaviours. Spence recounts examples of parents telling their children they will get fat if they eat certain foods and making suggestions that they should exercise more – even discussing diets with them.
Other examples include parents limiting whole food groups from a child’s diet or sharing their own body-dissatisfaction issues in front of their children. “Parents don’t realise they are making comments that could be harmful to their children in relation to body image and self-esteem,” she is quick to point out. It’s tough accepting that your inner talk may even affect your children.
Loss of control
Christchurch-based clinical psychologist Dr Alice Boyes suggests that in addition to parental and social messages, body image is compounded by our behaviour. “Body avoidance and excessive body checking are both hallmarks of eating disorders and body-image problems,” Boyes says.
Boyes points to a variety of behaviours that people engage in to cope with their negative thoughts. Key examples include avoiding dating and sex as well as avoiding being the focus of attention. For example, someone might avoid public speaking because he or she feels uncomfortable being looked at. It’s also common to avoid activities such as swimming or appearing without make-up.
In an interesting social experiment on how our behaviours affect our self-image, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, a New York blogger, refrained from looking at herself in the mirror for one month. She detailed some of her conclusions on her blog: “I found myself being more patient with the slow clerk at the store … I did yoga instead of thinking about doing yoga, and I faced away from the mirror at the gym but was suddenly doing more reps with the dumbbells … I hadn’t gone into the experiment thinking that the mirror was affecting my self-esteem. I can’t say I felt any better about my looks as I went without mirrors, but I promise you, I didn’t feel any worse.”
An aversion to mirrors is not the only obstacle people with body-image issues face; they may also avoid activities such as exercising or even showering because they involve paying attention to their body, which causes stress and provokes anxiety.
Boyes sees clients whose fear of weight gain leads them to abstain from particular foods or create “forbidden foods” lists. She points out that this tends to increase their sense of being out of control. The cycle people get caught in starts with being anxious, so they cope by avoiding – leading to a temporary feeling of relief. But avoidance generally leads to increased body-related anxiety in the long run.
Another behaviour common in people who have body-image issues is excessive checking, which is the flip side of avoidance. “A person might check to make sure their thighs don’t touch, pinch their stomach to check it, or have some other rule for what is acceptable,” cites Boyes. “They might repeatedly ask their partner for reassurance or check their make-up multiple times a day.” As is the case with avoidance, when people engage in excessive checking, they often build a sense of being out of control, which increases their lack of confidence.
THE IMPACT OF NEGATIVE BELIEFS
According to Spence, when people are unhappy with how their bodies look or what they weigh, they can develop an unrealistic sense of unworthiness. Extreme cases are diagnosed as body dysmorphic disorder. “It is most likely that people who partake in chronic dieting and obsessively fixate over their appearance will encounter distorted or dysmorphic self-judgements,” says Spence. This may lead to an obsessive reliance on consultations with dermatologists to check skin appearance or even plastic surgery to relieve perceived ugliness.
Spence adds that though experts do not know the full prevalence of body dysmorphic disorder, the American Psychiatric Society estimates that it effects from five to 15 per cent of the population.
For anyone feeling the pressure of image issues, Boyes advises to first notice thoughts such as “I’m a failure because I’m overweight.” Take note of whether this thought moves you towards what you value (for example, healthy living) or keeps you stuck. If it keeps you stuck, see whether you can allow negative thoughts to pass without resorting to excessive checking or avoidance. Attempting to block out or fight a thought is counterproductive. If you are anxious about swimming without covering up your body with a T-shirt and shorts, wear just your swimsuit and simply wait for your anxiety to subside.
Another tool is to find something physical you enjoy that will make your body stronger, such as cycling or playing a team sport. Feeling healthy and strong helps you feel good. Yet another useful method is to ditch self-criticism in favour of compassion.
Clinical psychologists can help you shift beliefs surrounding body image. Studies show that adolescents with a healthy self-image focus on what their bodies do for them and accept bodily imperfections. Most adolescents in the study who had a positive self-image were physically active and found exercise to be a joyful and health-promoting activity, rather than a weight-regulating one.
BODY IMAGE BOOSTERS FROM THE BUTTERFLY FOUNDATION
• If you work on being a beautiful person on the inside, you will be a beautiful person on the outside. Always remember to be as kind and giving as you can.
• You get only one body. You will feel more alive and positive by exercising moderately, eating nutritious foods, and never going on dangerous diets.
• Focus on the aspects of yourself with which you feel confident.
• Have fun and don’t let looks rule your life.
• Don’t compare the way you look with anyone else, particularly if your comparisons are with glossy and airbrushed images of models and celebrities.
• Everyone is beautiful in their own way. Support and accept others for who they are.
Fostering positive self-image in children and teens
According to Boyes, parents need to model good attitudes to their own bodies. Mums can’t expect to be on and off diets for their whole lives and not affect their daughters’ body attitude.
Teaching kids techniques such as mindful breathing or doing a body scan is great for brain development and body acceptance. Google “mindful breathing” or “mindfulness body scan,” and you’ll find plenty of resources online. For anxious or perfectionistic children, these techniques are especially important for effective stress management.
Demonstrating how to use self-compassion (instead of self-criticism) to cope with stress is important in building your child’s positive self-image.