Q: My daughter is 17 and was always a happy child. Recently she seems depressed and spends hours in front of the mirror. A while ago she broke down and told me that she hates the way she looks. When we go shopping she does not want to use the public toilets because she hates seeing herself in those mirrors. She is a beautiful girl. I am worried about her and don’t know how to help her.
A: We do not see ourselves as others see us. Our “body image” (our perceptions, beliefs and feelings about our body) differ from reality. Being happy with our body is a challenge for many people, especially teenagers.
In extreme cases, people despise aspects of their appearance and spend time and energy worrying about what they look like. Every time they see a reflection of themselves they think negative thoughts. They avoid activities or situations because they feel self-conscious.
Enjoyment of life can be seriously hampered by these negative perceptions.
Some contemplate surgery.
The good news is that dissatisfaction with body image can be changed. This process involves understanding the causes of negative body perceptions; challenging the assumptions that we all hold about appearance; correcting one’s “private body talk” (the things we say to ourselves about our appearance); facing self-defeating behaviours; and creating a more confident and positive internal image of our body. This is not an easy task and takes time and commitment.
Some counsellors specialise in this area, so you may wish to discuss the option of counselling with your daughter.
As parents we would do well to look at our own “body image” perceptions and consider the attitudes we model to our children. When we place emphasis on externals, the message we give is that appearance is very important. Acceptance, together with a sense of gratitude for good health and bodies that work well, can help our children gain a positive perspective of themselves. However, there are still children who will develop problems, no matter how positive their upbringing. This is where professional help may be required.
Dissatisfaction with body image is sometimes only the tip of the iceberg.
Should you suspect your child has an eating disorder, or suffers from depression or body dysmorphic disorder (an obsessive preoccupation with imagined ugliness), then professional help is advisable.