Healthy body image: Tips for guiding teens
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Apr 6, 2021.
Teenagers often face significant pressure to meet strict, unrealistic and harmful ideals around beauty and body build, weight, and shape. The quest for a "perfect" body or appearance can take a heavy toll on a teenager's confidence and physical and mental health. Find out what you can do to help your child develop and maintain a healthy body image and self-esteem.
Causes of a negative body image
Body image is how you think or feel about your appearance, your body and how you feel in your own skin. Maintaining a normal and healthy body image during adolescence, a period of major physical and emotional changes, can be difficult. Factors that might harm a teenager's body image include:
- Natural or expected weight gain and other changes caused by puberty
- Peer pressure to look a certain way
- Social media and other media images that promote the ideal body as fit, thin or muscular and encourage users to aspire to unrealistic or unattainable body ideals
- Having a parent who's overly concerned about his or her own weight or his or her child's weight or appearance
- Seeing material in which a teen is seen as a thing for others' sexual use, rather than an independent, thinking person (sexual objectification)
Consequences of a negative body image
Teenagers who have negative thoughts about their bodies are at increased risk of:
- Low self-esteem
- Nutrition and growth issues
- Eating disorders
- Having a body mass index of 30 or higher (obesity)
In addition, some teenagers might try to control their weight by smoking, taking nutritional supplements to "bulk up," or change their appearance by buying beauty products or getting cosmetic surgery.
Spending time worrying about their bodies and how they measure up can also take away from teenagers' ability to concentrate on other pursuits.
Talking about body image
Talking about body image with your children can help them become comfortable in their own skin. When you discuss body image, you might:
- Set a good example. How you accept your body and talk about others' bodies can have a major impact on your teen. Remind your child that you exercise and eat a balanced diet for your health, not just to look a certain way. Also think about what you read and watch as well as the products you buy and the message your choices send.
- Use positive language. Rather than talking about physical attributes of your child or others, instead praise his or her personal characteristics such as strength, persistence and kindness. Avoid pointing out negative physical attributes in others or yourself. Don't make or allow hurtful nicknames, comments or jokes based on a person's physical characteristics, weight or body shape.
- Explain the effects of puberty. Make sure your child understands that weight gain is a healthy and normal part of development, especially during puberty.
Talk about media messages. Social media, movies, television shows and magazines might send the message that only a certain body type or skin color is acceptable and that maintaining an attractive appearance is the most important goal. Even media that encourages being healthy, athletic or fit might depict a narrow body ideal — one that's toned and skinny. Social media and magazine images are also commonly altered. As a result, teenagers might be trying to meet ideals that don't exist in the real world.
Check out what your child is reading, scrolling through or watching and discuss it. Encourage your child to question what he or she sees and hears.
- Monitor social media use. Teens use social media and services to share pictures and get feedback. Awareness of others' judgments can make teens feel self-conscious about their looks. Research also suggests that frequent social media use by teens might be linked with poor mental health and well-being. Set rules for your teen's social media use and talk about what he or she is posting and viewing.
Other strategies to promote a healthy body image
In addition to talking to your teenager about a healthy body image, you might:
- Team up with your teen's doctor. Your teen's doctor can help him or her set realistic goals for body mass index (BMI) and weight based on personal growth history and overall health.
- Establish healthy eating habits. Teach your teen how to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Offer a wide range of foods. Talk about the harms of fad diets and avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad."
- Counter negative media messages. Expose your children to individuals who are famous for their achievements — not their appearance. For example, read books or watch movies about inspiring people and their perseverance to overcome challenges.
- Praise achievements. Help your child value what he or she does, rather than what he or she looks like. Look for opportunities to praise effort, skills and achievements.
- Promote physical activity. Participating in sports and other physical activities — particularly those that don't emphasize a particular weight or body shape — can help promote good self-esteem and a positive body image.
- Encourage positive friendships. Friends who accept and support your teen can be a healthy influence. In particular, friends who have healthy relationships with their own bodies can be a positive influence.
When to consult a doctor
If your child is struggling with a negative body image, consider talking to your teen's doctor or a mental health professional. Additional support might give your child the tools needed to counter social pressure and feel good about his or her body.