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Body image, encompassing how we perceive, think, feel, and act towards our bodies, is a complex and multidimensional concept. Both internal observations and external reactions influence it. Here, we explore the significance of body image among teenagers and preteens, the factors contributing to negative body image and practical steps parents can take to address and improve this issue.

The Vulnerability of Teens and Preteens:

During the phase of puberty, teenagers and preteens undergo significant hormonal changes and experience brain growth and altered brain activity. As a result, emotional areas of the brain, such as the hypothalamus and amygdala, develop rapidly, while the frontal lobe, responsible for judgment, impulse control, and self-regulation, matures more slowly. This developmental imbalance makes young individuals particularly sensitive to societal pressures, including body image concerns.

Factors Contributing to Negative Body Image:

  1. Internalisation of External Factors: Vulnerable individuals, especially perfectionists and high-achievers who frequently compare themselves to others, are at a higher risk of internalising negative body image beliefs.
  2. Family Environment: The family environment plays a crucial role in shaping body image, with maternal influence being particularly strong in daughters. Unhealthy weight talk or dysfunctional eating patterns observed in parents can adversely affect a child’s body image. Conversely, a family that models healthy eating and exercise habits can contribute positively.
  3. Age, Gender, and Peer Influence: Body image is primarily formed during late childhood and adolescence, with girls being more susceptible than boys. Negative body perception can be triggered by weight-related bullying, fat calling, and peers overly emphasising appearance. Such influences may persist into adulthood.
  4. Media and Social Pressures: Social media platforms, the internet, magazines, and reality TV shows pressure young people to conform to an unrealistic “lean ideal.” Educating teenagers about the prevalence of digitally altered images and the potential mental health issues faced by those showcased as role models is essential.
  5. Weight-related issues: Being overweight or obese increases the risk of body dissatisfaction, reinforcing negative body image beliefs.
  6. Traumatic Experiences: Sexual abuse has been linked to the development of negative body image.

 Addressing Body Image Issues:

  1. Parental Involvement: Parents play a crucial role in supporting their children during this critical period. Actively listen to their concerns about physical changes, provide reassurance, and highlight their strengths and qualities unrelated to appearance. Encourage acceptance of fixed genetic traits, promoting confidence and self-esteem.
  2. Balanced Approach to Health: Demonstrate a balanced approach to diet and physical activity instead of endorsing diets or fads. Encourage regular meals focusing on fruits, vegetables, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and healthy fats. Moderation should be emphasised for sweets and processed foods due to their impact on glucose levels and mood.
  3. Addressing Social Media Influence: Engage in discussions about the unrealistic nature of images and impressions portrayed on social media. Establish boundaries by monitoring their online activities and spending time together on these platforms.
  4. Promoting Exercise and Healthy Sleep: Encourage physical activity, as exercise releases endorphins and provides a positive outlet for negative emotions. Promote healthy sleep habits and discourage the use of electronic devices before bedtime.
  5. Substance Abuse Awareness: Remain vigilant for signs of substance abuse, as it can exacerbate body image issues and negatively impact overall well-being.
  6. School-Based Programmes: Support classroom-based programmes focusing on media literacy, self-esteem enhancement, and peer support, as these benefit body image.

Body image concerns among teenagers and preteens can significantly impact their mental and emotional well-being. We can better address the issues by understanding the factors that contribute to negative body image.

Dr Charu Narayanan is a UK-trained Family Physician based in IMC Katong. Dr Charu has additional training in Child Health, Lifestyle Medicine and Family Medicine. For any inquiries or to schedule a consultation with our compassionate doctors, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at 6733 4440 or visit our website at www.imc-healthcare.com. We are here to assist you.

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