The Issue - Strike a pose against unreal body images

Schools can help students resist the pressure to conform to an unrealistic idea of 'perfection' by building up their self-esteem

You don't have to look far to see evidence of the damaging impact that negative body image has on today's school students. Both boys and girls are bombarded constantly with depictions of the perfect look and body, and they struggle against the pressure to conform to that fabricated, unattainable and unreal goal. It can result in bullying, self-harm, depression and, tragically on occasions, loss of life.

According to the 2010 Dove global study entitled The Real Truth About Beauty: Revisited, 53 per cent of girls in the UK avoid certain activities because they feel bad about their looks; for the same reason, 22 per cent of girls won't go the beach or pool and 19 per cent won't go to a social event, party or club.

The situation is the same for boys - images of perfect men are just as prevalent in the media and the impact just as worrying. Recent research published in the US journal Pediatrics (bit.lyMuscleEnhancing) found that more than 40 per cent of boys in middle school and high school in the US regularly exercised with the sole aim of increasing muscle mass, while 34.7 per cent used protein powders or shakes and 6 per cent admitted to using steroids.

But how do we counteract the onslaught of the perfect body image? The first practical step is to identify how self-esteem, which underpins body confidence, can be nurtured.

The way parents bring up their child is important in creating strong self-esteem. Key indicators for "good" parents are: unconditional support; providing boundaries that the child has had a say in creating; and the consistent use of rewards and punishments. But children don't get to choose their parents, so does that mean that young people have a natural cap on their confidence potential?

I believe not. Teachers can have a positive impact. In a child's formative years, if the seeds of high self-esteem are sown, it can blossom into lifelong confidence.

Dispel the myths

This process has to begin in the 7- to 11-year-old age group. Teachers need to develop body confidence by dispelling some of the myths about models and revealing that lighting, digital photography, make-up and Photoshop image manipulation can enable anyone to have the "perfect" look. Quote facts, too, such as that a model's weight can be half that of a healthy woman.

Focus on positives

In her much-publicised Mindset theory, Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University in the US, recommends switching the focus from appearance to achievements and qualities. One way to do this is by representing them visually. Wall charts, displays or personal records can provide tangible evidence of what students have done, with positive effects.

Emphasise positive language

Then there is "banter". When negative language about someone's appearance occurs, even if all parties are laughing, it is crucial to explain why that language is inappropriate.

Set up coaching groups

Lastly, coaching and mentoring are important. The use of small-group or one-to-one contact time can yield good results. The objective is to try to steer the student to their own ideas about who they are and what they like and dislike about themselves, and to put those thoughts into a wider context.

It is also important for the mentor to provide support, to answer any questions the student may have and to quash any myths they begin to give credence to. Essentially, the mentor has to act as an additional layer of protection against the constant presence of unattainable body ideals.

Schools are a trusted source of information in a world of myth and multiple truths. By taking that responsibility seriously, they can help young people to fight back against the body-image issues that affect so many students.

Ross McWilliam is the author of The Journey of CUPPA - Finding The Five Secrets Of Confidence.

In short

Unrealistic images of the human body are put in front of young people every day. They distort the perception of what a healthy body looks like and promote a generalised "look" that does not exist in reality.

Schools must recognise and address this by highlighting myths about the images in magazines and films, by explaining photo editing and make-up and other tricks of the beauty trade.

Stress that achievements are more important than how you look.

Schools should also provide mentoring to ensure that children have the right support to counter the pressures they are under in terms of body image.

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