Image issues are increasingly driving teenagers to seek desperate solutions regardless of the harmful consequences to their health

Pankhuri might be slender thanks to the sporting activities she pursues, but that does not stop her from worrying about her size. She says, “My friend and I look at fashion magazines and envy the models. We would love to have hair, make-up and a figure like theirs. Ads promising a weight loss of 12 kilos in a few weeks make us feel like enrolling for one of those programmes.” Though she has not actively followed a diet, Pankhuri, a Standard IX student in Mumbai, is aware of what she eats and the fashion trends. She says, “Just when I am about to grab a cookie, I think, should I be eating it? I try not to eat too much but don’t crash diet. I know of girls skipping lunch at school.” For Pankhuri and her friends, conversations tend to centre around boys, clothes, weight and diet.

For 14-year-old Mannat, body confidence is all about feeling good in your own skin. “When you look in the mirror you should be happy with what you see,” she says. Despite losing two stone through exercise and diet, she is determined to get to the same size as her ideal Kareena Kapoor — size zero. She has been on a customised diet for a year. “I like Kareena and wanted a body like hers,” she says. This set her mother Nidhi Malviya thinking. “I didn’t want her to stop eating to lose weight,” she says. This is how a visit to a dietician and nutritionist was set up.

The desire for diva-like hair, skin and body, coupled with peer pressure, pushes young girls to anorexia. “Anorexia is mostly the result of a personality disorder.Though characterised as a psychiatric disorder, it rarely occurs in isolation and is often seen in people with borderline personality disorders. So it’s usually youngsters with a low self-esteem who have a low image of their body. They have overly critical parents, who keep focussing on how they do not match up to expectations. Such teens begin to believe that the only way they can feel good is to look good. There begins an obsession with the body — how slim, fit, and sexy it is,” says Varkha Chulani, clinical psychologist, psychotherapist at Lilavati Hospital, Mumbai, and associate fellow and supervisor, The Albert Ellis Institute, New York. To escape the wrath of their parents, they begin overeating, but realising it will ruin their figure tend to over exercise and the cycle continues. Otherwise they avoid eating to maintain their self and body image. Extreme self-hatred leads to anorexia.

Dieticians say that obsessed with the size zero figure, school girls are approaching them for advice on diets that will make them look like actresses and models, so that their next Facebook photo update has more ‘likes’ than ever before. Psychologists say that while parents blame networking sites for their digitally enslaved children, peer pressure and parental stress are equally to be blamed for the trend, as parents often compare their children with others. “Parents do not discipline their children enough. Gadgets are provided at an age when they ought not to have any. Facebook enrolments are allowed by lying about the child’s age. Thus problem children invariably have problem parents,” says Varkha.

Airbrushed images

“I had never seen children distraught over their bodies earlier. But obsessed with unreal and airbrushed images of celebs and models, many girls come to me with body and image issues”, says Bina Chheda, a consulting dietician and nutritionist in Mumbai. In the last few months, she has received requests from diet-conscious youngsters to design diets to meet individual needs ranging from a perfect figure to glowing skin and even achieving academic distinction. An obese girl forced her mother to take her to a dietician. The mother could have cut down on junk food and looked after the child’s emotional health, instead of taking her to a dietician. “Most definitely. The mantra to keep fit is: eat less and play or work out more.”

Some girls resort to a self-imposed diet regimen. They force their mothers to reduce servings. Several concerns have been raised about the consequences of such fads. Crash diets may lead to hair loss, vitamin deficiency, weak bones and other ailments in children. Preoccupation with appearance does not help their mental health either. “The need to be popular, accepted and recognised is driving this generation crazy. The need-to-be-known syndrome drives teenagers to constantly post updates about themselves on Facebook or Twitter. This affects their sleep pattern,” says Varkha. They are unable to converse with friends for more than a few minutes because they haven’t learnt the art of relating to people. They are unable to concentrate on their studies because they are distracted by gadgets. Productivity hits an all-time low.

Teenage years have a lasting impact on adult health. A balanced meal not only helps prevent acne, it also helps in the development of sexual organs, prevent kidney stones and determine how efficiently the brain functions in the twilight years. “If you don’t get adequate protein and iron in your teens, the results start showing in your 20s,” says Bina. Parents should warn kids that lack of essential nutrients will make them look old at an early age. It is important for teenage girls to eat a healthy diet, comprising vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, since deficiency can cause problems during pregnancy. Unhealthy food provides no nutrition to a growing teenager, thereby affecting sperm count and egg production.

“Young girls approach me for liposuction in which excess fat is removed through laser treatment. They look for solutions on the Internet for everything. I recommend a diet which keeps them fit and away from junk food,” says Bina. Being healthy and plump is part of the growing up years between 12 and 18. It is important to stay fit rather than slim. “Body confidence is the belief that your body can do what you want it to do,” adds Bina.