What does your tween or teen see when they look at a photo of themselves or look in the mirror? What beliefs do they have about themselves based on the way their body looks? Our beliefs and attitudes about our body shape, weight and size can affect the way we behave. They may change the way we eat and exercise and that can impact our health and well-being. Body image can be shaped by internal factors, such as personality and by external factors, such as our life experiences or culture.
Positive body image means you are comfortable in your body and the way it is naturally. You know that who you are as a person has little to do with your appearance. Your worth as a person is not tied to your body weight, shape, size or features.
Negative body image is also known as body dissatisfaction. You feel like your body weight, shape, size or features are flawed. You may believe you are less than others when you compare yourself to them. If you are unhappy with your body, you may have feelings of shame and low self-esteem.
Signs of negative body image may include if your child:
Checks their body often (looks at their appearance, pinching skin, measuring body parts).
Avoids places or situations where their body is exposed (for example: swimming).
Spends a lot of time and effort on their appearance (hair, make-up).
Thinks a lot about how they look or how they could change their appearance.
Compares themselves to others too much.
Greatly desires to change their body weight, shape, size or features.
Thinks and says negative things about their body.
A negative body image can exhaust and isolate a person. Those with body image concerns are more likely to have mental health concerns, and/or develop an eating disorder.
Positive and negative body images are at opposite ends of the spectrum. You can be anywhere on the spectrum and how you feel can change from day to day or even hour to hour. Body image has different ways of showing up.
What can contribute to negative body image?
We all go through experiences that can negatively impact our body image regardless of our age, gender, and background. We are not born disliking our bodies, but body image concerns can start early in life and continue over the years. Different factors can lead to negative body image. One or more of the factors that can affect you include:
Going through puberty. Puberty is a time when a lot of change can happen to things like weight, size, shape and hair growth. It is absolutely normal for bodies to change as we mature, but it can take some time for kids to get used to. And it may not be what they expect.
Going on a diet. There are so many diets and trends it’s hard to know what information is true or could be harmful. Going on diets can build up negative feelings about food and increase how much we focus on our bodies.
Sports or activities that may emphasize certain body weight or size like modeling, ballet and wrestling. If your tween or teen feels like they have to fit a certain body standard it can add pressure to change their body. Athletes that play sports that focus on leanness are more at risk of disordered eating.
Comments about weight and appearance. We are all affected by the people we spend time with. The way someone talks about their body or your child’s body can influence the way they focus on and look at their own body. Even comments meant as compliments such as, “you look like you have lost weight” can contribute to negative body image or harmful behaviours.
Being bullied or teased. A bully may say or spread hurtful things about your child’s weight or appearance which may impact how they feel about themself. Bullying is serious and not acceptable. It is the repeated attempt to scare, hurt or intimidate another person.
Society’s or culture’s image of the “ideal” body. You may experience different triggers and pressures depending on the society or culture you grew up in. Some people may feel pressure to be thin while others may feel pressure to have muscles. You may feel pressure to have a different hair type, skin colour or facial features. These pressures can affect our body image and make it difficult to love or appreciate our body as it is, especially if it doesn’t fit society’s ideal.
What can contribute to positive body image?
It’s important to be comfortable in our bodies. It helps us feel more confident, take better care of ourselves and support our overall wellbeing. No matter where your child is on the above spectrum, they can move towards or maintain a more positive body image. Some helpful factors include if they:
Recognize and take care of their whole self. Encourage them to think about all the wonderful qualities that make them who they are—their personality, experiences and abilities. Their appearance and weight do not determine their self-worth. Remind them to pay attention to what their body is telling them and what it needs. They should eat foods that they enjoy, move their body in ways that feel good, take deep breaths, and get enough rest.
Encourage your kids to choose to be with people who love and support them as they are, and to spend time with people who don’t make them question their own worth or body confidence. They deserve to be accepted and celebrated as they are.
Teach them to practice being kind to themselves. We all have an inner voice that can be both kind and critical. Try to help them develop habits that will improve the way they think and feel about their body. Encourage them to take time to explore and express themselves in ways that feel true to them, to be themselves and to notice what they are grateful for about themselves. It can help them feel better in their own skin.
Challenge the media messages they receive. Look carefully at and be critical of the media as it often shows images that are highly edited and not realistic.
Remind them of what their body can do. Our bodies continue to grow and change during our lifetime. It can help to think about what your body can do rather than how it looks. How does it support you to take part in activities that make you happy? How does it adapt?
What you can do if your tween or teen is experiencing body image concerns?
It is possible to deal with body image concerns when they are recognized early on. Remind your child that they are not alone in these struggles. Talk to them about how they are feeling. And if need be, get in touch with a health professional. Reach out to a counsellor, doctor or psychiatrist for help getting started on what kind of support your child needs.