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Healthy Body Image


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During adolescence, it’s usual for young people to think a lot about how their bodies look. A positive body image is an important part of healthy self-esteem, and you can help your child think and feel positively about his/her body.

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 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 as well as a healthy eating and physical activity habits.

Your child’s body image

Your child’s body image is influenced by many factors, such as attitudes of family, attitudes of peers, the media, and the fashion industry. Cultural background is also a factor. Different 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, his/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.

Effects of unhealthy body image

Low self-esteem and poor body image can be risk factors for the development of unhealthy weight loss strategies, eating disorders and mental health disorders such as depression.

Signs to watch 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.

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. Children should not be on weight loss diets.

If your child wants to make lifestyle changes, make sure it’s for health reasons. Let your child know that healthy eating and physical activity are important for physical health, now and in the future.

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.

Did you know?
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.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

About Healthy Weights - The Meaning of Healthy Weights in British Columbia 

Last Updated: November 30, 2014