What exactly do you see when you look into the mirror?
How does it make you feel?
What are the thoughts that race through your mind at that moment?
Why do I ask? Well, I guess you have to keep scrolling to find out!
PUBERTY: A NEW BEGINNING?
According to psychologist Stanley Hall, adolescence is the beginning of a new life and accordingly, puberty can be considered as the beginning of the new beginning.
Puberty is essentially defined as the time in life when a boy or girl becomes sexually mature—a process that usually happens between ages 10 and 14 for girls and ages 12 and 16 for boys. It causes physical changes, and affects boys and girls differently.
But often there are certain issues that come along with these changes, which are mostly overlooked. Change is scary and especially when that change takes place in one’s own body. The familiarity slowly fades away, giving way to features that one needs time to get accustomed with, thus it is bound to be unsettling. It can be safely said that at least one among three adolescents experiencing puberty goes through some sort of emotional distress. Coping with the various physical and physiological changes is quite challenging in itself. For girls, with puberty comes menstruation which takes a toll on their mental and physical health. Some even start encountering PMS or Pre Menstrual Syndrome which becomes extremely taxing.
Throughout adolescence, the body of an individual reaches its adult form. Puberty kick-starts this process. In the beginning of, during and after the changes have taken place, one develops one’s body image.
WHAT IS BODY IMAGE?
Body image is one’s perception of their own body and features. It is a person’s thoughts and feelings about their own body. Even though a person starts becoming conscious about their body quite early in life, like—according to a survey, even second graders have some sort of perception about their bodily or facial features and some of them are in fact quite opinionated about those features, but, these opinions become more rigid and deep-seated during adolescence.
Body image is essentially of two broad types:
Positive body image and negative body image.
Positive body image refers to a healthy perception that one has about their own body, portraying acceptance of their features and satisfaction with their looks. Individuals with a positive body image have the ability to look beyond their physical appearance and realise that their self esteem does not rely on that.
On the other hand, negative body image refers to a person’s dissatisfaction with their body and features. People with a negative body image tend to perceive various imperfections in their features and often hyper fixate or obsessively focus on such self perceived flaws which leads to low self esteem, and might give rise to anxiety, depression, and/or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
CONTRIBUTING FACTORS TOWARDS DEVELOPMENT OF BODY IMAGE
One’s body image does not grow in isolation. Various factors contribute to the perception one has about their body. These factors are often responsible for the development of distorted body image and body image issues.
Let’s get familiar with these factors—
SOCIAL INFLUENCE: The society one grows up in, the kind of people one is surrounded by especially during puberty and adolescence, play a major role in shaping one’s body image. As soon as girls start showing signs of development of secondary sexual characteristics, they are made conscious about them in many societies. In conservative Indian societies, girls with bigger breasts are asked and made to cover them, as if they are to be hidden from prying eyes, which gives rise to a sense of shame and guilt. While girls with smaller breasts are often told that they look like they haven’t attained the desired growth yet, which again leads to a sense of shame. Either way, they tend to develop a negative perception of their body which, in the long run, might lead to the conditions discussed above.
Boys who aren’t muscular, the ones who have a lean physique or even the ones who have sparse facial and body hair, are made to feel like they aren’t ‘manly’ enough because in various societies, even today, the narrow minded ideal prevails that muscularity equals to manliness.
Society often shames individuals for their height, weight, complexion, various facial features like crooked teeth, nose, etc.. Irrational, unkind comments passed on one’s appearance under the garb of being worried or trying to ‘help’, like—”You should wash your face with milk. That’ll make you fairer.” aren’t just hurtful but also contribute towards developing deep-rooted insecurities in individuals about their appearance.
FAMILY ENVIRONMENT: Family plays a key role in shaping one’s body image. Puberty is complex and having a supportive family is essential during this period to overcome the various physical and emotional struggles one encounters. While understanding and compassionate family members, who can be reached out in times of severe emotional distress or to seek advice can prove extremely helpful in making adolescence a smoother process, narrow minded family members on the other hand, can make it excessively difficult. In many families, girls are shamed and treated as ‘impure’ once they start menstruating while boys are told to ‘man up’ whenever they show signs of emotional distress. Family members constantly passing comments on their bodies can make adolescents grow up into individuals with severe body image issues.
PEER PRESSURE: During puberty, forging bonds with peers becomes important for most individuals. They start striving for acceptance and some sort of acknowledgement from people of the same age group and their friends. While sharing the same experience of going through puberty with one’s friends can help feel a sense of connection and some sort of solidarity, but, in many peer groups, during this time, excessive focus is centred around appearances. From comparing each other’s heights and complexions, to judging each other’s figures and physiques. The ones who have features that comply with the set standards of beauty, are considered beautiful while the ones who do not, are often shamed and bullied, making them develop a negative body image. Such teenagers are left vulnerable to developing feelings of jealousy, insecurity and massive self-loathing.
MEDIA INFLUENCE AND POPULAR CULTURE: The importance of popular culture and media representation is undeniable when talking about factors influencing one’s body image. The beauty standards set by social media, television and beauty magazines are narrow and mostly unattainable. A certain body type is portrayed as ideal while any deviation from that is considered to be in need of ‘correction’. This puts a lot of pressure on adolescents. Trying to meet the unrealistic beauty standards prove to be exhausting and emotionally taxing. In advertisements and fashion magazines, men are portrayed as tall, robust and muscular. The boys who are unable to meet those standards, are bullied in peer groups or commented upon in an unkind manner in family and social gatherings. For girls, the set beauty standard is an extremely lean body with prominent breasts and hips. In the quest of matching up to such unrealistic standards, thousands of girls starve themselves to death every day all around the globe and many consider and even go through multiple surgeries to attain the illusive ‘perfection’.
