The teenage years and the concept of body image can be a challenging combination.
With so many changes happening to their maturing bodies, teenagers typically spend a lot of time thinking about how their body looks and comparing themselves to others, whether it’s people they know or the ‘picture-perfect’ celebrities they see on TV, online and in magazines.
It’s important for teenagers to have a positive body image and be comfortable in their own bodies because it is closely linked to self-esteem, self-confidence and social development. A healthy body image in childhood can also lay the foundations for good physical and mental health later on in life, whereas having an unhealthy body image can have long-lasting consequences.
What is body image?
Body image refers to how and what we think and feel about our bodies, which actually might not match our actual size or shape at all! If we have a healthy body image we feel happy and confident with our body’s size and shape, but if we have an unhealthy body image, we are probably dissatisfied with the way we look and probably want to change it.
When body image becomes a focus, people may overestimate their size or weight or think that their muscles should be bigger. When body image becomes confused with personality and self-worth, it may mean that there is a deeper problem that could lead to an eating disorder.
What influences body image?
We are all affected by body image issues; however as children reach puberty, fitting in and looking the same as other people becomes even more important. A range of factors can also influence your teen’s body image, including their family environment, cultural background, the attitudes of their friends, and their exposure to advertising and the fashion industry. It’s important to always remember that males and females come in all different shapes and sizes, and that it’s unrealistic to idealise one ‘perfect’ body type.
Teenagers and in particular teenage girls are more likely to have a poor body image, but are also more at risk if they are perfectionists, have low self-esteem or have a body shape that’s obviously different from the ‘ideal’ shapes they see in the media.
These types of feelings can lead to distorted thoughts and emotions about their bodies, and negative thoughts about body image and self-worth can lead to changes in eating and exercise behaviours.
Signs to watch out for
There is a direct link between poor body image and low self-esteem, which can become evident in behaviours like mood swings, anxiety, depression and the development of risky weight loss strategies, binge eating behaviours and eating disorders. Some common warning signs parents can watch out for in their teenagers include:
- constant comparison of their body with others
- feelings of guilt or shame about food
- a fixation on losing weight or about specific parts of their body.
- excessive exercise
- use of diet pills, diuretics, or laxatives
- periods of fasting, or extremely limited food intake
- changes in mood e.g. irritability
Body image is the number one concern for many young people in Australia.
How to help your teen develop a healthy body image
Many teens feel very confused about the physical changes that come with puberty, and the most important thing you can do is be a positive role model, listen, and encourage your teen to talk about their concerns. Try not to belittle or dismiss these concerns. You should also make healthy eating and physical activities part of your everyday family life, praise your teen for their abilities and uniqueness, and above all, encourage your teen to accept and value people regardless of how they look.