What Is Body Image?
Body Image is the perception you have of your physical appearance, including weight, shape, size, and overall attractiveness. It encompasses the thoughts and feelings you have about your body in response to that perception including how a person feels, thinks and behaves about the way they look.
Body Image And Health
Body image plays a crucial role in the overall health and well-being of individuals because it influences how a person lives their life and engages with the world. A positive body image promotes self-acceptance, self-esteem, and mental well-being. It allows individuals to develop a healthy relationship with their bodies, fostering a sense of confidence and satisfaction. Conversely, a negative body image can lead to various mental health issues, such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and disordered eating patterns. Cultivating a positive body image is important for promoting a healthy and balanced lifestyle and nurturing a positive mindset. It encourages individuals to prioritize self-care and engage in behaviours that support their overall well-being, including regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and seeking emotional support when needed.
A Growing Concern
Body image issues are a growing concern worldwide and evidence on just how damaging body image distress can be, is strong!
- 77% of Australian young adults (16-25 years) report body image distress – this has more than doubled since 2009.
- Body image is consistently reported in the top 3 issues of personal concern in the Mission Australia Survey of Young People.
- Young people with body image distress are 24x more likely to develop depression and anxiety, and are at an increased risk of eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.
- Body image distress leads to an increase in risky behaviours – high risk drinking, drug use, smoking, use of steroids/supplements, self-harm and lower academic engagement
One woman who is spearheading efforts encouraging people, especially women and children, to embrace their bodies is 2023 Australian of the Year, Taryn Brumfitt. She is leading the crusade to shed negative body images and body-shaming to create a new way of perceiving our bodies.
“We weren’t born into the world hating our bodies, this is something the world has taught us. Body-shaming is a universal problem, and we have been bullied and shamed into thinking our bodies are the problem. Because you can’t look after something you don’t love. It is not our bodies that need to change, it is our perspective,” Taryn Brumfitt.
What Can You Do?
Parents, primary carers and other significant adults in a child’s life play a crucial role in helping shape a child’s body image. Encouraging children to feel good about themselves and their bodies by showing them how it’s done and leading by example is crucial. With this in mind, heres three things you can do to help children develop a positive body image.
1. Limit speaking about theirs, yours or others bodies (and their subsequent changes) in anything other than neutral language
Our words (and associated actions) heavily influence how children view themselves and their self-worth. They can help shape a child’s perceptions and influence their self-worth. This doesn’t mean avoiding the topic of bodies when curious minds bring it up, but rather not associating positive or negative meaning to it.
- Celebrate (and expose yourself and your child to) body diversity (ie. diversify your/their social media feed)
- Talk about all the different aspects that make up a person, such as personality, skills and interests, and outlook on life.
- Be critical of societal messages and images (social media, television, advertising) that promote body or appearance ideals, such as thinness or muscularity.
- Say things like “Yes that’s my soft belly” or “Yes my tummy looks different to yours” or “Yes that person is in a bigger body than me” and “Humans are so varied and unique!”
- Talk about other people’s body changes (ie. weight loss or weight gain)
- Complain about body parts you are dissatisfied or unhappy with
- Place high value on physical appearance
- Body language and facial expressions are part of this. For example: *scrunch nose and seem dissatisfied* when checking yourself in a mirror, or looking at a photo of yourself.
2. Talk to them about, and show them, movement (age appropriate)
How we talk about, and role model, movement matters. We want to shift the focus from movement being about appearance and weight. We want to challenge the thinking that movement is all about peak performance, transforming bodies, smashing goals or achieving Personal Bests. We want to focus on the numerous benefits movement can bring to our overall health, wellbeing, or relationships and our lives.
Positive and empowering discussions around movement can help encourage children to engage in activities for fun and health. This can help them to appreciate what their body can do, rather than focusing on their body’s appearance. Studies show that when a person appreciates what their body can do, rather than what it looks like, they tend to feel better about their body and have higher self-esteem.
- Share your movement intentions (ie. let them know when/what/where you are planning to exercise/move. If possible, take young children along to exercise classes so they can see you move, and potentially even join in alongside you).
