Sarabjeet Bhutani answers some important questions about body image and how we can promote healthy body image and attitudes in our communities.
What does body image mean to you?
To me, body image means making healthy habits a priority and respecting my body and taking care of myself. It is not about weight loss but about healthy living. I don’t necessarily believe in dieting, but I am careful about what I eat. I pretty much eat anything I want, but in moderation. I am not a great athlete, but I try to exercise a few times a week. I am kind, gentle and patient with myself and my body. That sense of accomplishment I get from feeling stronger, fitter and more capable from healthy lifestyle choices is definitely linked to my body image.
What would you like it to mean to everyone?
We all know that feeling good about your body affects your overall self-esteem. Feeling self-conscious and being aware of our body is normal for any of us, myself included, and it does vary from day to day. As a mother, I know that I am the most important influence on my daughter and her own body image. I do share my stories with my daughter about my previous struggles with body image and social pressures. I know that no matter what I look like, I have a responsibility to be a healthy role model to my daughter by eating well and exercising. I also make sure that she hears me talk about my body in a positive way. It is important to me to show my daughter that I accept myself and also her, so that she can accept herself.
Why is this important to you?
Many women and especially girls struggle with body image issues. Often, as we get older, we may recognize our damaging behaviors and attitudes and try to change them. It is a long, and oftentimes painful, journey to get to that point. My own journey took me through dark days of hating my body as I struggled with Anorexia as a college student. At less than 98 pounds, I loathed my body and could not understand why I was still “fat” in spite of the countless hours I spent at the gym and the detailed, minimal food logs. My challenge as a mom is to empower my daughter in order to prevent her from experiencing this. Pride, acceptance, and a healthy attitude towards our bodies has to start at a young age.
How is this phenomenon influencing females in our community?
This issue goes across religions and ethnicities. Our young girls are at the age where they are trying to figure out who and what they want to be. We need to be careful about the messages we are sending out not only as parents but as a community. Compliments that we give to our daughters should be more than just image and weight based. We can let our daughters hear us give praise for kindness, intelligence, talent and accomplishments. We want them to see themselves as whole selves and as valuable and special because of who they are and not just what they look like.
Can we break the cycle around this? If so, how?
Girls know when their mothers are not comfortable in their own skin. I am at the point in my life where I am coming to peace with my body and am grateful for all of the miracles and blessings that I enjoy because of my healthy body; this is the appreciation I want my daughter to have. I want her to feel proud of her strength, personal power and achievements. We start this by teaching our girls to be media-smart and recognize that those photoshopped images of women are not real or healthy. We can also break this cycle by making a family commitment to a healthy lifestyle. My husband and kids enjoy looking up healthy vegetarian recipes and cooking together. As a family, we find activities to do together and these are a great way for us to bond. We try to balance family outings between food-based and physical activity-based; this can be anywhere from hiking to a dance contest on the Wii. It’s important to try new sports and activities and to support and applaud your children’s efforts towards a healthy lifestyle.
How can faith play a role in breaking this cycle?
Religion and body image are connected. As a Sikh parent and school counselor, I know that girls who affiliate themselves closely with a religion are less impressionable to the influence of media messages about female body image and beauty. When our daughters feel confident because of their talents, accomplishments and personality, they do not need validation based on their looks. Being involved in Sikhi provides our children opportunities for Kirtan, Seva, Leadership, spirituality, meditation, education and reflection. Sikhi philosophy is so progressive with teachings of being accepting and being non-judgemental. As Sikh parents, we are fortunate to have Sikhi and Sangat to support us. The older girls in our Sangat are my daughter’s role models and she learns so much from them, and I am blessed to have such intelligent, healthy and confident young women in her life.
What do you want to say to young girls out there?
I used to think that staying active is about having a perfect body, but now I understand that it is enjoying the thrill of experiencing your body getting healthier and stronger. We know that our body image and self-esteem improve when we are physically active, which is why we feel so great after a workout. I would encourage you to challenge yourself, find activities that you enjoy and keep moving. Surround yourself with positive people who will bring out the best in you. Most importantly, know that you are unique and special! You are certainly more than the number on the scale.
As a counselor, I see first-hand how body image issues are related to low esteem, depression and in extreme cases, even suicidal thoughts. A negative body image is when someone is consistently unhappy with his or her appearance or how he or she looks. Feeling like this can affect self-esteem and a person’s sense of well-being. If you are having negative body thoughts daily, I would encourage you to talk to your parents or another trusted adult and get help.
Sarabjeet Bhutani lives in Maryland with her husband, Kawaljit, daughter, Preetam, and son, Akaal. She has been working as a school counselor for over twenty years. Sarabjeet has a Masters in Education from Loyola College and has worked with students from KG through 12th grade. Her goal as a counselor is to address the social-emotional needs of her students so that they are fully available to learn. She spends her free time reading,working out, spending time with family and friends and getting involved in community projects. Her goal as a Sikh is to live a life of humility, kindness and acceptance, and to teach her own children to do the same.