What is body image?
Your body image is how and what you think and feel about your body. It also includes the picture of your body that you have in your own 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 about your body, as well as being comfortable with and accepting the way you look.
A negative or unhealthy body image is being unhappy with the way you look. It’s often associated with wanting to change your body size or shape.
Body image can change through your lifetime, and is strongly connected to your self-esteem and healthy lifestyle choices. 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. Unfortunately, an unhealthy body image in childhood can have long-lasting consequences.
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.
Your child’s body image
Your child’s body image is influenced by many factors, such as family environment, skin colour, ability or disability, attitudes of peers, the media and advertising, and the fashion industry. Cultural background is also a factor. Cultures have different views about ideal body shapes and sizes – some are more encouraging and realistic than others.
Children as young as five or six are more likely to have concerns about their body shape if they watch music videos or look at magazines targeting an older audience.
As your child reaches puberty, fitting in and looking the same as other people becomes even more important. At the same time, her body is going through lots of changes, inside and out. This can mean your child might feel even more pressure to look and act a certain way.
Risk factors for negative body image
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 conform to a narrow social ideal of beauty and attractiveness
- get teased about their appearance by family members or peers
- take more notice of external standards of beauty and body image – for example, images in music videos and magazines – than other children
- are perfectionists
- look at themselves from the ‘outside’ and worry about how others see them
- have low self-esteem
- experience symptoms of depression
- compare themselves with others
- have a different body shape or weight from many of their peers, or a body shape that’s obviously different from the ‘ideal’ shapes seen in the media
- are adolescents – this age group is more likely to be affected by unhealthy body image issues than younger children
- are female – adolescent girls are more likely to develop body image issues than boys, and are more likely to feel pressure to conform to ‘ideal’ body images (but many boys also feel this way)
- are overweight – young people who are overweight are more unhappy with their bodies than peers of healthy weight
- belong to a subculture, such as a friendship, sport or dance group that emphasises a certain body type
- have a physical disability.
Effects of unhealthy body image
Unhealthy body image is directly related to low self-esteem, leading to negative moods and mood disturbances. Young people who are feeling down are more likely to focus on the negative messages around them and make negative comparisons between their body and what they see as an ‘ideal’ body.
Low self-esteem and poor body image are risk factors for the development of risky weight loss strategies, eating disorders and mental health disorders such as depression.
Signs to watch out for
It’s normal for your child to be conscious of his body and want to look great and lead a healthy lifestyle. But when children focus too much on their bodies, it can lead to lots of anxiety and stress.
If you think your child is experiencing any of the following signs, start by talking with her about your concerns. If things don’t change and you’re still worried, consider talking to a health professional.
Your child might be:
- feeling inadequate about or criticising his body – he might say he’s ugly
- continually comparing her 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 she feels about her body
- obsessing about losing weight, or about specific parts of his body, such as his face or legs
- linking food with feelings of guilt, shame or blame.
What you can do
Talking about body image
Many young people feel confused or concerned about the physical changes that come with puberty.
You can help by listening to how your child is feeling about her body and its changes – active listening skills can build openness and show your child that you’re really taking notice of what she’s saying.
If your child isn’t talking or opening up to you, he might like to talk with another trusted adult. He could also contact an anonymous service, such as Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), or access Kids Helpline web counselling or Kids Helpline email counselling services.
It’s important to let everyone in your family know that teasing about appearance is not OK. Teasing or negative comments from family members can have a negative influence on body image. Teasing at home can often lead to children bullying peers at school.
Teasing about weight – including starting rumours, cyberbullying and sharing unflattering photos – has a negative effect on body image too. You could talk to your child’s school to see if they’ve included this kind of teasing in their anti-bullying policies.
Being a positive body role model
If you’re positive about your own body, it’ll be easier for your child to be positive about her body. A positive attitude includes:
- making healthy eating and physical activity part of your everyday family life, and avoiding fad diets – this will help your child find the right balance
- appreciating your own body for what it can do, not just how it looks
- being proud of things that aren’t related to appearance, such as having a sense of humour, trying hard, being caring or being helpful – you can point out these qualities in yourself and your child
- 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!’ It can be helpful to think about how comments like these add up over time and influence the way children feel about their bodies.
Watch out for dieting for weight loss. All crash diets are dangerous. They frequently lead to disordered eating patterns and have been shown to increase the likelihood of people becoming obese.
If your child wants to make lifestyle changes, make sure it’s for healthy reasons. 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.
For more information, you might like to read our article on healthy habits for a healthy life
. If your child is overweight or obese according to clinical guidelines, approaching this issue can be difficult. But making negative comments about your child’s weight is unlikely to help with eating and activity patterns and will result in poor body image and low self-esteem. Our article on managing overweight and obesity
has some strategies that might help.
Spotting the airbrush
TV, billboards and magazines mean that we see images of ‘beautiful people’ hundreds of times a day – more often than we see members of our own families. The vast majority of these images have been airbrushed or digitally manipulated, so the people in them look better than they really are.
You can talk with your child about how airbrushing, lighting and camera angles can create unrealistic expectations.
Young people of all ages need your help to sort through and understand messages about their bodies. They might also need some help recognising that many of the images they see in the media are just ‘pretty plastic’ – they look great, but they’re not real.
Focusing on what’s important
This is about praising your child for who he is and what he can do, not just for his appearance. In reality, everyone has a different body shape, and different cultures value people with different shapes.
You can also send your child positive messages about herself by focusing on her body’s abilities, rather than the way her body looks.
The most important positives in your child’s life aren’t based on his size or shape, so you can let your child know how proud you are of things like his 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.
Speak to a doctor or other health professional if you’re concerned about the way your child feels about her body.
Body image for young people with special needs
Young people need to be comfortable with the way they look to develop a healthy body image.
For young people with special needs, this can be more difficult, especially if their body is physically disabled or causes them pain and difficulty. Your child might also feel excluded from discussions of body image because people with their particular body type aren’t often seen or discussed 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 mould.