Body image is an individual's perceptions, feelings and beliefs about their body. This includes how the individual believes the outside world views their body and how they believe their body fits with what is viewed as normal. Many things influence how people look, such as size, weight, build, skin, appearance, gender, fashion, religious identity and culture. Positive body image is feeling good about yourself and your appearance, and the associated behaviours which accompany this belief. Negative body image, also called body dissatisfaction, occurs when individuals view their body unfavourably.
This hot topic will look at the significance of body image and why children and young people experience body image issues and if so what you can expect as a parent. We provide ideas for how to help your child and provide some suggested resources for gaining further assistance.
What is body image and what is its significance?
Our perception of our bodies and how we see ourselves contributes to our self-esteem, because our bodies are a significant part of who we are. Being healthy is about having a positive state of body and mind but a negative body image can stop us from enjoying life. Feeling positive about one's body improves not only a person's own outlook but also how they interact with others, and gives them the confidence and freedom to take on new challenges and experiences in their life. Having a poor body image is strongly associated with poor self-esteem.
Body image is independent of the actual appearance of a person. For example, a person within a healthy and average weight range may perceive themselves as being overweight. Body image issues are not only confined to weight concerns, although this is a common misconception. Other factors that can affect body dissatisfaction include:
- skin colour
- religious and/or cultural diversity, especially if it is joined with particular appearance or clothing
- physical disfigurements
- skin appearance - acne, birth marks, scarring, pigmentation
- hair - style or colour
Why do children and young people experience issues with body image ?
The messages a child gets from his or her parents are very powerful simply because they have no other views or experience against which to make a judgment. Thus most of the significant messages and ideas that children and young people develop about their bodies, body image and eating are from the adults in the families they grow up in, and not solely from the media.
Ideas about body shape and physical appearance are passed from parents, or carers, to children through direct comments about their appearance. They are also transferred via the attitude and values about physical appearance that these adults model. It's been shown that children from as early as five years of age have demonstrated evaluating their weight against the idea that it's "good to be thin".
In Western society, the ideal female body is characterised by thinness. Because this is heavily portrayed in the mass media, it can result in unrealistic expectations. As a result, many females with body image problems tend to focus on losing weight. For males, the cultural norm is often portrayed as a lean, muscular body so adolescent males focus on weight loss and /or developing a more muscular upper body. In most cases professional photographers make models look more beautiful by using lighting effects , using photoshop and tricks with developing and printing the picture to make it look like someone has perfect skin, hair, teeth etc. This means that young people may be aspiring to an ideal image that is unattainable.
What can you expect if your child has body image concerns?
The onset of puberty causes many body changes that can attract the attention of others as well as initiate critical self-analysis in a young person. This interest in appearance is driven by a strong need to be accepted and to fit in. Some research findings indicate that:
- Australian data shows about one in three young people have issues with their body image, with concerns highest among females and young adults.
- In males, these issues are more likely to arise in early adolescence while in females, sensitivity to body image usually occurs in middle and late adolescence.
- Between 30% and 50% of adolescent girls are concerned about their weight or are dieting.
- Body dissatisfaction in boys is divided between those who wish to gain weight and those who want to lose it.
- Declining self-esteem in young people struggling with poor body image may lead to negative moods, depression, mood disturbance, or anxiety.
- Consider what is 'normal' for your child. Some signs that they may be struggling include:
- Unwillingness to eat with the family or take part in family events
- Obsessive thinking or anxiety about appearance
- Unusual eating or dieting habits
- Picking at food or eating alone
- Unusual moodiness
- Sudden or noticeable weight loss
- Over exercising
- Reluctance to talk
It is normal for young people to be aware of body image and to want to fit in. However, when it becomes their main focus and causes unhappiness there can be more serious consequences and in extreme cases it can lead to disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating or substance misuse.
Things you can do to assist your child or young person to develop a healthy body image
Studies have identified five protective factors which promote a young person's resilience to body image issues:
- Family and peer support - examples and values set by parents and role models from early childhood influence a young person's actions
- Gender role satisfaction
- Physical self-esteem - physical activity and overall fitness
- Coping strategies and critical thinking skills - life skills broaden a young person's outlook and critical thinking helps them analyse and make educated decisions
- Holistic wellness and life balance - able to define themselves through other interests such as hobbies, sport, spirituality and personal values
Practical tips for creating good body image in your children
- To be a good role model is to be aware of your own behaviours, conversations and feelings about weight and appearance.
