A happy young person outdoors with friends

Fostering Healthy Body Image in Youth

It’s summertime in the city and if there’s one thing on the mind when the temperature rises, it’s our bodies. Whether that’s how you’re going to dress your body, how you feel about other people seeing your body, or even what you’re noticing in other people’s bodies, this time of year often puts the physical into focus. In the era of social media, it’s easy to point to a lot of the outlets shaping the lens from which we view bodies: Instagram and Tiktok trends, photoshop, filters, increasing rates of aesthetic surgeries and other procedures. With our focus on the daily contributors, we can forget the first places where we learned about bodies: our parents, our siblings, our peers, and even our schools.

As adults, we hold a lot of power in educating young people in our lives about their bodies, power that we don’t always consider when most fingers point to the impact of media on body image. While we cannot minimize the importance of conversations around social media and its impact on our collective self images, we can consider the ways that we are either contributing or hindering healthy body relationships for the children in our lives. In this article, we’ll dive into important considerations on how to assist the youth in our lives with their body image and attitudes towards physical health. When we’re talking about these considerations, it’s critical to consider it from two distinct angles: the things that we are overtly saying and doing versus the behaviors that we are modeling to young people around us.

How do I talk to kids about their bodies?

In the realm of fostering healthy body image, two schools of thought tend to emerge: body positivity and body neutrality. Body positivity refers to the lens of viewing our bodies as inherently good and worthy of praise, and this view encourages us to find ways of celebrating and loving our bodies and what they do for us. On the other hand, body neutrality refers to the view of our bodies as neither inherently good or bad but rather something in the middle. Body neutrality encourages us to focus less on loving our bodies and more so on accepting and respecting them. While different folks have different preferences when it comes to how to approach their bodies, either of these views can help inform the way that you talk to children about their bodies.

When talking to children, find ways to center aspects of themselves that exist outside of the physical. If you’re complimenting a child, challenge yourself not to jump to physical words such as “pretty”, “cute”, or “handsome”. Compliment the child on their inner strengths, considering words like “smart”, “kind”, “caring”, or “funny”. Consider ways of building up a child’s self esteem outside of their physical attributes. You can do this by pointing out a child’s accomplishments whenever they do well or handle a situation well. This might sound like: “You worked really hard on this project and it shows”, “You really showed how caring of a sibling you are when you helped your sister with that”, or “I think you’re very strong for being able to keep playing the game when you felt discouraged”. In general, make sure that you are helping the youth recognize their strength and worth outside the context of their physicality.

Lastly, make sure you are talking about health and encouraging healthy behaviors in children! To do this without centering shame or feeding into negative body narratives, it can be helpful to focus on what you are “adding” versus what you are “subtracting”. What we mean here is that you should frame it as making sure to include specific behaviors (i.e. eating fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep, getting exercise) as opposed to avoiding specific behaviors (i.e. don’t eat sugary foods, don’t stay up late, don’t sit around all day). Focusing on addition versus subtraction helps to be sure healthy behaviors are rooted in a growth mindset as opposed to shame.

How do I become a positive body role model?

While the words that we say to children are important, oftentimes youth learn more from what they observe than what they’re directly taught. This idea is backed by social psychology, specifically through social learning theory. Social learning theory, a term coined by developmental psychologist Albert Bandura, refers to the way in which children learn how to interact with the world around them by imitating what they observe from others. The classic example of social learning comes from Bandura’s original studies on the matter: when children observed adults acting aggressively by hitting and yelling at inflatable “Bobo” dolls, the children would then mimic that aggressive behavior. Social learning does not end at aggressive behaviors, however: social learning is also relevant to the attitudes and behaviors youth adapt towards their bodies.

Even if we are directly telling children that what their body can do is more important than what it looks like, children will pick up on the ways that we as adults talk about our bodies. If a child observes someone making comments directed at themselves like “I shouldn’t be eating this right now”, “I look so fat right now”, or “I’m really trying to lose ten pounds before the wedding”, they are going to internalize these attitudes that one should be critical towards their body size and that certain foods are inherently “bad”.

That is to say that one of the most crucial steps to teaching others to respect their bodies means learning how to respect our own first. Examine your own attitudes towards your body and the ways that you interact with your body on a daily basis.

Some good questions to ask yourself include:

  • How do I feel about my body?
  • What kind of messages did I receive from parents and other role models when I was young?
  • Do I treat food and exercise as “rewards” or “punishments” for myself?
  • What are the ways that I talk about my body in front of others?

Seeking Help

There may come a time when a child needs more support towards their body image and overall self esteem. If you notice a child experiencing recurrent worry about their body or suspect disordered eating patterns, it might be helpful to consider a treatment intervention. Some signs of disordered eating to look for in children include:

  • Avoiding eating
  • Fear of stomach aches
  • Mood swings
  • Fixation on body size or shape
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Thinning hair
  • Delayed puberty or lack of growth

Whether or not a child fits criteria for a specific eating disorder, they may benefit from individual or family therapy. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional if you believe your child may need treatment.

Learn More

Further Reading

Beyond Beautiful: A Practical Guide to Being Happy, Confident, and You in a Looks-Obsessed World

On the web

Body image – tips for parents

Promoting healthy body image in children, teens

National Eating Disorder Association