How to help your child with their body image

Everyone, regardless of age or gender, has days when they don’t feel they look their best. Even models, actors and athletes can and have suffered with body image issues. For example, singer Lady Gaga noted that she had struggled with anorexia and bulimia in the past, and said in 2012:

“[I am] not conventionally beautiful. If there was some sort of mathematical equation for beauty, I don’t know if I would be the algorithm.”

While the stereotype suggests that women – in particular, young women worry most about their body image, this is an issue that affects men too. Actor Chris Pratt spoke in 2014 saying:

“I do know what it feels like to eat emotionally, and… to be sad and make yourself happy with food. And then to be almost immediately sad again and now ashamed and then to try to hide those feelings with more food.”

There is an extraordinary pressure on young people to “look right”.  A survey by Girlguiding UK found 25% of girls aged 7-10 felt the need to be “perfect”.

Parents recognise that their children are struggling with unrealistic standards and problems with their body images. In 2017, the NSPCC said that it had delivered more than 2,500 counselling sessions about negative body image issues across the UK. Worryingly, these issues also affected younger children, with more than 100 of those sessions being for girls aged 11 or younger.

This article will talk about what is meant by the term “Body Image”, identify where the pressures on children and young people are and what parents can do to help.

Body Image - A Definition

The term “Body image” was first defined by neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder in 1935. He described it as:

'The picture of our own body, which we form in our own mind, that is to say the way the body appears to ourselves’

Body image isn’t necessarily about how we actually are –it might have nothing to do with reflect actual things like weight or height. It is based on their own ideas about hard to define things like descriptions like “attractiveness” or “coolness” which vary greatly from person to person. Everyone has a different body image, academics suggest that being able to evaluate your body means you need to be able to do two things:

     -  Assess yourself – to determine what you look like and how you might change
     -  Have something or someone to compare yourself to

Thus, a child or young person (or an adult, for that matter) has a body image that is connected to the place and society they grow up and live in. The standards to which they compare themselves change from place to place and from time to time. Body image is not fixed, and often change as they age. Women, in particular can face body image issues as they grow older, Ferraro et al. (2008) noted that “older women evidence greater concerns regarding body shape than do older men”. It is therefore clearly important to develop a healthy and realistic body image as early as possible.

However, studies suggest that puberty is the crunch point for both boys and girls. While girls often develop body image issues earlier than boys, teenage years offer a unique mix of challenges. Firstly, hormonal and growth changes begin to happen with puberty. Secondly, romantic relationships become a more regular feature of day to day life, making “looking good” a more urgent need.

Body image is always going to be based on a person’s own ideas about what looks good, and how they want to look. This is the reason that many people who could be considered very attractive or physically fit may struggle with body issues.

While this obviously presents some challenges for parents seeking to improve their child’s body image, in some ways this can be a comfort too. Because any child or young person can have good body image, regardless of height, weight or other physical characteristics.

What are the Pressures?

Before we can suggest what is having a negative impact on young people’s body image, we need to consider the major factors that help them form it.

Academics found that children begin to develop body image awareness from as early as 3 months. At this age, an infant will look longer at an image of their own legs taken from an observer’s perspective than their own point of view. This suggests that the view of “another” holds more interest than their own. However, the idea that “beauty is good” and general comparisons begin at around 3-4 years old. Around this time, children begin to desire to look “good”, and to have a general idea of what that might mean.

Definitions of what “good” is, in terms of attractiveness obviously vary. However, a significant source of ideals about what is or is not attractive comes from popular media. Children watch or view around 40,000 adverts per year and many of these either subtly or explicitly contain images meant to be seen as “attractive” or “not attractive”. The media that a child observes plays a significant role in their own development of positive or unhealthy body images.

It is important to remember that while there are general factors that help to determine body image, what is considered “beautiful” can be totally different from one group to the next. Studies found that for people with equal levels of unhappiness with their bodies, men and women who prioritise their physical appearance will experience more frequent and intense body-image issues. Thus, if your child or young person highly values their physical appearance, they will likely struggle more with body image issues. It is important that body image is supported by a lot of other roles, achievements and ideas that help to form your young person’s self-identity.

Family and social interactions can affect body image in three ways:

     -  Perceptions of family relations
     -  The behaviour and attitudes of mothers (particularly for women)
     -  Direct communication

This means that the way in which your family behaves (in terms of warmth, levels of conflict etc.) can impact both positively and negatively on your child’s body image.

Your own actions as parents can also be a significant factor in your child’s body image. Research suggests that girls whose mothers were critical of their eating habits or appearance were more likely to have body image issues.  On the other hand, giving your children sincere compliments can help to build a good body image. The Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute notes that it can help to talk about what bodies can do, and how to stay healthy rather than a narrow focus on weight or beauty.

Outside of the home, there are a number of societal stressors on body image. A report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image found that the most important societal influences on body image were the media (43.5%), advertising (16.8%) and celebrity culture (12.5%). Peers, parents and specific sectors such as the fashion industry were also identified.

Social media, which ties into both the media and peer groups is also a significant factor in body image development. The fact that pictures and images can be measured against each other via “likes”, “comments” and other interactions value “beauty” in a way unlike pre-social media circumstances. Children can now directly compare how popular their images are to their friends, and the fickle and imperfect nature of such a comparison can lead to difficulties in having realistic views about their own body image. A poll by Royal Society for Public Health (2017) found that social media may be fuelling a mental health crisis. In particular, the social media platforms “Instagram” and “Snapchat” was singled out as particularly damaging to young people.

What can parents do about it?

There are immense pressures on young people that can negatively impact their own body image. So, what can parents do to help? Gail Saltz, the editor of the Child Mind Institute notes that there are two important aspects of body image parents should help their child with.

“They need to feel okay about how they look, and not let their looks dominate their sense of self-worth.”

She gives a number of steps that parents can make use of to help promote a healthy body image. Some of these are:

1.  Sympathise with their concerns and validate the pressures they feel.

2.  Be positive about your own body, or at least not obviously negative.

3.  Both parents should be involved in promoting body image if possible – fathers play a             particular role in supporting positive body image in girls.

Another important aspect is communication. Talking to your children – even relatively young children about issues around body image, in an age appropriate way can help. Family Lives (England) suggests that parents have a relaxed conversation with their young people to find out their thoughts, concerns and insecurities about their own bodies. It is important for young people to know that their parents care about how they feel. Even if you strongly disagree with their views or think their concerns are unreasonable, parents should be careful not to invalidate their young person’s feelings. If they want to change the way they look, support them to do so in a realistic and healthy manner. This might mean exercise or healthier diets, and may help to steer young people away from unhealthy habits later.

Stanford Children’s Health suggests that parents and young people should eat together. This can help to promote healthy eating and body image. Additionally, parents should take the time to praise and instil confidence in their children. Being active in other areas – such as clubs, sports or hobbies – where your young person can excel is a good way to ensure that their body image is not so central to their identity. This reduces the likelihood of obsession with body image, and subsequent negative behaviours.

The best way to understand why body image can be so important for young people is to explore how they define themselves. If a very significant part of who they see themselves as relates to how they look – their hair colour, their weight or how attractive they feel they are – then any negative comments or experiences relating to that will naturally have a massive impact. In order to have a strong self-image, parents should encourage young people to recognize strengths and the feelings of confidence they build, especially in times of doubt.

Every parent and child is different. Even the most confident, happy and healthy families may struggle with body image issues. Parents should be aware of warning signs that body image issues may be occurring – such as deep concern about appearance, unusual eating habits – and seek help if needed. If you, or someone close to you is in need of support you can phone the Parenting NI helpline for free on 0808 8010 722.

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