- Give affirming messages about your teenager, such as how they help you or others, and what they do well or are good at.
- Talk about good eating habits - provide a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low fat dairy products and cereals.
- Reassure your child during puberty that everyone develops at different rates and at different times.
- Engage children and teenagers in conversation about the portrayal of body image in the mass media, how these images are created and how they feel about them. Teach your children that body image is about being happy with yourself and not being concerned about unrealistic cultural and social expectations..
- Reinforce positive, healthy messages around body image. This sort of conversation needs to take place more than once, preferably starting at a young age. Talking in an age appropriate way at different stages is better than talking just once in adolescence.
- Take part in family meals so teenagers are eating with you in a relaxed environment.
- Emphasise your child's positive resources and strengths. Help them to appreciate and see themselves in their wholeness, not just from their appearance. Place value on their achievements, talents, skills and personality.
- Avoid teasing your child about their appearance- this can be taken more seriously than you may have intended.
- Teach your children how to minimise the impact when others make unhelpful comments and how best to respond.
- Encourage physical activity - be active yourself and encourage your family to be active.
What else can help?
- If you suspect your child is experiencing negative body image you could:
- Talk about your concerns. Let them know that you love them, want to help and they can talk to you at anytime.
- Contact the school counsellor or guidance officer.
- Visit your local doctor together.
- Suggest they contact Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or through the website at www.kidshelp.com.au.
- Call Parentline in your state and discuss your feelings with a counsellor. They may be able to help you to see a way forward and to reduce some of your anxiety.
Who can I contact for more information?
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
Helpful web sites are:
- Cousineau, T.M., Franko, D.L., Trant, M., Rancourt, D., Ainscough, J., Chaudhuri, A., & Brevard, J. (2010). "Teaching adolescents about changing bodies: Randomized controlled trial of an Internet puberty education and body dissatisfaction prevention program". Body Image, 7, 296-300.
- Lewis, Vivienne, Dr (2012) Positive Bodies -Loving the Skin You're In. Australian Academic Press.
- Hutchinson, N and Calland, Chris (2011) Body Image in the Primary School. Routledge, Oxon. p1
- State Government of Victoria (2011). Better Health Channel: Body image - Women. Retrieved from: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/body_image_issues_for_women on 25 July 2014.
- Bernier, C.D., Kozyrskyj, A.L., Benoit, C., Becker, A.B. & Marchessault, G (2010)"Body Image and Dieting Attitudes Among Preadolescents" Canadian Journal of Dietic Practice and Research, 71(3),34-40.
- Australian Government Information Fact Sheet 4 -Body Image. Retrieved from: http://www.youth.gov.au/sites/Youth/bodyImage/informationsheets/Documents/BodyImageFactsheets_webaw4.pdf on 30 July 2014.
- Op cit Hutchinson p 13.
- Ibid pp 13-14.
- Richardson, S.M. & Paxton, S.J. (2010). "An evaluation of a Body Image Intervention based on Risk Factors for body dissatisfaction: A Controlled Study with Adolescent Girls". International Journal of Eating Disorders, 43 (2), 112-122.
- Women's and Children's Health Network, "Kids Health" Retrieved on from: http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetailsKids.aspx?p=335&np=287&id=1634#4 on 28 July 2014.
- Barber, B.L., & Abbott, B.D. (2010). Embodied image: Gender differences in functional and aesthetic body image among Australian adolescents. Body Image, 7, 22-31.
- Mission Australia (2010). National Survey of Young Australians 2010: Key and emerging issues. Retrieved from: http://www.missionaustralia.com.au/downloads/national-survey-of-young-australians/271-2010 on June 30 2011.
- Thompson, J. K., & Smolak, L. (2001). Body image, eating disorders, and obesity in youth: The future is now. In Thompson, J. K., and Smolak, L. (eds.), Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Obesity in Youth: Assessment, Prevention, and Treatment. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp. 1-39.
- Presnell, K., Bearman S., & Madeley M. (2007). Body Dissatisfaction in Adolescent Females and Males: Risk and Resilience. The Prevention Researcher, 14 (3), 3-6.
- Op cit Cousnineau.
- Choate, L. (2007). Counselling Adolescent Girls for Body Image Resilience: Strategies for School Counsellors. Professional School Counselling, 10 (3), 317-326.
Updated: October 2014