In movies and series, from time immemorial, chubby characters have in most of the cases been either portrayed as foolish or as side kicks while the leads have always been shown to have ‘perfect’, sculpted bodies. This trend is carried on till date which screams at adolescents who are slightly overweight that they cannot ever dream of a life the lead characters get to live because they aren’t beautiful enough.
The beauty standards promoted on social media platforms are unrealistic and nothing short of toxic. Most of the models and online magazines post heavily edited pictures, which make adolescents extremely conscious about their bodies and they find ‘imperfections’ in themselves.
UNREALISTIC TOYS: Even toys aren’t exempt from the list of factors influencing body image. Dolls with unrealistic body types (for example, the now infamous Barbie doll) and action figures and figurines with sculpted, overtly sexual, muscular bodies, contribute towards shaping one’s body image or one’s perception of beauty from a very early age.
PERSONAL HISTORY AND GENETICS: An individual’s personal history also affects their body image to a great extent. A history of abuse can lead to Body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders owing to extreme self loathing, depression and chronic anxiety. Individuals who have been brought up in a home with distressed interpersonal relationships are prone to developing deep rooted insecurities and a negative body and self image. If body image issues run in the family, spanning through generations, then, the individual becomes more likely to develop a distorted body image as that might get transmitted through genes.
DISABILITIES: Individuals with physical disabilities in their adolescence, start becoming conscious of their appearance and might feel bad about being different from others their age, especially if they grow up in an unsupportive household or society. This might lead to severe BDD.
BODY IMAGE AND THE LGBTQIA COMMUNITY
Even though any and every adolescent might deal with body image issues, it is slightly more likely for LGBTQIA individuals to struggle a little more with accepting their bodies. Many have reported not feeling ‘at peace’ with their bodies since their gender and sexual identity are often at war with each other. It is very important for family and peers to support such adolescents and help them deal with their body image issues in whatever way they deem fit, whether that be cross dressing, or going through gender reassignment surgery. Individuals should be allowed to exercise the right over their own bodies without any hindrance.
COMBATING BODY IMAGE ISSUES: STEPS TOWARDS DEVELOPING A POSITIVE BODY IMAGE
As discussed above, a lot goes into making one perceive their body the way they do. Following are a few things that can help battle a negative body image and turn it into a positive one:
A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE: A healthy lifestyle with sufficient sleep, proper eating habits and regular exercise can help one cope with body image issues since, a regulated schedule helps in keeping the hormones in check, ensures proper functioning of the brain thus keeping at bay to a great extent feelings of emptiness, depression and anxiety.
INDULGING IN CREATIVE ACTIVITIES: Taking part and indulging in creative activities like dancing, writing, painting, recitation and so on can help one feel more positive. Becoming aware of and focusing on one’s skills and talents can take one’s mind off their bodies and help feel a renewed sense of purpose for life.
KIND COMPANY: The company one keeps, people one interacts with and is surrounded by play a key role in the development of body image. It is very important to surround oneself with people who are non-judgemental, kind and understanding and have a better outlook towards life. Broad-minded, generous people can help in developing a positive and healthy body image.
LAST BUT NEVER THE LEAST—THERAPY: For adolescents and adults dealing with severe body image issues, therapy is a must. Eating disorders, anxiety, depression and everything that comes along with body dysmorphia is treatable through therapy and counselling. Individuals dealing with the mental health implications related to body dysmorphia should be encouraged to seek help from mental health professionals as soon as they identify the symptoms or someone else points the symptoms out for them.
YOU ARE NOT YOUR BODY—YOU ARE SO MUCH MORE!
Human beings are complex creatures bubbling with a plethora of emotions and so much potential. What we see in the mirror is just a part of us. Our body is more like a vessel that contains our inner being. Instead of loathing it and hyper fixating on the self-perceived or pointed-out-by-narrow-minded-others ‘flaws’, it’s time we thank our bodies for helping us sustain ourselves and perceive the world around us so intricately with our senses.
Each and every body is unique and beautiful in its own way. Those stretch marks you’re trying to get rid of, or those crooked teeth your ‘friend’ laughed at or the layer of fat around your thighs—all of that makes you, you. Who decides what is beautiful and what isn’t? Who decides what the “perfect body type” is? The beauty standards set by popular culture are nothing but toxic social constructs to sell the various beauty products by bringing people down, by lowering our self esteem to such an extent that we become convinced that we need ‘correctors’ like fairness creams, slimming pills and cosmetic surgeries to look acceptable and it is high time that we break free of them.
There’s beauty in every single person—one just needs the eye to see it.
Embrace your body in its entirety and try to look beyond it. It’s hard and it might take a long time to get there—at times insecurities will be rife and they might rear their heads every now and then, but, the next time you look into the mirror, try to look beyond your features—try to look at the real you and the next time you look at someone else, try to see them for who they are inside if you don’t already because beauty is really what radiates from deep within—from the soul.
We are living, breathing beings with so much going on inside us, in our minds and we are so much more than our bodies and features. Our self worth does not depend on how we look. Our self worth depends on our actions, our kind gestures, on the love we shower upon the people around us, on the lives we live and what we endure, on how we turn out to be. Be kind to others and most importantly, be kind to yourself and your body. The authentic you is beautiful—beautiful, in every possible way.
– AISHANI CHATTERJEE