What does the term ‘Body Image’ refer to?
Body image is about feeling good about yourself and your appearance. It is also about how a person believes the outside world views their body, and how their body fits with social norms. How we feel about our bodies affects our self esteem.
Negative body image occurs when individuals view their body unfavourably. These feelings impact their general wellbeing and the decisions they make about their body. Sometimes this is referred to as ‘body dissatisfaction’. These negative feelings can affect self esteem and sometimes declining self esteem leads to negative mood and mood disturbances.
Body image is commonly thought to relate only to weight, size and shape, however there are other factors that affect how people feel and accept their appearance. These include:
- skin colour
- religious diversity, especially if it is joined with particular appearance or clothing
- skin appearance
- hair - style or colour
- clothing - wearing the ‘right’ type of clothing
Who is impacted by body image?
‘One of the most remarkable and consistent research findings is the overwhelming prevalence of weight and shape-related concerns among adolescents’. 
It is widely accepted that adolescence is a time when most teenagers, girls in particular, become interested in their bodies and appearance, and those of others. This is driven by a strong need for conformity and acceptance. Increasingly evidence suggests children of younger ages are also aware of their body image and can feel anxiety and dissatisfaction with their appearance.
Kids Helpline responds to a number of contacts relating to body image, including physical development, eating behaviours and self-image. For the purpose of this paper, we have combined these groups to report the following data. Of the 298,096 counselling contacts made in the years 2004-2008, 451 related to body image. Females made the majority of these counselling contacts (88%).
In the 19 to 25 year-old age group there has been an increase in contacts concerning body image over this period. This is in the context of increased number of contacts made over this period by this age group.
Both males and females are susceptible to body image problems. In males the issues are more likely to arise in early adolescence; with females they are likely to become more sensitive and alert to body image in middle and later adolescence.
How prevalent is body dissatisfaction?
- Of healthy weight Australian women, 47% believe they are overweight
- Between 30 and 50% of adolescent girls are either concerned about their weight or are actually dieting 
- Children as young as 6 years old express dissatisfaction with their weight and a substantial amount have attempted to lose weight
- Body dissatisfaction in boys is divided between those who wish to gain weight as well as those who desire to lose it
Being aware about body image and wanting to fit in is a normal concern for young people as they work out where they belong. However, when it becomes the main focus and causes unhappiness there can be more serious consequences.
Three key factors contribute to the development of body dissatisfaction, namely:
- cultural messages - from media, social norms and broader society
- social messages - from family and friends and
- personal characteristics of the individual - which mean that someone is more likely to take on the cultural ideals of beauty
These interact with and influence each other.
The impact of cultural messages
Cultural messages are those given by media, social norms and broader society. As the Chair of the Ministerial Media Code of Conduct on Body Image May 2009 said:
‘We live in an age where we are surrounded by an image of an ideal body shape, communicated by a constantly evolving media. Much of what we see is a fusion of reality and fantasy, with many of the images presented to us having been altered or enhanced in some way.’
In Western society the current ideal female body is characterised by thinness. For males the cultural norm is a lean but muscular body. As a result this means that many women with body image problems tend to focus on losing weight, while adolescent males focus on either losing weight or developing a more muscular upper body.
There is more exposure to idealised images of men and women than ever before. Changes in the mass media have created a proliferation of images in magazines, on billboards, television, and on personal web sites (such as My Space and Facebook). In addition, technology enables these images to be altered and enhanced and the portrayal of beauty is becoming even more unrealistic. Although an adult mind can recognise enhancements, many young people may not yet have developed the critical skills needed to tell the difference.
There is not a day that goes by that girls are not bombarded with messages about their bodies. ‘Buy this product and your skin will appear smooth’; ‘Take this pill and you will magically shed the pounds’; ‘Try this gel and your hair will become straight and beautiful’.
Some media also suggests that with enough hard work a female can change her body shape to match the ‘ideal’, although these standards are virtually impossible to reach. Rather than questioning these standards, often girls will blame themselves for not reaching this standard and this idea of an ideal body creates problems. These ideals are the ever present background to other messages that are given to young people by their friends and family.
