What is body image?
Body image is how you think and feel about your body. It includes how you see your body in your mind, which might not match your body’s actual shape or size.
Body image can be positive, neutral or negative, and it can change.
When children feel good about their bodies, they’re likely to enjoy healthy food, stay healthy, avoid illness and keep themselves clean. They’re also likely to feel good about themselves more generally.
Body image in toddlers, preschoolers and early school-age children
Toddlers are starting to recognise themselves in the mirror or in pictures. Most toddlers enjoy seeing themselves and talking about their bodies. This is when body image starts to develop.
Preschoolers might start to be aware of body shape and size. Some preschoolers might seem to like certain bodies more than others. For example, they might say things like ‘I want big muscles’ or ‘Amy is skinnier than me’.
Preschoolers might also say they want to change things about their bodies. For example, they might say, ‘I’m very short. I want to be tall like you’. But most preschoolers are happy with their bodies and what their bodies can do – for example, exploring, playing and eating.
As early school-age children develop, they usually feel confident and positive about their bodies and what their bodies can do.
When you support your child’s body confidence in the toddler, preschooler and early school years, you lay the foundation for a positive body image, good health and wellbeing in the teenage years.
Role-modelling positive body image for children
- Be positive about your own body and what it can do. For example, ‘Wow, my body did such a good job of healing my cut’, or ‘I love how my body lets me read, cuddle and sing with you!’
- Avoid talking about wanting to change your body through dieting, weight loss, muscle gain or surgery. It’s good to discourage other adults or teenagers from talking this way around your child too.
- Avoid comparing your body and appearance to others.
- Make physical activity a part of your everyday family life. For example, you and your child could walk, ride bikes or play together in the park. This sends the message that physical activity is fun and a good way to enjoy your body.
- Enjoy healthy family meals that include a variety of different food. Talk about how food tastes, smells and makes your body feel. This shows your child that eating is enjoyable and keeps your body healthy.
Celebrating bodies and body diversity with children
- Focus on what your child’s body can do rather than on how your child looks – for example, ‘You jumped so far. That’s amazing!’
- Discourage your child from commenting on people’s bodies. If you hear your child doing this, you could say something like ‘We’re all different, and that’s great.’
- Read and talk about books that include and celebrate diverse bodies. You could try Her body can or His Body can by Ady Meschke and Katie Crenshaw, or Bodies are cool by Tyler Feder.
- Watch and talk about TV shows or movies that include and celebrate diverse bodies. For example, ‘Bluey and Bandit are blue, but Bingo and Chilli are red. Bluey’s friends are different shapes, sizes and colours’.
Try to value and celebrate your child and other people for who they are and what they can do, rather than what they look like. For example, you can make a point of praising your child when they’re kind, help others, try hard at school and so on.
Managing media messages about bodies and body image
TV, video, games, movies and advertising often show unrealistic images of bodies. They can also promote narrow ideals of beauty or harmful messages that focus only on appearance. These images and messages can make children feel bad about their bodies.
When you celebrate body diversity, you’re already helping your child handle these images and messages. You can also manage your child’s exposure and talk directly with your child about body images in media:
- For younger children, limit the effects of media and advertising by limiting the amount of commercial TV they watch. Also make sure that what they watch is age appropriate.
- Aim for quality in your child's screen use. Quality media for preschoolers and quality media for school children supports learning, encourages kind and respectful behaviour, and gives children positive role models.
- As children get older, explain that on TV or in movies, people’s bodies are often changed with lighting, make-up and computers. This is to make bodies look stronger or more attractive than they are. This can make media more entertaining.
Body image concerns: signs to look out for
It’s natural for children to be curious about what their bodies can do and what their bodies need.
But sometimes children can focus too much on their bodies. Signs that your child might feel anxious or stressed about how they look or what their body can do might include:
- talking about their body in negative ways – for example ‘I don’t like my stomach – it’s fat’ or ‘My arms are getting too thick’
- comparing their body to others
- worrying about what other children might say about their body
- avoiding activities because they think their body won’t be able to do them
- talking about dieting, not eating favourite foods, cutting out treats, not finishing meals, or becoming more fussy about what they eat
- feeling guilt, shame or blame after eating food they usually enjoy – for example, ‘I feel bad about eating that ice-cream. I won’t eat anything else today’.
What to do when children have body image concerns
Bullying or teasing someone about their appearance is never OK. If you spot signs that your child is being bullied, you can get help with bullying. The first step is to talk with your child’s teacher as soon as you can. Then you can work together to sort it out.