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Teens & Body Image

We start to notice ourselves at the age of two.  By four we are comparing ourselves with others but mostly only in terms of external trappings such as clothes and hair.  By five we start to notice our size but at this stage most of us just want to grow bigger.  By six how we think about our bodies starts to be influenced by other factors such as the media, our peers and our family.  We start to internalise the messages we get from these other sources and the positive messages lead to body satisfaction whilst negative messages lead to body dissatisfaction.

Body dissatisfaction can have a negative impact on our self esteem and low self esteem will have an impact on our mental health and wellbeing.   Teenagers with low self esteem are more likely to experiment with alcohol and drugs and experiment to excess.  They are less likely to have healthy relationships because if they don’t value themselves why would they expect others to value them?

Helping your children develop a positive body image is perhaps more difficult now than it has ever been.  In the 21st Century looking good is culturally prized and the messages about how we “should be” are all pervasive.  Boys must be ‘buff’ and girls must be thin is the message that is drip fed through to our children.  They don’t have the maturity to appreciate their finer points like their wonderful empathy skills or sense of humour.  It’s all about how you look and these messages are rarely countermanded in the press or on social media.

So what can we do as parents to help them develop positive body image?

First and foremost we must recognise that we are their primary role models and they are watching us to see how adult is done.  If they see that you are unhappy about your body; that you are always on a diet or over exercising they learn that this is normal.  They need us to celebrate healthy bodies not the size of our bodies.  They need to see us enjoying our food – eating healthily and regularly.  There should be no taboos around food and it should never be used as either a reward or a punishment.   Food is fuel but it is also fun, fulfilling and a means by which we socialise and enjoy time out with family and friends.  

If your child is becoming distressed by their looks telling them they are gorgeous, wonderful and perfect is unlikely to help, a) you are my parent so you are bound to say that and b) it is not how I feel about myself so I reject your comments.  Instead we empathise, “it must be really upsetting and exhausting worrying about how you look all the time” which will help them feel heard and understood.  Gentle challenging comes next, “it seems to me that you find it easier to focus on what you don’t like about yourself than what you do like – do you think it is helpful?”

I think we have to challenge ideas of “normal” and start celebrating our differences.   We need to help them see that they are so much more than kilos on a set of scales.  Help them identify role models who are inspirational because of what they do rather than what they look like.  Even Joey Essex has characteristics beyond his heightened narcissism that have allowed him to get to where he is today.  Help them see that who they are as a person and what they do is infinitely more important than how they look.  Getting them to connect with causes external to themselves is another way of shifting their focus away from their bodies and engaging them in something way more fulfilling than constant self reflection.

I am sure as we head into Mental Health Week which this year is all about body image, we will all learn a great deal to help us negotiate this tricky topic.  So I shall sign off by saying that our children need to learn that the compare and despair culture of social media is a no win game.  When we think we are better than others we feel under pressure to maintain our position and when we think we are worse….  well, what more do I need to say?

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