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, and is strongly connected to 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, the 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, your child’s 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 the way they look
  • 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 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 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 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.

Teenage body image concerns: signs to watch out for

It’s normal for your child to be conscious of her 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 him about your concerns. If things don’t change and you’re still worried, consider talking to a health professional.

Your child might:

  • feel inadequate about or criticise her body – she might say she’s ugly
  • continually compare her body with others
  • not want to leave the house because of the way she looks
  • not do activities or try new things because of the way she feels about her body
  • obsess about losing weight, or about specific parts of her body, like her face or legs
  • frequently check her body – she might spend lots of time looking at herself in the mirror or taking photos and looking for changes or imperfections
  • link 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 his body and its changes – active listening skills can build openness and show your child that you’re really taking notice of what he’s saying.

If your child isn’t talking or opening up to you, she might like to talk with another trusted adult. She 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 whether 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 his 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 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 in yourself that aren’t related to appearance, like 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.

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, magazines and social media 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, filters 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 related to 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.

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 her 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 ideal.