Dealing with body image issues

Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri

Every month, we bring you situations commonly faced by teachers that may be linked to the mental health of their students. We discuss possible responses and how you may approach these situations with sensitivity and mindfulness. Most often these “problem cases” are a topic of discussion in the staffroom and teachers use this opportunity to learn from one another. We hope you will use these cases to exchange views on appropriate teacher responses and share your stories with us at [email protected].

Vismaya, a girl in class 8, has a bulbous nose and pimples on her face. She is average in studies. She has few friends. Everybody makes fun of her appearance, calling her moti, podgy, witch (daayan) passing rude comments during class. She gets upset every other day. You are unable to talk to her one-on-one. She seems to be avoiding you, the teacher.

Body image issues are an increasing reason for low self-esteem in adolescents. They occur in both boys and girls. Due to the several hormonal and visible changes in the body, the process can be quite traumatic for students. While most adolescents have their own struggles in this transition, students like Vismaya find it even more difficult because of low social acceptance and constant bullying. To add to this, constant reminders about unrealistic standards of beauty are reinforced by our media and movies. It is important that Vismaya understands this and is empowered to handle this situation. Many a time just low self-esteem and not accepting own self act as a deterrent in forming stronger social relationships and wellbeing. This can also be one of the reasons why Vismaya is keeping away from the teacher.

While it may be more obvious in Vismaya’s case as to why she is feeling low, there may be many students who do not show obvious signs of distress due to body image issues.

Some signs to recognize negative body image include:

  • Worrying for a prolonged period of time about how they look or looking at themselves in the mirror or reflection more than usual (you may notice this in the toilet or other shared spaces).
  • Talking about feeling ugly or fat or physically inadequate. Some students who are underweight may also talk about these issues.
  • Talking about the need for losing weight through crash dieting to achieve physical goals. Some students who are obese may have given up on their physical appearance, thereby ignoring a healthy lifestyle (diet and physical activity).
  • Difficulty in focusing on daily studies and activities, withdrawing or avoiding social situations.

What can you do?

  • Continuously reaching out to Vismaya and keeping an open channel of conversation with her would be helpful. Talking about Vismaya’s acne or weight with her constructively may help her to feel that she can make small attempts to change the situation or to realize that it may be a phase. If you feel that Vismaya or any of your students suffer from negative body image issues listed above, you may suggest that they meet the school counsellor.
  • Talk about body image issues with specific students who may be facing negative body image issues one-to-one so that they will not feel embarrassed or hurt.
  • For the classroom, you could prepare a short case study of a student, like this question, and take it up for discussion in the next class for 10 minutes. Talking about these issues does not increase risk to students by introducing these ideas in their minds, rather it helps to inform those who suffer from poor body image that a supportive environment exists and that they need not feel alone.
  • Organize an interaction on the topic at a parent-teacher interaction. Students may be aping their parents’ behaviour. Parents need to emphasize that there is more to every person than just physical appearances. They must take steps to enable young people to adopt a healthy attitude towards practicing a healthy lifestyle.

This column was co-written by Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri. Shivani is a public mental health communication practitioner and post doctoral research fellow at Stanford University. Spandana is a counsellor, work-life coach and trainer with eight years experience, currently working with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Hyderabad) apart from carrying on with her consulting work. She is also a registered practitioner of RE-CBT from Ellis Institute, New York. This activity has been conducted under a public engagement grant awarded to Shivani by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

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