The impact of social messages
Social messages are those given by the friends, family, teachers and others in an individual's social environment. Parents play an important part in the delivery of messages.
It can be difficult to combat the amount and type of images that are projected and to give positive messages. Often messages are subtle and incidental such as when someone comments about the body shape of a celebrity or as they slip on a pair of jeans make an aside about needing to lose weight. Researchers use the phrase ‘appearance conversations’ to describe the brief discussions that people have about their own dissatisfaction with their body and how they look. Such statements subtly increase pressure on some young people to feel dissatisfaction with their own appearance.
The impact of the characteristics of the individual
Not all young people respond to body image cues in the same way. Some adolescents with certain personal characteristics are more vulnerable to feelings of body dissatisfaction, including:
- A person's gender - adolescent girls are more likely to develop negative body image than adolescent boys.
- The age of the young person. For example one study found that ‘boys appear to be most concerned in early adolescence, whereas girls become increasingly displeased with their body as they progress into middle and late adolescence’.
- A person whose Body Mass Index (BMI) is inconsistent with ‘normal ideals’. One of the measures of healthy weight is the BMI measure. BMI is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in metres squared.
- Someone who has a distorted perception of their weight and body image. This is sometimes found in the case of adolescents with eating disorders; they see and think that they are overweight when they are not.
What are the implications of negative body image?
Negative body image can lead to a range of things including:
- obsessive thinking about appearance and eating or dieting habits
- unnecessary elective cosmetic surgery
- declining self esteem
- depression and other mood disturbances
In extreme cases it can also lead to eating disorders such as Bulimia Nervosa or Anorexia Nervosa, particularly during adolescence.
What promotes body image resilience during adolescence?
Studies have identified five protective factors which promote resilience. These factors help to protect young people with body image issues and also other adolescent challenges such as smoking, taking drugs, as well as under age drinking and sexual activity.
- Family and peer support - first impressions and early learning influences values and ways of doing things, and how young people see the world.
- Gender role satisfaction - some studies have suggested that for young women and girls the mixed messages they receive lead to confusion and despair. These messages include being relationship focused, family based and responsible for the care of others. This is in conflict with other goals of strength, independence and self reliance, whilst achieving high academic and work success, and attaining thinness. For some this leads to great confusion, which young women need to voice and discuss.
- Physical self-esteem - In adolescence, body image becomes the most important aspect of girls' global self-esteem. It is interesting to note that African American girls have higher levels of self-esteem than Caucasian American girls do, partly because their self-esteem is not based on such narrow definitions regarding what is considered attractive. Taking part in physical activity is also a central feature of physical self-esteem. When girls and boys exercise to improve their overall fitness or health (as opposed to working out to burn excess calories or build muscle) they are more likely to feel good about themselves. In addition physical activity can lead to body satisfaction which increases the feeling of well being when they develop an appreciation for what their bodies can do, rather than how they appear to others.
- Coping strategies and critical thinking skills - A life skills approach can broaden and develop how the young person thinks about their environment. In time they can learn to make their own assessment and consider different inputs whilst developing some skills to actively resist, challenge, and create alternatives to the messages they see or experience around them. Education about body changes and media literacy which explores media messages can help kids to have a broader picture of what influences them. Critical thinking can help young people to more actively interpret the images they see around them so they are not passive observers or receivers and can then relate this to their own family and experience.
- Holistic wellness and life balance - there are many ways that young people can define themselves including interests, sport, spirituality, relationship building, values, creative ideas, talents and attitude to study.
What can parents do?
Many studies suggest that the parental relationship keeps its relevance and importance for adolescents; it is a powerful protector for adolescents. Family support is found to be even more significant than peer support.
Suggestion for parents to consider:
- From an early age, be aware of your own conversations and feelings about weight and the ‘ideal figure’. Be conscious of your own ‘diet’ talk and ‘appearance conversations’. What impression are you giving to young children and other family members? How accepting are you of your own appearance? Research has shown that what parents model to their children and how they talk about body image themselves will have a strong influence on how the childs own resilience develops in this area.
- Give affirming messages about your teenager - focus on a range of things such as how they assist you or others and what they do well or are good at, including interests, talents or skills.
