“I hate the way I look!” screams your teen as they stomp out of the bathroom after trying to fix their hair “just right” for the last 20 minutes. Sound familiar? We all know teens can be self-conscious, but in some cases, this tendency can turn into a real problem. Body image dissatisfaction is not just a “bad hair day” but an intense concern with one’s body image. Some surveys find that over half of adolescents worry about how they look, and over one-third say they worry about their body image “often” or “always.”1 As parents, we want our children to feel confident in themselves, their abilities, and their body image. By helping teens understand the pressures surrounding body image and supporting their development, we can empower them to feel confident about their bodies.
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The Origins of Poor Body Image
Adolescence is ripe for the development of poor body image. With the onset of puberty, teens often feel uneasy in their own skin. They are growing rapidly, their bodies are experiencing many dramatic changes, and puberty also prompts brain growth, which often makes them hyper-aware of their image and peer judgments.2 Although both boys and girls can experience body image dissatisfaction, it is more common for girls to feel anxious about being overweight, while boys tend to experience dissatisfaction with feeling underweight.3 This, of course, is likely related to cultural norms about women being thin and men being muscular.4 Media portrayals (especially social media) of “ideal” body types only serve to exacerbate the cultural pressure for adolescents to conform their bodies to a certain look. In fact, research has come to find links between adolescents’ frequent use of social media (particularly among girls) and higher rates of body image dissatisfaction. For example, teens who tend to have problematic (or addictive) Instagram use (as defined by researchers using a survey) tend to have higher rates of psychological distress such as depression and anxiety.5 Researchers find that this link is largely due to teens’ higher rates of body image dissatisfaction.5 That is, the viewing of idealized images on social media seems to prompt poor body image, which may foster psychological distress.5
Peers can also serve as a source of body image woes during this phase of development. Peer pressure to look a certain way or be able to wear trendy clothing can feed an adolescent’s body image dissatisfaction. Recent surveys find that approximately 40 percent of teens have felt that pressure or comments from friends have caused them to worry about their appearance.1 When taken to extremes, this peer pressure related to body image can even result in bullying. Many adolescents experience some form of bullying or teasing associated with their appearance.1 Most commonly, it is due to the fact that their appearance does not match up to the “ideal body” peers see in the media. Teens who are overweight are more likely to be bullied because of their appearance.1
The Psychological Impact of Poor Body
The fact that we know that body image issues are common in adolescents doesn’t mean that the effects are any less damaging. Having a poor body image can put teens at risk of psychological problems. Body image dissatisfaction has been linked to psychological challenges such as depression and low self-esteem.6 When teens’ dissatisfaction with their body image continues, some resort to extreme dieting or intense physical activity to promote weight loss (mostly among girls). This too has dangers, as it can lead to eating disorders or the use of dangerous diet pills.3 Some studies even find that poor body image increases adolescents’ risk of self-harm or suicidal thoughts.1
Fostering Positive Body Image in Teens
Given the serious psychological consequences that poor body image can have for teens, making an intentional effort to foster a body-positive home environment is key. Although we cannot protect our adolescents from all forms of social and peer pressure, we can try to support the development of more positive ideas regarding body image.
Positive Modeling and Language: One way to approach body image in our homes is to focus on the language and actions we model for our children. Being mindful of how we speak about our own bodies can be a good starting point. If we consistently say phrases like, “I hate how I look” or “I need to lose weight,” our children will learn more negative concepts regarding body image.
Research can also help us in this area as well. Research finds that when individuals tend to focus on what their bodies can do, rather than just how it looks, they have a more positive body image.3 If we discuss all the incredible things their bodies can do instead of just complimenting them on their looks, we can show them what their bodies are capable of.
Limit or Monitor Social Media: As we have seen, social media can be a powerful mechanism through which teens absorb unhealthy body image ideals. Although many teens use social media to connect with friends, it’s helpful to consider whether their use of social media is problematic or addictive. Consider having a discussion with your teen about the dangers of idealized images and how they may impact their notion of their own body image.
To help combat idealized media portrayals of beauty, it can be helpful to expose your teens to broader versions of what is considered beautiful all over the world. Encourage your adolescent to explore how other cultures define beauty and how that impacts their definition of beauty. Consider taking teens to museums or cultural exhibits that illustrate different understandings of beauty and body image.3
Physical Activity: Interestingly, researchers have found a link between teens’ level of physical activity and self-concept (including body image). Teens who are more physically active tend to have a more positive body image, and this corresponds to a more positive overall self-concept.7 The implication of this research is clear–helping teens be more physically active might help maintain or improve their body image. This research seems to correspond to the idea that helping teens focus on what their bodies can do rather than just how they look is key to developing a more positive body image.
With this in mind, one way to apply this in your home is to support your teen to become more active. Encourage your teen to go on a walk with you, toss a frisbee around with friends, or bike to a local shop instead of getting a ride. All these simple activities can encourage them to view body image in a new light.
Support for a Positive Body Image
With dramatic physical changes occurring and peer pressure at an all-time high, adolescence can be a time of body dissatisfaction for many children. We can guide our teens through this challenging phase by educating them about the idealized images they see and helping them focus on their bodies’ amazing capabilities.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Mental Health Foundation (2019) Body Image in Childhood. Mental Health Foundation, https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/body-image-report/childhood
- Dictionary of Psychology (2022) Imaginary Audience. American Psychological Association, https://dictionary.apa.org/imaginary-audience
- Neid-Avila, J. and Bingeman, B. (2022) Body Image in Adolescence. Utah State University Extension, https://extension.usu.edu/nutrition/research/body-image-in-adolescence
- Soares Filho, L., Batista, R., Cardoso, V., Simões, V., Santos, A., Coelho, S., and Silva, A. (2021) Body Image Dissatisfaction and Symptoms of Depression Disorder in Adolescents. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 54 (1), https://www.scielo.br/j/bjmbr/a/CMPcb4BYRGfGxPKCQNstz5z/?format=html&lang=en
- Yurdagül, C., Kircaburun, K., Emirtekin, E. et al. (2021) Psychopathological Consequences Related to Problematic Instagram Use Among Adolescents: The Mediating Role of Body Image Dissatisfaction and Moderating Role of Gender. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction 19, p. 1385–1397, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11469-019-00071-8#citeas
- Ganesan, S., Ravishankar, S., and Ramalingam, S. (2018) Are Body Image Issues Affecting Our Adolescents? A Cross-sectional Study among College Going Adolescent Girls. Indian Journal of Community Medicine, 43(Suppl 1): S42–S46, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6324036/
Fernández-Bustos, J., Infantes-Paniagua, A., Cuevas, R., Contreras,O. (2019) Effect of Physical Activity on Self-Concept: Theoretical Model on the Mediation of Body Image and Physical Self-Concept in Adolescents. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 10, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01537/full#h5