More pre-teens have problems with body and looks

Your tween might be unhappy with her face and body… Help her (or him) nip the issue in the bud.

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Girls as young as 6 years these days may be unhappy with their bodies or the way they look.

A major reason is the unrealistic images and messages spread by the media — and social media ― of what their bodies and faces should look like. Another reason is that with children reaching puberty earlier, they are also more concerned about how their bodies are changing.

“It confuses them about what they are supposed to think about their bodies,” says Esther Lam, one of four final-year media studies students from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) who created a “Love. Every. Body” campaign recently. Besides interviewing media and psychology experts, they conducted interviews and focus-group discussions ahead of the programme launch.

The campaign, by NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information students, included three public drama workshops; followed by a theatrical performance at Woodlands Regional Library. The show also marked the launch of the four students’ e-book, How to Be a Hero.

Natalie Lim, a psychologist at SMG Specialist Centre, a subsidiary of Singapore Medical Group, who treats mostly teenagers for body-image issues, notes that there are no current Singapore statistics. However, she noted that UK and US studies have found that 5 per cent of girls and 3 per cent of boys were dissatisfied with their body. This figure rose until the age of 14, when 32.3 per cent of girls and 16 per cent of boys were “moderately dissatisfied” with at least part of it.

She adds, “The youngest [of my clients] was in early secondary school and she was unhappy with the way her body looked, even though she was certainly someone who looked good!”

Singling out social-media websites where users “ask” the rest of the world to rank their pictures, she says that this has greatly impacts young people, “This has great effect on the self-esteem of many young people in the world today. People are not going to put ‘bad’ or ‘unglam’ pictures of themselves online.”

What this means is that we are creating generations who have an unrealistic perception of how people look. Lim adds, “When the kids fail to meet such ‘expectations’, they will go to great lengths to achieve them, and some of them become depressed and anxious when they do not get the results.”

Other factors could include school, as if their peers tease them about size or weight, the child is likely feel insecure and less confident about his or her body. And when parents talk about their own dissatisfaction with their own or their child’s body, “it can negatively impact how the child feels about him/herself”.

So how do you prevent your child picking up body-image issues? Click next.

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Really listen to your child

When children are unhappy with their bodies, they don’t directly express it, according to the NTU students’ research, so make sure to make an effort to listen actively to your child. Says one of the students, Sivanangai, “If they have a negative, low body confidence about themselves, they will not go up to their parents and say, ‘Oh mummy, I feel bad about myself.”

But since kids don’t have good poker faces, it’s quite easy to tell by their expression that something is wrong. Other things to look out for is if your child is:

  • More withdrawn with depressive symptoms.
  • Displays aggressive behaviour.
  • Looks at themselves at the mirror more often.
  • Spends too much time on YouTube videos, on television programmes.
  • Reacts to a comment on their appearance.

Manage your child's media use

Sivanangai notes, “One thing we realised during our campaign, a lot of parents do not really talk to their kids about the content that they are watching. It’s more like a distraction for them [while the parents do other things].”

So, parents need to supervise their children while they watch TV or movies or explore the Internet. So, if someone has a disfiguring birthmark on their face on TV or looks fat or oddly skinny, a parent should step in and say, “Oh, you know this might be a nice person, why don’t we talk about it?"

Send the correct message

Boys also have issues with their bodies, the NTU students discovered.

“We had a parent who said her younger son looks at his older brother and asks, ‘How come I do not have a six-pack?’,” says Lam. The younger one is just 10. “And another parent mentioned that her son likes to look at himself in the mirror and ask if he is handsome. She said she tells him sometimes that he looks good, although she also does tell him that he is fat.”

Psychologist Lim agrees that parents can give children very mixed messages. “It is important that parents should talk about health and help the child understand and appreciate the different body types or shapes around.” This way, the child grows up with more positive feelings about who he/she is rather than seek to be valued for their looks.

“Girls strive for thinness through dieting — in the US, 81 per cent of 10-year-olds [said they were] afraid of being fat! I have seen adolescent boys with body-image issues. It can be a certain part of a body that he may be dissatisfied with. Some have hoped to ‘bulk’ up, so as to look better,” she says.

Set the right example

Based on what they learnt, the NTU team produced an e-book on body image that centres on ordinary James and Mr Might, a superhero.

Lam says, “James learns to actually make a difference himself ― he doesn’t rely on a superhero. That’s our main message: You don’t really need a good outer appearance to show that you are good in other people’s eyes.

“All you need is a kind heart.”

Photos: iStock

The NTU student project e-book, How to Be a Hero, is available for free here. The final-year students involved in the project were Sivanangai, Esther Lam Siew Ying, Zarifah Mohamad Azhar and Sri Divya Bharati Mohan.

Natalie Lim is a psychologist at SMG Specialist Centre, a subsidiary of Singapore Medical Group

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