By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Teen girl looking in mirror

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • In a sample of almost 48 000 Australians aged 11-24 years, almost one-third reported body image as their top concern.
  • Over half of girls in Australian high schools have tried to lose weight.
  • In one study of adolescent boys, about one-third wanted to be thinner and one-third wanted to be larger.
During adolescence, young people often think a lot about how their bodies look. They also compare their bodies with others. A positive teenage body image is an important part of healthy self-esteem, and you can help your child think and feel positively about his body.

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 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. People who feel like this often want to change their 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. 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. These factors include family environment, ability or disability, attitudes of peers, the media and advertising, the fashion industry and cultural background. Social media also has a big influence on teenage body image, particularly when teenagers post and view photos of themselves and others on social media.

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 more pressure to look and act a certain way.

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 and attractiveness, or if family members or peers tease them about their appearance
  • 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 perfectionists
  • look at themselves from the ‘outside’ and worry about how others see them, or if they compare themselves to others
  • have low self-esteem
  • experience symptoms of depression
  • belong to a subculture, such as a friendship, sport or dance group that emphasises a certain body type
  • have a physical disability.

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

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 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.

Teenage body image concerns: 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 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, such as his face or legs
  • linking food with feelings of guilt, shame or blame.

Developing a healthy body image: how you can help your child

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:

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

Speak to a GP, or other health professional if you’re concerned about the way your child feels about her body.

Being a positive body 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, 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 unhealthy eating patterns and can 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, 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. 

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 she is and what she can do, not just for her 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 himself by focusing on his body’s abilities, rather than the way his body looks.

The most important positives in your child’s life aren’t based on her size or shape, so you can let your child know how proud you are of things like her 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 her feel good.

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 body is physically disabled or causes them pain and difficulty. Your child might also feel left out of discussions about body image because people with his particular body type aren’t often seen or talked about 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.

Video Talking with teenagers about body image

Download video   37.4mb

Jess is a teenager who is becoming obsessed with her weight. Her mother wants to help her daughter feel better about herself.

This video demonstration with actors shows how to start a non-judgmental conversation about teen body image. We also hear from a nutritionist who shares tips for parents on talking about body image with young people.

  • Last updated or reviewed 07-05-2015
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with the Centre for Adolescent Health, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne