What Keeps Many Girls from Loving Their Bodies
By Shachi Dalal
Simona, a 22-year-old, approached our clinic about six months ago, seeking help for what she succinctly put as, “my lack of confidence in my appearance, which is affecting my interaction with the opposite sex and my prospect of finding a job.” This was a heavy statement, laden with irrational beliefs, and I attempted to unpack it with her during the course of our ensuing sessions.
Simona had just come back after studying abroad for four years and had put on a fair amount of weight, which she attributed to a lack of balance in her lifestyle and stress eating. Upon her return, her mother signed her up with a renowned dietician in Mumbai, who prescribed a stringent diet plan for six months – the standard “lose 10 kilos in 6 months” ploy (conditions apply, of course). This was an ongoing pattern with Simona in the last four years — she would go abroad, put on weight, come back every holiday, go on a strict diet, lose weight, return and regain the lost weight, plus more. Over the years, Simona’s body shape changed considerably, and so did her perception of and confidence in her appearance. Woefully aided by comments from near and far relatives, (“You’ve put on weight, no?” “Need to get back on our diet, don’t we?”), Simona’s struggle with her body image continued to grow, affecting other areas of her life.
Unfortunately, Simona’s story is not an anomaly. Increasingly, adolescent and young women struggle with developing a healthy relationship with their body. Besotted with glossy images in magazines, young girls internalize virtually constructed ideals of beauty and set them as unattainable standards. For many, this leads to a perpetual sense of dissatisfaction with their appearance.
“If I cannot look like one of these Bollywood goddesses, no one will give me the time of day,” said Simona matter-of-factly in one of our sessions.
Like many girls, Simona’s perception of beauty was heavily influenced by what she watched or read about celebrities. Over the years, Bollywood’s idea of beauty in women has evolved, coming to bear a close resemblance to Western ideals — a tall, slender body with long and toned limbs, tight abs, light eyes, fair skin, and a symmetrical face.
“Curves are for roads!” Simona said, as I pointed out yesteryear Bollywood actresses with well-endowed bodies in my attempt to challenge her strongly held belief. This was a regular occurrence in our sessions: Simona would come in with such beliefs, and I would attempt to provide counter-evidence to make her see the other side.
Body image, in essence, is one’s belief about their own physical appearance, how one views one’s own body. This belief is shaped by a variety of factors, including personal experiences, cultural forces, and social factors. The media plays a significant role in moulding such perceptions, not only through overt messaging in the form of the model or celebrities brands choose to represent them, but also by indirectly supporting certain attitudes and reactions — take for example, the endless ridiculing of a Bollywood actress after putting on post-pregnancy weight, or elevating an actress’ weight loss journey as the ultimate achievement of her career.
These messages percolate deeply and manifest in the cultural fabric of our society. Let’s talk about marriage, for example. Traditionally, it is a father’s duty to marry off his daughter to a potential suitor. A young girl is prepared for the day of her marriage as soon as she hits puberty. She is trained in household work, and must maintain her physical appearance so that she is appealing to her future husband. Though these orthodox views have diluted over time, the relics still play out in modern society: Today’s matrimonial ads and bio-datas specify the physical attributes of the woman looking for a husband (“Slim, tall, fair complexion”), and parents often taunt their adolescent daughters with comments such as “If you don’t lose the weight, it will be hard for you to find a good husband.” Direct or indirect exposure to this messaging serves to perpetuate the idea that appearance is paramount.
For little girls, the effect of all these forces is the favoring of one aspect (i.e. their physical appearance) of their identity over all other aspects. It is important to remind little girls that appearance is only a tiny fraction of who they are. Success, failures, friendships, interactions, personality traits, experiences, achievements, all amalgamate to make them a unique person with their own story to tell.
It is impossible to completely shield our children from environmental influences, but what we can do is harbor and inculcate positive attitudes that prevent or at least counter body image issues. As parents, you can:
- Be mindful of your own dialogue and actions around body image, and model a positive body image.
- Encourage self-acceptance and tell your children that they are amazing the way they are.
- Reflect on your own experiences that shaped your body image.
- Teach your children to be critical consumers of media and dispel any misconceptions.
- Engage your children in different activities, and teach them how to acknowledge small victories. A negative body image can trickle into other areas of life and affect overall self-esteem. Strengthening other areas where one may draw confidence can be a way to reverse or prevent this.
Simona’s struggles with her body image began in puberty and exacerbated over time. In our work, the biggest challenge was getting her to undo all of her strongly held ideas about herself and society’s perception of body and beauty. At one point, she exclaimed, “How can I change my attitudes if everything (occurring in society) indicates otherwise?” Simona’s question is not unfounded. As a society, too, we need to begin taking steps to bring about a cultural shift in the way we view beauty in women. Our collective actions and ideas are shaping the minds of our young ones, in and outside of our homes.