Often some of my students ask why I don't dye my greying hair. I would look so much younger, they say. And when I ask who I would look younger to, their somewhat bewildered reply is, well, everyone. I stretch the argument to make my point. But would I feel younger?
While I appreciate such well-meaning advice, I'm not sure I have been able to convince them that how I feel about myself is not influenced by how others see me.
We are inundated with advertisements that promote particular body types or kinds of beauty. When these messages are reinforced at home, students often find it difficult to recognise the limits to enhancing their physical attributes without being obsessed with them.
Recently I walked into class to hear one student's teasing comment to another, playing on a toothbrush commercial: "I am the envy of all the other students. Thin is in, honey!" Another student has often expressed how stressed she has felt because her mother, apparently a former gymnast, insists she lose weight.
Last year, concern with good looks led many women to seek invasive beauty treatments that resulted in one death and caused several to seriously jeopardise their health. And judging by complaints made to the Consumer Council over beauty services this year, an increasing number (some 141 of 700 complaints, a rise of 37 per cent from 2011) are related to invasive treatments. From this trend we might speculate as to the number of women who routinely put themselves at risk by undergoing such beauty treatments. It is likely that some of them have children who are silently witnessing this obsession with being young and beautiful.
Laws can help regulate risky treatments, but to achieve comprehensive and long-term protection, we need public education to help people appreciate beauty at different stages of life and foster a positive attitude towards ageing. And if I have learned one thing from 30 years of parenting and teaching, it is that students and children learn best by example. We, as teachers and parents, need to exemplify the values and behaviour we wish to instil in our children.
I hope students can be educated about the difference between the functioning of the human body, the significance of physical beauty and the role that the mind plays in our well-being.
It is important students learn to make their bodies the best machine possible with proper nourishment, exercise and disciplined habits. Equally vital is that they understand the importance of not abusing their bodies with smoking, drugs and unhealthy food, so it can function at its optimum at every age.
I believe a healthy body is a beautiful body. Although their bodies will age, students can choose to remain supple in spirit and stay open to new ideas. As physical beauty fades they can still attain a timeless beauty by being beautiful in things they say and do. Students need to learn that looking young and beautiful does not necessarily translate into having good self-esteem. Confidence and self-respect can only be engendered by the self. It's only when they seize opportunities to bring their inherent abilities to fruition that they will develop self-confidence. And physical beauty will contribute little to that.
Our daughter Akanksha seems to understand this idea. When she was 11 she was one of 50 children selected to contribute to My wish for tomorrow, a book published by Unicef to mark its 50th anniversary. She wrote: "I wish everyone would love each other for what they are and nobody would have to put on an act to be liked."
I wish the same for all our readers in the coming year.
Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School in Hong Kong