- Talk about good eating habits, make sure that there is a variety of food on the table.
- Engage children and teenagers in conversation about the images we see around us, how these images are created, what feelings are generated when they see them and what they like and dislike.
- Generate conversation which reinforces positive, healthy messages around body image and is open, honest and engaging. this sort of conversation needs to take place more than once. Talking in an age appropriate way at different stages is better than talking just once at adolescence.
- Take part in family meals, so that teenagers are eating with you in a relaxed environment.
- Emphasise your childs positive resources and strengths. Encourage the young person to appreciate other strengths and interests that they have. Help them to appreciate and see themselves in their wholeness, not just from their appearance.
- Avoid teasing - this can be taken more seriously than you mean it.
- Help your teenager to learn how to minimise the impact when others make unhelpful comments either to them or their friends. Talk with them about how to respond.
What signs can suggest there is a need for concern?
Issues with body image and body dissatisfaction can reveal itself in many ways. Consider what is ‘normal’ for your child, so that you can notice if attitudes or behaviours are changing or indicate something more serious.
- Unusual moodiness
- Sudden or noticeable weight loss
- Picking at food or eating alone
- Unwillingness to eat with the family or take part in family events
- Over exercising
- Reluctance to talk
What to do if you suspect your child is having problems in this area
In the event that you suspect your child is experiencing negative body image, you could:
- Talk about your concerns. Let them know that you love them and want to talk and help them. If they don't want to talk at that time then let them know that you are always happy to talk and work together to help them
- Contact the school counsellor or guidance officer
- Visiting the local doctor together. Speak to the doctor on your own first if you feel that it will help. They may suggest having some blood tests or to link up with a counsellor or psychologist who can support your child for a time
- Suggest they contact Kids Helpline on the phone on 1800 55 1800, by email or on the web
- 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 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:
- Presnell, K., Bearman S., & Madeley M. (2007) Body Dissatisfaction in Adolescent Females and Males: Risk and Resilience. The Prevention Researcher. Vol 14, No 3.
- Thompson, J. K., and 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.
- Thelen, M. H., Lawrence, C., and Powell, A. (1992). Body image, weight control and eating disorders among children. In Crowther, J. H.,Tennebaum, D. L., Hobfoll, S. E., and Stephens, M. A. P. (eds.), The Etiology of Bulimia Nervosa: The Individual and Familial Context. Hemisphere, Washington, DC, pp. 82-102.
- Sanger L., Chair of the Ministerial Media Code of Conduct on Body Image Working Group, Final Report July 2007.
- Richardson S. & Paxton S. An evaluation of a Body Image Intervention based on Risk Factors for body dissatisfaction: A Controlled Study with Adolescent Girls, unpublished.
- Oliver, K. (2001) Images of the Body from Popular Culture: Engaging Adolescent Girls in Critical Enquiry. Sport, Education and Society, Vol 6, No 2, pp143-164.
- Alta, N, Ludden A, & Lally, M (2007). ‘The effect of Gender and Family, Friend and Media influences on Eating Behaviours and Body image During Adolescence’ Journal of Youth Adolescence Vol 36, pp 1024-1037.
- McKinley, N. M. (1999). Women and objectified body consciousness: Mothers' and daughters' body experience in cultural, developmental, and familial context. Developmental Psychology Vol 35, pp 760-769.
- Wertheim E, Paxton S.& Blaney S. (2009) ‘Body Image in girls’ in Body Image, Eating disorders, and Obesity in Youth, 2nd Edition, (eds) Smolak l. & Thompson J. American Psychological Association, pp 47-76.
- Bearman S., Presnell K, Martinez E, and Stice E. (2006) The Skinny on Body Dissatisfaction: A Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Girls and Boys. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol 35, No 2, pp 229-241.
- Stice, E., & Shaw, H. (2003). Prospective relations of body image, eating, and affective disturbances to smoking onset in adolescent girls: How Virginia slims. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71, 129-135.
- Choate L. (2007) Counselling Adolescent Girls for Body Image Resilience: Strategies for School Counsellors. Professional School Counseling; Vol. 10 Issue 3, pp317-326
Published: 17 December 2009
Updated: 15 October 2013