- Share the reasons why movement is important to you (ie for you to have your time, meet up with like minded people, get your heart rate up, boost your energy, strengthen your muscles, help your bones get strong, clear your mind etc)
- Share your challenges and celebrate your little wins (ie. how you find it harder to get to class on cold winter mornings but still enjoy going, or how you’re getting better at running, or how you got to see a beautiful sunrise after class today, or how you decided to reduce your intensity at todays workout because you’re recovering from a cold, or how you’re proud of your effort in todays challenging workout, or how you found some of the cardio moves difficult to do but gave them your best shot anyway)
- “I was lazy last week and only did one workout – I have to get to class today and tomorrow to make up for it”
- “I’m so glad I pushed myself at class today cause now I can eat dessert.”
- “I’ve got to go to class today to burn off those burgers we ate last night”
- “I’m so useless, I only did 2,500 steps today”
- “Urgh, I look so ridiculous when I run”
3. Be mindful of your body checking behaviours (and responses)
Body checking refers to the habit of scrutinising and evaluating one’s appearance. For example: Frequently weighing yourself, fixating on body parts in the mirror, measuring body parts, feeling for fat/muscle/bone, pinching or squeezing flesh, wrapping hands around stomach/waist/thighs/arms, or repeatedly assessing the fit of clothing, comparing body to past pictures of self or to other bodies, seeking reassurance about weight or shape (e.g., “Do I look bigger to you?”). Children absorb all these behaviours and language like little sponges – monkey see, monkey do!
By being mindful of how we talk about our bodies and how we respond to our own appearance, we can assist our children to develop a more positive body image. By demonstrating self-acceptance we can help create a safe and nurturing space that helps teach children to embrace their own unique qualities and fosters a sense of self-worth and self acceptance beyond physical appearance.
- Ditch the scales
- Throw out clothes that don’t fit you or that make you feel uncomfortable
- Recall fond moments or memories when looking back at past photos of self
- Follow a diverse range of people and bodies on social media and unfollow any accounts that show people exhibiting ‘body checking’ behaviours (ie. typically seen in ‘what I eat in a day’ or ‘what my workout routine looks like’ type posts)
- Talk negatively about your body when standing on the scales, looking at yourself in the mirror, or catching your reflection in a window
- Berate yourself for not fitting into clothes, or talking negatively about yourself when you try on an outfit at the shops
- Negatively compare your body to others, or past versions of yourself (ie. when looking back at old photos)
- Make comments on how your body is not ‘pretty/slim/fit/toned’ enough to ‘do certain activities’ (ie. wear bike shorts)
- Comment on how you “need to do some exercise” whilst standing on the scales, grabbing your stomach, and looking disappointed or sad
- We are not aiming for perfection. If we do display dissatisfaction or overt satisfaction and you are questioned about it, have an honest conversation (again age appropriate) about how negative and positive feelings about our bodies exist but do not have to define our day or ongoing behaviours and choices. For example “How I feel about my body differs day to day. Some days I feel good about my body, other days I feel not so good about it. Sometimes I think ‘I wish my arms were slimmer’ or ‘I wish I didn’t have this silly pimple on my nose’. These thoughts and feelings can be upsetting, and can make me feel sad, but I remind myself that my body is pretty damn amazing, and I don’t have to change my body.”
You Are Doing Your Best!
Helping build a positive body image is an ongoing process, and each child’s journey will be different. As with anything parenting, please remember you can nail all of these things and be smashing it out of the park, but due to environmental, temperament, external factors body image may still be a struggle for your young one. There is so much that despite the best preventative strategies remains out of our control. Providing unconditional love, support, and guidance will help lay the foundation for a healthy body image and overall well-being. Added support may needed and does not mean you have failed. All we can do is our best. And you…are doing your best!!!
Where To Get Help
- Your GP (doctor)
- Your child’s school welfare or wellbeing team, or the principal
- Your local community health centre
- The Embrace Hub (articles, videos and podcasts)
- Body Image Movement (articles, videos and podcasts)
- PODCAST EPISODE: Teaching your kids body positivity
- PODCAST EPISODE: Does your mum criticise your body?
This article was written in collaboration with Sabine McKenzie from WORTH BEYOND.