Body image is not how we look. Body image is how we think and feel about our body, our appearance or our looks. It is our mental picture of ourselves, and we all have one. We speak to Alicia Drummond, our in-house Mental Health Expert and founder of Teen Tips and The Wellbeing Hub, about how body image can negatively impact so many areas of our lives and those of our children and what you can do to encourage a more positive outlook.
Body dissatisfaction is endemic amongst girls and women, but it is increasingly causing problems for boys and men. Where girls generally focus on weight loss or the distribution of fat (think Kardashian butts), boys are more likely to be concerned about muscle mass and bulking up. The 2021 Good Childhood Report from The Children’s Society shows that 1 in 7 girls, and 1 in 8 boys is unhappy about how they look.
Having a negative body image negatively impacts many areas of life:
- It takes so much of our headspace that we end up unable to appreciate our positive points
- We miss out on opportunities and activities because we don’t want to be seen by others.
- We stop looking after ourselves because we don’t think we are worth the effort.
- We don’t take exercise because we are embarrassed about our bodies which negatively impacts our physical and mental health.
- It stops us wanting to socialise with other people leading to loneliness and isolation.
- We may try to boost our sense of being ok by engaging in risky sexual behaviour.
- It prevents us being able to concentrate in lessons/work if we are preoccupied by how we look.
- It can lead to self-harm and serious mental health problems such as eating disorders and even suicide.
“How we develop our body image is complex and starts early with the messages we receive from our family.”
As we grow older, we are influenced by our peers and particularly during adolescence when we want to fit in. Our life experiences influence how we think and feel about our bodies. Talking about being fat, even when we are not, can increase body dissatisfaction. The messages we get from social media, advertisements, and the media (Love Island springs to mind here) about how we ‘should’ look has an impact on how we view ourselves.
Puberty can be challenging for those who are questioning their gender and may have a significant impact on their body image. If they are not comfortable with the gender assigned to them at birth, they may find becoming more obviously that gender upsetting. The cosmetic surgery industry tells us we are not good enough, we need to plump our lips or lose our cellulite and, the unrealistic triangular torsos of characters in online games along with the large body parts displayed on porn sites, are all having an impact on how young people feel about themselves.
What can we do to help our children have a positive body image?
- Don’t allow them to be defined by looks alone
- Instead of focussing on weight and looks talk about health and encourage them to think of all the amazing things our bodies can do
- Be a good role model and encourage them to surround themselves with others who are body positive
- Encourage them to follow people on social media who make them feel good about themselves and unfollow those who don’t
- Remind them of all the tools the media uses to manipulate pictures
- Encourage them to challenge negative thoughts – where is the evidence?
- Limit screen time
- Don’t give food as a reward or let it become a way to gain power and control
- Eat as a family as often as possible
- Call out people who are unkind or judgemental about others – we need to create a culture where it’s uncool to be unkind about looks