Body image refers to the thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs we have about our body. As people travel through childhood and adolescence, their bodies undergo rapid and dramatic changes. It’s not surprising therefore that some young people may have mixed feelings about how their body is developing and how they look.
While many us may experience some body image concerns from time to time, for some young people, these concerns become highly distressing. Pervasive body image concerns can influence a young person’s self-esteem, self-acceptance, and self-worth. These can all contribute to experiences of disappointment, guilt, and shame. It is therefore valuable to identify these concerns early to foster mindsets and a culture of positive body image for the young person…..and within the family unit as whole.
If you’re wondering what to look out for, here are several potential red flags amongst young people who may be experiencing body image-related concerns:
- An increased interest in food and counting calories;
- Cutting out certain food groups and no longer eating previously enjoyed foods;
- Increased focus on body weight and shape, as well as sudden changes in weight;
- Excessive body checking (e.g., weighing, mirror checking) or actively avoiding body checking;
- Avoiding social situations that involve eating in front of others or when body image may elicit anxiety (e.g., swimming);
- Often talking about body image (e.g., thinness, muscles, physique) and comparing one’s own body with others; and
- Other compensatory behaviours (e.g., excessive exercising, skipping meals, using smaller plates/bowls, eating more slowly than usual, purging).
While professional support can be paramount in addressing body image concerns, parents and caregivers also play a key role in fostering favourable body image in their children. Some tips that can foster positive body image in young people may include:
- Modelling positive body image (e.g., acceptance of one’s body despite flaws, focusing on the health and function of the body rather than how it looks, seeing beauty in the diverse range of appearance and internal attributes);
- Avoid appearance-focused commentary (e.g., making positive or negative comments about appearance that can encourage young people to heavily focus on how they look). Instead, focus can be on internal characteristics such as personality, effort, hard work, kindness, good listening etc.;
- Avoid diets and unhealthy weight control practices (e.g., encouraging eating and exercise behaviours for health gains and mental wellbeing rather than to elicit weight and shape changes); and
- Having open conversations about body image concerns (e.g., normalising changes that occur during puberty, challenging messages that reinforce weight stigma and a diet culture).