What is body image?

Your body image is how and what you think and feel about your body. It includes the picture of your body that you have in your mind, which might or might not match your body’s actual shape and size.

A positive or healthy body image is feeling happy and satisfied with your body, as well as being comfortable with and accepting the way you look.

A negative or unhealthy body image is feeling unhappy with the way you look. People who feel like this often want to change their body size or shape.

Body image can change through your lifetime.

A healthy body image is important. When you feel good about your body, you’re more likely to have good self-esteem and mental health as well as a balanced attitude to eating and physical activity.

A healthy body image in childhood can lay the foundations for good physical and mental health later in life. An unhealthy body image in childhood can have long-lasting consequences.

Your child’s body image: influences

Your child’s body image is influenced by many factors.

These factors include family environment, ability or disability, the attitudes of peers, social media, cultural background and more.

Puberty is also a big influence. During puberty, your child’s body is going through lots of changes. But at the same time, fitting in and looking the same as other people becomes more important.

You have an influence on your child’s body image too. There’s a lot you can do to help your child develop a positive body image, including:

  • talking and listening with your child
  • focusing on your child as a whole person
  • being a positive body image role model.

Talking about bodies and body image with your child

Your child needs your help to sort through and understand messages about her body.

Sometimes you can help just by actively listening to how your child is feeling about the physical changes of puberty. This means really paying attention to your child’s concerns and showing that you care and are interested in what he’s saying. If your child is feeling confused, you can reassure him that changes are normal and mean he’s growing up.

It’s also good to talk with your child about images on social and other media. Some images set unrealistic ideals for teenagers. But you can help by explaining how the images are often digitally manipulated so that people look more ‘beautiful’ than they really are.

If your child isn’t talking or opening up to you, she might like to talk with another trusted adult. She could also:

Focusing on your child as a whole person

This is about praising your child for who he is and what he can do, rather than his size or shape.

You can let your child that you’re proud of her for things that aren’t related to appearance. This might include your child’s sense of humour, effort at school, helpfulness or other special skills.

You can also help your child spend time on interests and activities that make him feel good.

And you can send your child positive messages about herself by focusing on what her body can do, rather than how her body looks. For example, you can say, ‘Wow, you hit that ball a long way’, rather than ‘Gosh, you’ve got big arm muscles’.

Being a positive body image role model

If you show that you feel positive about your own body, it’ll be easier for your child to be positive about his body. A positive attitude includes:

  • making healthy eating and physical activity part of your everyday family life
  • avoiding fad or crash diets
  • appreciating your own body for what it can do, not just how it looks
  • being proud of things in yourself that aren’t related to appearance
  • accepting and valuing people no matter how they look, and not commenting on how people look.

Sometimes unhelpful body attitudes can show up in subtle comments and messages without us really being aware of it. For example, we might see a friend and say something like, ‘You look great – you’ve lost so much weight!’ Comments like these can add up and influence the way children feel about their bodies.

It’s important to let everyone in your family know that teasing about weight or appearance is not OK. Teasing can have a negative influence on body image and can also lead to bullying.

Teenage body image concerns: signs to watch out for

It’s normal for your child to be conscious of her body and want to lead a healthy lifestyle.

But there are some signs that your child is focusing too much on his body. Your child might seem to have anxiety and stress about how he looks. He might show this by:

  • criticising his body – for example, he might say he’s ugly
  • continually comparing his body with others
  • not wanting to leave the house because of the way he looks
  • not doing activities or trying new things because of the way he feels about his body
  • obsessing about losing weight, or about specific parts of his body, like his face or legs
  • spending lots of time looking in the mirror or taking photos and looking for changes or imperfections
  • linking food with feelings of guilt, shame or blame.

If you think your child is experiencing any of these signs, start by talking with her about your concerns. If things don’t change and you’re still worried, consider talking to your GP or another health professional.

If your child wants to eat differently or do more exercise, that’s OK – but make sure it’s for healthy reasons, and the dieting and exercise don’t become extreme. Let your child know that healthy eating and physical activity aren’t just for weight loss – they’re vital for physical health, now and in the future.

Effects of unhealthy teenage body image

Unhealthy teenage body image is directly related to low self-esteem, which can lead to negative moods and mood swings.

Young people who are feeling down are more likely to focus on the negative messages around them and make negative comparisons between their bodies and what they see as ‘ideal’ bodies. Low self-esteem and poor body image are risk factors for the development of risky weight loss strategies, eating disorders and mental health disorders like depression.

Boys, girls, men and women can all be affected by body image issues, but in different ways. For example, teenage girls who don’t like their bodies often want to lose weight and be thinner. Teenage boys want to lose weight, be taller or have more muscles.

Negative teenage body image: risk factors

Some children are more likely than others to feel unhappy about their bodies. Children might be more at risk of developing an unhealthy body image if they:

  • feel pressure from family, peers or media to fit into a narrow idea of beauty
  • have a different body shape or weight from their peers or from ‘ideal’ shapes in the media
  • are perfectionists
  • look at themselves from the ‘outside’ and worry about how others see them
  • compare themselves to others
  • have low self-esteem or experience symptoms of depression
  • belong to a friendship, sport or dance group that emphasises a certain body type
  • have physical disabilities.

Teenage children in general, teenage girls in particular and young people who are overweight are also more likely to feel negative about their bodies or have an unhealthy body image.

Body image for young people with special needs

Developing a healthy body image can be harder for young people with special needs, especially if their bodies are physically disabled or cause them pain and difficulty. Your child might also feel left out of discussions about body image because people with his body type aren’t often seen in the media.

Not everyone gets a ‘standard’ strong and healthy body. You can talk about healthy body image with your child and emphasise that it includes all types of bodies, even ones that don’t fit the popular ideal.

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