What does body image mean?
I think I have quite a healthy body image. I’m not saying I would do a ‘Rhys Ifans’ (ie. posture in my pants for the cameras as he did in Notting Hill) but I do find myself saying ‘Not bad, not bad’ when catching a glimpse of my reflection.
Body image has nothing to do with how you look, but how you feel about the way you look and how you embrace and accept your own body.
I didn’t always feel this way and I do wonder if maturity helps us to appreciate what we have now. As a young girl I had a great number of insecurities which looking back I now know were ridiculous. What I would give to wear those short skirts again!
What is a positive body image?
Last month I went to a Dance showcase at my child’s secondary school. The whole show was a complete success and very professionally delivered. There were a range of dancers performing an eclectic mix of contemporary, modern, cheerleading, ballet, hip hop and irish dance. But the showcase for me was not the dances. Nor the hair and make up. Not the costumes.
The thing that captivated me was the dancers themselves and their body shapes. You had (mainly girls) ranging in age from 11 to 17 and they were all different shapes and sizes. Some tall, some short, some stocky, some lithe, some with long legs but short bodies, some with long bodies but short legs. Some with larger chest sizes, some flat chested. But all of this didn’t matter when you watched them dancing.
All of them were strong, athletic and their bodies looked amazing. Between them they performed balances, somersaults, high kicks, lifts and jumps. They were all fit and engaged in the discipline of dance. It was powerful to watch. So much so that I wished that all children of those ages (and older) could see how amazing our bodies are and what we can do with them no matter what shape we are. We are all unique with different body shapes but are still beautiful and this showcased healthy bodies perfectly.
Do our children have a healthy view of themselves?
Unfortunately our children don’t all have this positive body image. Although some have a more realistic idea of what a healthy body looks like, we are still bombarded by images of the perfect body in magazines, films, television shows and more often social media. We still allow our children to see airbrushed images. And now they can photo shop their own image with the use of phone apps.
The dangers of social media have been well documented. It is known that young children are struggling with body image more than ever before and are constantly exposed to unattainable figures either photoshopped celebrities or their peers posing on Instagram. Life is already stressful enough without the added pressure of looking good. And this pressure is leading to more cases of mental health problems. It’s a growing concern and it’s not getting any better but is it all the fault of social media?
Former mental health tsar and co-founder of The Self-Esteem Team, Natasha Devon says that you can’t just blame social media. One of the biggest issues for her is the education system. “Education policies have squeezed all the things that help mental health like sports, arts, music and dance out of the curriculum in state schools.” She’s right, which is why events like the one I attended are so important for schools to continue to do and celebrate. Dance has many benefits: fitness, strength, physical appearance but also in our mental health. Dance helps alleviate stress and watching other dancers illustrates how different all our bodies are and that this is a positive thing.
There are many challenges in the 21st century for our children and one of the biggest obstacles to their happiness is trying to achieve the perfect body while feeling flaws are unacceptable. You would be horrified to learn that in school your child will be having lunchtime conversations about the best camera angles to create six packs and where to put the Snapchat text to hide the flaws.
Young Minds is a children’s charity which helps and advises young people on dealing with a range of mental health issues and body image. There are some great articles here.
I’ve posted Ed Sheeran’s video below on how weird and self-conscious he was growing up. A lesson for us all.
How can parents help our children develop a positive body image?
There are some simple ways we can encourage our children but the most important starting point is you. Do you have a healthy relationship with your own body? Having a healthy and positive body image means liking your body, appreciating it and being grateful for its qualities and capabilities. When parents care for and appreciate their own bodies, they teach their kids to do the same.
- Be a good role model. How you talk about your own looks sets a powerful example. Constantly complaining about or fretting over your appearance teaches your kids to cast the same critical eye on themselves. Almost everyone is dissatisfied with certain elements of their appearance, but talk instead about what your body can do, not just how it looks. Instead of moaning about how big your thighs are, talk about how they’re strong enough to help you hike up a mountain or ski down one.
- Accept and understand. Recognize that being concerned about looks is as much a part of the teen years as a changing body and learning to shave. You know that in the grand scheme of things your son’s freckles don’t matter, but to him they might seem critical. As frustrating as it can be when they hog the bathroom, avoid criticizing them for being concerned about appearances. As they grow, concern about their looks will stop dominating their lives.
- Give lots of compliments. Provide reassurance about kids’ looks and about all their other important qualities. As much as they may seem not to notice or care, simple statements like “you’ve got the most beautiful smile” or “that shirt looks great on you” really do matter. Compliment them on other physical attributes, such as their strength, speed, balance, energy, or grace.
- Compliment what’s inside too. Notice out loud all the personal qualities that you love about your kids — how generous your son is to share with his sister, the determined way that your daughter studies for her tests, or how kind your son was to his best friend. Reassure them when they express insecurity. When you hear “I hate my hair” or “I’m so tall,” provide valuable counterpoint.
- Talk about what appearances mean. Guide your kids to think a little more deeply about appearances and how people express themselves. Be patient, but also set boundaries on how much time your kids can spend on dressing and grooming. Tell them it’s not OK to inconvenience others or not do jobs or homework. Limits help kids understand how to manage time, be considerate of others’ needs, share resources, exercise a little self-discipline, and most importantly, keep appearances in perspective.
Celebrity role models
To finish, I have a gallery of people whom to me embody a positive body image. I hope you agree!