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Body Image

What is body image?

How you see yourself, how you feel about this and how you think others see you is known as 'body image'.

Many things influence how people look, such as size, weight, build, skin, appearance, gender, fashion, religious identity and culture.

How is body image formed?

As you get older and start to become more aware of your appearance, body image usually becomes important. Thinking about how you look is a normal part of development and is one of the top concerns of young Australians.[1]

body imageEstablishing an identity during this time, along with all the other changes going on, can often feel like a struggle even though it is a normal part of growing up. Most people get through this period OK but for some it may lead to a lot of unhappiness and distress.

One of the things that can add stress is the normal tendency to compare yourself with others. This is linked to both wanting to fit in and to feel accepted by peers. It is also an important part of establishing identity. Clothes and image play an important role in individual expression, which is usually about being unique or belonging to a certain group or culture.

Adding to this is the fact that our culture tends to judge people based on their looks. The media is one of the big influences on this and it can put pressure on all age groups.

What influences body image?

The media

We are constantly exposed to imagery from popular media such as movies, TV, web and magazines. This can lead people to form ideas about a certain kind of 'ideal look' that they see as normal and desirable. Comparing yourself with these images may leave you feeling disappointed or inadequate.

Did you know that most media images have been altered through lighting effects, camera techniques and computer software? This produces flawless faces and bodies that are unrealistic.

Often, touched up images of sporting heroes, fashion models and pop stars become role models for how people want to look. Have you ever wondered what the effect of this might be on how you see yourself?

Other people

Your friends, peers and parents can give messages about how you look. This can be positive or negative depending on how they feel about themselves or how they relate to you.

Other's comments and behaviours can range from direct critical comments and questions about how you look to their beliefs about their own body image.

You may hear comments such as:

  • You need to eat more (or less)!
  • That dress makes you look fat!
  • Did you brush your hair today?
  • I'm looking so old!
  • You look so nice when you take off that make-up
  • I am going to have to lose a few kilos to fit back into these jeans

While people usually mean well, sometimes even the smallest comment about how you look can feel very hurtful. If you are already not feeling great about yourself, it can even add to long-term emotional effects.

Parents may not realise that how they feel about themselves may also convey messages to their kids and impact on their self-image.

What is happening to my body?

It can be confusing to work out who you are, and who you want to be, with all these influences whilst you are also experiencing physical and emotional changes.

Many callers to Kids Helpline talk about their worries about the changes that happen at puberty. Some have told us of their concerns about physical issues. Others are worried about fitting in with their friends and family.

'I'm worried that I don't fit in my jeans any more. I'm supposed to go out with my friends this weekend and I'm too embarrassed to go.'

It's normal for weight to change during puberty and a lot of young people worry about this. It's important to accept that there are some things about physical appearance you have control over while other things you don't. A person's shape is largely determined by genetic makeup, stage of development and to some degree diet and lifestyle.

Self-esteem

Body image is closely related to self-esteem. Feeling self-conscious and being aware of your body is normal and can vary from day to day. A negative body image is when someone is consistently unhappy with their appearance or how they look. Feeling like this can affect self-esteem and a person's sense of wellbeing.

Sometimes young people can develop eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa as they try to alter their shape. Signs of these more serious concerns can include:

  • a persistent negative body image
  • shifts in mood
  • withdrawal from others
  • over or under eating, or
  • extreme exercise regimes.

What can you do to feel better about being you?

  • Learn about advertising and the media, how images are produced and their purpose
  • Understand you are much more than how you look, so pay attention to other things in your life
  • Appreciate qualities other than appearance in yourself and others
  • Avoid 'appearance conversations' and judging people on how they look
  • Inform yourself about health, nutrition and lifestyle
  • Spend time with others who are positive and help you feel good
  • Spend time doing activities and interests that make you feel good
  • Learn to appreciate and respect your body and what it can do

Did you know?

  • 45% of women and 23% of men in the healthy weight range think they are overweight
  • Only one in five women are satisfied with their body weight
  • Nearly half of all normal weight women overestimate their size and shape
  • Approximately nine out of 10 young Australian women have dieted at least once in their lives
  • 17% of men are on some sort of diet
  • Eating disorders are more likely to affect girls than boys. About 20-25% of children affected by eating disorders are boys
  • Body image has some cultural links - for example, some research shows that Asian women, after moving to Australia, take on body image and diet habits that are not common in their own countries
  • Some studies indicate that a young woman's body image is the single largest influence on her self-esteem. If she thinks she looks unattractive or fat, her self-confidence drops and this can impact on other areas of her life.[2]

Who can you talk to?

If you have any concerns about body image or self-esteem it can really help to talk to someone you can trust.

  • Kids Helpline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1800 55 1800.
  • Your parents, a school counsellor, or a trusted adult

References

  1. Mission Australia Insights into the concerns of young Australians: Making sense of the 2011 Youth Survey
  2. http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au

Revised: 8 July 2013